Commentary

Squier's call still rings perfect

Ken Squier, still going strong at 72, said four famous words calling the end of the 1979 Daytona 500. "And there's a fight" was not only accurate, it was perfect.

Updated: February 15, 2009, 11:55 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Ken Squier settled into a booth near the front door of Billy's Tap Room & Grill, the oldest restaurant in Ormond Beach. Across the mahogany table, Dave Despain, his Speed Channel co-star for the past week, munched on a salad as he talked about the dog whisperer who counseled him by phone about his problematic hound.

"Did I tell you about my rare red Irish poodle?" interjected Squier, who chose a martini as a precursor to his main course.

Squier, 72, can weave a story with the best of them. This one is centered on the poodle he often takes to the coffee house near his home in Waterbury, Vt., to pass off to strangers as a rare breed.

"If they seem like nice people I will admit these Irish poodles are so rare that you usually only see them on St. Patrick's Day after several green beers," Squier said with a straight face. "They'll go home and say, 'I saw the [gosh-darnedest] thing in Vermont. It was an Irish poodle.

"Or they'll say, 'We met the [gosh-darnedest] fool we've ever met. He had this big red poodle and he thought it was Irish."

Thirty years ago, Squier spun a story nobody would have believed had they not seen or heard it. It was a tale of the 1979 Daytona 500, the race that vaulted NASCAR's premier series onto the national map.

After more than four hours on the air for CBS, televising the entire race live nationally for the first time, it had come down to Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison banging for the lead on the final lap. Richard Petty, the next closest driver, was more than 20 seconds back.

[+] EnlargeDonnie Allison/Cale Yarborough
AP Photo/Ric FeldDonnie Allison, in car No. 1, and Cale Yarborough, in No. 11, crashed on the last lap of the Daytona 500 while fighting for the lead. What happened after that is really remembered.

The rest is well documented. Yarborough and Allison crashed and spun into the infield dirt in Turn 3. Petty cruised by for the victory, his sixth of an eventual seven in NASCAR's Super Bowl event.

And then, as "The King" took the checkered, Squier shouted four words that are almost as famous in motorsports as "Gentlemen, start your engines."

"And there's a fight!" he said in the restaurant, repeating the phrase just as he did in 1979 when a donnybrook broke out between Yarborough, Donnie Allison and Bobby Allison, who joined his brother in the scuffle after finishing 11th.

The line echoed through screens like Al Michaels' call -- "Do you believe in miracles? YES!" -- after the United States hockey team defeated the powerful Soviet Union in the semifinals of the 1980 Winter Olympics.

Or Howard Cosell's call -- "Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!" -- when George Foreman knocked out Joe Frazier to capture the 1973 heavyweight crown.

Or Vin Scully's call -- "High fly ball to deep left field. She is … GONE! The impossible has happened." -- after the gimpy Kirk Gibson hit his two-run, game-winning homer with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.

"Absolutely," said FOX Sports announcer Mike Joy, then the Turn 2 reporter for the Motorsports Racing Network. "The emotion in his call only heightened what happened.

"It certainly helped that Ken loves boxing as much as he does auto racing. When he said 'a fight's broken out' … everybody that was maybe on their way to the bathroom or fridge just turned around. All of us did."

That included pole-sitter Buddy Baker, who watched the telecast from his Daytona Beach hotel room after being sidelined early with an ignition problem.

"Let's face it," he said. "At that particular time that moment did something for the sport that stirred passion and interest for people. Nobody could set it up better than Ken Squier."

What you may have missed

The edited version of the finish simply shows Yarborough and Donnie Allison crashing, Petty taking the checkered and the ensuing fight captured first on a camera from the Goodyear blimp.

What the replays don't show is the camera mistakenly picking up Buddy Arrington as the leader because he drove a blue and red car similar to Petty's.

Bobby Allison insists NASCAR has gotten $55 billion in free advertising from the moment the fight broke out. He says this because the governing body never returned $2,000 of the $6,000 fine he incurred, as it did for Donnie Allison and Yarborough.

"You'd think they would at least pay me that," he said with a grin.

For Squier, the moment was priceless, the highlight in a career that included CBS's play-by-play coverage of the 1992 Winter Olympics.

"You always think about the words, were they too many and did they do the right thing?" Squier said. "But you had to do what was there in front of you."

He did that masterfully, providing just enough insight and background on Yarborough and the "Alabama Gang" to make viewers understand this was as intense as the Hatfields versus the McCoys.

"The underlying emotion of the day was this was something special, particularly with Donnie," Squier said. "This was his moment and he lost it. Cale was always that way … and he had to win. When that happened and that much emotion flowed out after that incredible crash, the win was anticlimactic.

"It was the exclamation point to the day. It was like, 'Does it ever stop?'"

Reunion

Donnie Allison sat Friday in the lunch room of the state-of-the-art media center at the same Daytona International Speedway that 30 years ago didn't have a media lunch room. A few minutes later he was joined by Bobby.

Not far away, in another room, was Petty.

The only person missing was Yarborough, who seldom leaves his South Carolina farm unless it's for a paid appearance.

Were he here, his version of how things unfolded would have varied from the other two. Yarborough will insist everything was Donnie's fault, although he also blamed Bobby, who wasn't near the two. Donnie will argue that Yarborough was to blame.

They all say they won the fight.

Here's what happened. Yarborough was battling Donnie Allison for the lead when he was forced into the infield grass. He somehow steered his car back onto the track and slammed into the side of Allison's car, spinning both out.

Words were exchanged. A fight broke out.

[+] EnlargeBobby Allison/Cale Yarborough
AP Photo/Ric FeldAll those involved in the fight say they got the best of it, but there's no denying Bobby Allison had Cale Yarborough on the ground quickly.

"I passed the wreckage and saw Donnie climbing out of his car so I knew he wasn't hurt bad," Bobby said. "I went around and took the checkered flag, then came back around and hollered if Donnie wanted a ride back to the garage area. He said no.

"Cale started hollering that the wreck was my fault. I think I questioned his ancestors, which wasn't smart. That didn't calm him down."

Hardly. Yarborough approached Bobby, who was still strapped in his car. Bobby questioned his ancestors once again. Yarborough hit him in the face with his helmet, cutting him on the nose and drawing blood.

"I thought, 'I've got to get out of my car and handle it now or run from him the rest of my life,'" Bobby said. "Cale was a little bulldog, bully, and I was considered a wimp."

Next thing you know, Bobby was on top of Yarborough and "Cale went to beating on my fist with his nose," as Bobby likes to say.

"He was always a stocky little prizefighter type guy," Bobby said. "Certainly, he didn't want to take on Donnie, 'cause Donnie would have mopped the floor up with him."

The moment, described in vivid detail by Squier, captured the imagination of the country, much of which was being held captive by a snowstorm.

"What Ken did and the way he told the stories of the people that entire race, by the time it got to the last lap everybody watching was no longer a casual fan," said Joy, who years later replaced Squier in the booth. "They'd chosen a favorite and Ken had them pulling for one or the other."

What I did wrong

Squier recalls in great detail the bad weather that plagued the race weekend and delayed the start of the 500 for about an hour and a half. He speaks with great passion about the hard work the CBS crew put into pulling off the broadcast.

The call? He's like most journalists.

"I keep thinking about what I did wrong," he said.

He did nothing wrong. The eloquence with which he pulled off the moment is unmatched in motorsports history.

"We owe all of our jobs to Ken," Joy said.

A lot has changed since then. NASCAR has grown into a multimillion-dollar business and its popularity is second-largest among television viewers. Fights are frowned upon.

Squier isn't sure it's all for the better. He says the sport has become homogenized to the point it has lost the mystique that made it popular.

He reminds that today's announcers seldom talk about danger. Safety wasn't even a word they used in his day, mainly because NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. didn't want them to.

"So there was a mystique about the drivers," Squier said. "They were what people were seeking, heroes bigger than life, people that took their lives in their bare hands. That put them in a special category.

"Now they talk about how safe it is. If it's that safe then what's the big deal?"

Squier then recalled an interview he once had with Petty's wife, Linda.

"I asked her who Richard Petty was," he said. "She said, 'You know, I see him around the house in Level Cross [N.C.] and I know who Richard Petty is. He's my husband and we have a great life and he's great with his children. Then I see him at Daytona and I have no idea who he is.'

"She had defined the mystique, the common man doing uncommon deeds."

Thirty years ago, Squier was a common man telling the nation of an uncommon feat. To many he was just as much a hero as those who circled the 2.5-mile track at 200 mph.

He's still a hero to many, although not so much back home where the snow is thawing, which means it's just below the fence line about four and a half feet deep.

In a few days he'll be back there, back at the coffee shop telling great tales of the rare Irish poodle.

Or if they're lucky, telling the great tale of the 2009 Daytona 500.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter