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Some Daytona 500 History Courtesy of CBS Sports

CBS Sports played a major role in making the Daytona 500 what it is today.

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Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, FL — February 17, 2024

The Daytona 500 is NASCAR’s biggest race of the year. Unlike many other sporting events, the 500 starts the new season instead of culminating the year’s competitions. It is accompanied by a week-long celebration of racing that includes qualifying, supporting races, press conferences, and announcements.

This year’s edition is the 66th running of what has become known as “The Great American Race.” That nickname is credited to Ken Squier, a CBS broadcaster who was instrumental in bringing the Daytona 500 to national prominence. Squire convinced the network to become the first to provide flag-to-flag coverage of the event and anchored the broadcast booth during the sport’s historic rise in popularity outside of its rural southern roots.

The media center at Daytona International Speedway is huge, with seating for over 200 journalists on assignment to cover Speed Weeks. As luck would have it, my seat was adjacent to that of Steven Taranto, print media representative for CBS Sports.

Steven Taranto, of CBS Sports, in the media center at Daytona International Speedway / Lasco Press Photo

Steven wrote a piece that walks readers through the events that his network produced in telling the story of “The Great American Race.” One of the best jobs of story-telling we have read recently. Here is the feature republished, courtesy of him and CBS Sports. It is sure to get you prepped for Sunday’s Daytona 500.

2024 Daytona 500: How CBS Sports’ telecasts of ‘The Great American Race’ transformed NASCAR on television

CBS Sports / Getty Images

Nearly a full 45 years later, and despite generations of great racers and great moments that followed in its wake, the aftershock of the 1979 Daytona 500 is still felt each February at the open of Speedweeks. In many circles, it is regarded as the most pivotal race in the history of NASCAR. In some circles, it is regarded as the single greatest NASCAR race of all-time.

Before a live television audience — many of whom were stuck at home due to a massive snowstorm along the east coast — NASCAR was launched from a regional racing novelty to national relevance and reverence as Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough took each other out racing for the win on the final lap, opening the door for Richard Petty to hold off Darrell Waltrip to win his sixth Daytona 500 and drive to Victory Lane as Yarborough and the Allison Brothers fought each other in the infield. For much of America, it was their introduction to the very essence of stock car racing itself — and for CBS Sports, it made for quite the first impression.

From the first live, flag-to-flag broadcast of the Daytona 500 in 1979 onward], CBS Sports spent 21 years as the race’s television home and would come to play an enormous role in shaping the lore and mythos of “The Great American Race,” as well as forever changing the way NASCAR was presented on television and how the story of the race and the stories of its drivers were told. This year, CBS Sports spoke with several who were involved in the network’s Daytona 500 broadcasts about their lasting impact on NASCAR, from the Hall of Fame broadcaster who drove them forward to the technical and storytelling advancements still felt today.

Ken Squier’s impact and influence

Compared to the decentralized and often chaotic sports media landscape of today, the 1970s presented a much simpler time for many sports on television. While major sports such as NFL football, Major League Baseball and NBA basketball were taking hold as network staples, many other sports were presented in condensed, edited-for-TV formats on programs such as ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” These programs marked the first exposure of many to NASCAR racing and its biggest race, the Daytona 500, which had come to be featured annually on Wide World of Sports.

But in the late 1970s, CBS Sports began executing a strategy to cut into the dominance ABC had enjoyed over sports media, and focused specifically on Wide World of Sports events that the network could pick up by promising the rights holder either expanded tape coverage or live coverage outright.

The Daytona 500 was identified as one such event that fit into this strategy. But actually bringing the Daytona 500 on CBS to life was largely the work of one man who was in a unique position to bring NASCAR to the masses.

After helping convince CBS Sports executives to acquire the rights to the Daytona 500, Ken Squier played a central role in the network’s broadcasts both behind the scenes and in the booth as lead announcer. For his many contributions to NASCAR broadcasting, Squier was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2018. Getty Images

In CBS’ employ as a sports broadcaster was Ken Squier, a racing broadcaster from Vermont who had spearheaded efforts to produce and broadcast national radio broadcasts of NASCAR races as the co-founder of Motor Racing Network. A racing insider with influence extending all the way up to NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. and president Bill France Jr., Squier would come to serve as the single most important advocate for stock car racing at CBS, fostering an important connection between CBS executives and the France family.

“The idea to steal the Daytona 500 was Ken’s,” said Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports. “Ken came to Barry Frank and to me and said, ‘I have it on pretty good authority that Bill France is looking to show the race live. And if we, CBS, would agree to that, I think we could make a deal.'”

The process of acquiring the rights to the Daytona 500 took several years, and there were several hurdles to clear on both the network’s side and NASCAR’s side to make it possible. At CBS, skepticism lingered over the feasibility of having a live broadcast for a four-hour, unscripted event with no real time constraints, and also whether NASCAR — which to that point had little reach outside of the southeast — would be accepted by a mass television audience, CBS affiliates, or their advertisers. Meanwhile, NASCAR brass had its own concerns about how a live television broadcast would impact at-track ticket sales, the sport’s primary source of revenue.

After negotiations spanning half a year, which included the condition of a regional blackout in Florida, CBS Sports agreed to a five-year contract with International Speedway Corporation to carry the Daytona 500 live on television in May 1978. Squier would serve as lead announcer, accompanied by analyst and British racing star David Hobbs in the booth, former NASCAR Cup champion Ned Jarrett and Brock Yates as pit reporters, and Marianne Bunch-Phelps as a roving reporter. The deal was consummated with a celebratory meal at the Steak ‘n Shake on International Speedway Boulevard in Daytona — a France favorite — that came out to approximately $6.40.

Production talent for the Daytona 500 included Mike Pearl, who achieved industry fame as the producer of “The NFL Today” on CBS, and others like director Bob Fishman and Bob Stenner who later succeeded Pearl as producer. But much of the vision for the Daytona 500 on CBS was Squier’s — with many of his willing students on the production team new to broadcasting racing, a great deal of Squier’s work centered around teaching them what made for a comprehensive racing broadcast and how to best show and tell both the action on the racetrack and the drivers behind the wheel.

“He was instrumental in everything in the early years. Feature ideas — ‘This is a great story with so-and-so’ — the rivalries, he was the one who said, ‘We need to get down into the pits more. We have to explain what’s happening with a tire change, what everybody on the crew does,'” Fishman said of Squier. “We started doing interviews down there, showing the incredible trailers these guys live in when they’re down there for Speedweeks … He was our silent leader. He was quiet, but a guy who knew what he wanted and knew it would make the sport better. And he was right.”

“He was kind of, television-wise, the face of NASCAR,” Stenner said of Squier. “So through him, he introduced me to a lot of the car owners, drivers, crew chiefs, where I could go down to the garage area and kind of know my way around and know the people I needed to talk to. But I listened to him totally. … I can’t tell you how much credit he deserves.”