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February 26, 2017
The 1979 Daytona 500 is known as a turning point in NASCAR history. The excitement, the last lap, the fight were all brought to the country because it was the first 500 mile race aired “flag to flag.” True, it was the first Daytona 500 aired flag to flag on television, but not the first time the race was broadcast in its entirety. For a five year stretch beginning in 1967, the Daytona 500 was shown across the country live in movie theaters and auditoriums.
By the mid-1960s, technological advances made it possible for video broadcasts to be sent across the country in ways they hadn’t before, using satellites and microwaves. The company at the forefront of this was the TelePrompTer company, known for creating the teleprompter display device. By this point, the company had invested in cable and satellite television seeking to expand the video market. They developed a method that would broadcast by satellite, live video to movie theaters across the country. One of the early events to do this was the Indianapolis 500 in 1964. After a few successful years at Indy, the offer was extended to NASCAR tracks. However, track owners were concerned it would hurt ticket sales to have people see the event from afar.
“I had first crack at it,” Darlington President Bob Colvin said, “but it would have killed me. All of our fans come mainly from the southeast. They come to Darlington entirely for the race. What else do we have here except some cotton fields. But at Daytona you have all the tourists coming in to draw from.” Bill France welcomed the opportunity to allow fans on the other side of the country to see the Daytona 500, and get their money too. So for 1967, France allowed TelePrompTer to broadcast the race in a closed circuit setting. No commercials, all of the action.
To prepare for the broadcast, Daytona greatly expanded its facilities. Not fearing a loss of spectators, the speedway installed nearly 7,000 new seats and enlarged its broadcast booth. To lead the broadcast, veteran speedway announcer Bob Montgomery was recruited. Acting as color commentator alongside him was two-time Cup champion, Ned Jarrett while Chris Economaki gave reports from the pits. In 1967, twelve cameras were set up to capture the action, installed on platforms, remote operated ones, and one on a cherry picker near pit lane. To protect ticket sales at the track, the broadcast was blacked out in Florida and only one venue was allowed to show the race in Georgia and South Carolina.
Overall, the closed circuit broadcast was a success. An estimated 500,000 fans across the United States and Canada at 100 venues saw Mario Andretti win the Daytona 500. At the one location in South Carolina, a crowd of 3,400 people packed the Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium to watch the event. The black and white video was praised for its high quality.
However, problems with this format became harder to ignore by the late 1960s. In 1969, Bill France said that it cost $40,000 (over $250,000 in today’s money) to broadcast the race, as a result, ticket prices were driven up at movie theaters. By 1970, ticket prices were $8 each ($50 in today’s money.) 1970 was also the first year the race was broadcast in color. In 1971, A.J. Foyt’s Wood Brothers owned Mercury was sponsored by TelePrompTer in several Cup races. Incidentally, 1971 was the fifth and final year the Daytona 500 was shown on closed circuit broadcast. By that point, ABC was airing live parts of races and highlights of others. While TelePrompTer was a complete race, ABC’s Wide World of Sports was just good enough to serve as television provider.
As with a lot of old sports broadcasts, footage from the TelePrompTer broadcasts has never been found. Perhaps that is the reason why this production is rarely mentioned. But the act of bringing the country a live broadcast was an important step in growing the Daytona 500 and its legacy remains seen today.
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