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1979 Auto Racing Highlights

Speed Records

Hollywood stuntman Stan Barrett drove a 48,000-horsepower rocket car, with 6,000 pounds of added thrust from the engine of a Sidewinder missile, to a top speed of 739.666 miles per hour to set an unofficial land speed record at Edwards Air Force Base on December 17. It was the first record under a year-old International Motorcycle Federation rule that records could be established in one run rather than in two runs in opposite directions. The rocket car was able to "compete" as a motorcycle because it had three wheels.


A number of car owners from the United States Auto Club (USAC), the sanctioning body for the Indianapolis 500 and similar races, formed Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART), which conducted a separate series of races with Indy-style cars. The CART owners wanted a larger voice in USAC, and opposed USAC's plan to limit engine power so that lower-budget teams could compete with high-budget teams.

Many CART drivers returned to USAC for the Indianapolis 500, which was run on May 27. A series of rules changes resulted in a starting field of 35 cars, rather than the usual 33. CART cars won four of the first five places, the lone exception being A. J. Foyt, who finished second. Rick Mears won in a Penske-Cosworth. Total purse was $1,271,954.

A. J. Foyt, Rick Mears, and Tom Sneva lead the pack into turn 1 on lap 1 of the Indy 500
start of the 1979 Indy 500

Bobby Unser, Rick Mears, and Mario Andretti drove Penske-Cosworths to the first three places, respectively, in the $294,000 California 500 on September 2, at Ontario, California.

Rick Mears won the CART Driver Championship, A. J. Foyt won the USAC title.

Formula One

Jody Scheckter won the drivers' championship, the third for Ferrari in five years. Scheckter won three of the 15 races and finished in the top six a dozen times.

Gilles Villeneuve drove a Ferrari to victory in both Grand Prix races in the United States.

Alan Jones drove a Saudi-Williams to victory in the Canadian Grand Prix.


The Daytona 500, held on February 18, was televised in its entirety for the first time, and television viewers (as well as grandstand spectators) were treated to some last lap drama. Second-place Cale Yarborough tried to pass Donnie Allison on the inside on the final turn, but Allison cut down to block. Yarborough went off the track, came back on, bumped Allison, bounced off, and then rammed him. Both cars hit the outside wall and spun down into the infield grass. Meanwhile, Richard Petty,who had been a ways back in third, drove through the fracas to get his sixth Daytona 500 win. While Petty celebrated his win, Cale and Donnie were engaged in a fistfight, with Donnie's brother Bobby teaming up against Cale. Petty got the lion's share of the $595,000 purse, while the three fighters were fined $6,000 each and placed on probation for six months.

Donnie Allison (right) and Cale Yarborough crash
Donny Allison and Cale Yarborough crash

Yarborough versus the Allisons
Yarborough versus the Allisons

Darrell Waltrip won seven races, but lost the Grand National Championship to Petty, who won five races on the way to his seventh championship. Waltrip did end the year at the top of the earnings list with $465,870, compared to Petty's $430,650.

In the Year 1979

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The Robinson Library >> Recreation >> Automobile Travel and Racing

This page was last updated on October 11, 2017.