The Frontstretch: Driven To The Past: LeeRoy Yarbrough by Vito Pugliese -- Thursday May 3, 2007

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Driven To The Past: LeeRoy Yarbrough

Vito Pugliese · Thursday May 3, 2007


Birthdate: September 17th, 1938
Birthplace: Jacksonville, FL

Starts: 198
Wins: 14
Top 5's: 65
Top 10's: 92
Poles: 11
Career Earnings: $465,554

With Jeff Gordon surpassing Dale Earnhardt for sixth place on the all-time win list with his 77th victory last weekend at Talladega, the next driver in line for him to reach is Cale Yarborough with 83 wins. There is another driver who came to mind the last time I saw this statistic, and that was LeeRoy Yarbrough. No, the two aren't related; upon closer inspection for those who are intermittently dyslexic like myself, their names are not the same. Much like how Kenny Wallace insists on calling Jeff Gordon's car owner Rick "HendrickS", Lee Roy Yarbrough was of no relation to the stocky fireplug from Timmonsville, SC. This Jacksonville, FL native seemed to be on top of the world in 1969 during the height of factory involvement in stockcar racing, drag racing, muscle cars, and anything else remotely involving competition. However as quickly as he would rise to the top, he would fade from the scene into obscurity, his career and ultimately his life slowly spiraling downward to a tragic end.

Lonnie "LeeRoy" Yarbrough was born in Jacksonville, FL. Growing up in the rough area of town, LeeRoy was far from a beach bum. Like many prominent drivers in the sport, he dropped out of school at an early age. Just as Bobby Isaac and Dale Earnhardt before him, LeeRoy quit school when he was 12 years old. His initial foray into racing was at the age of 16, when he took a '33 Ford Coupe with a Chrysler engine, and made a dirt track car out of it. His FoMoPar hybrid would be successful and win in his very first race. It was a harbinger of things to come, as quick success in his hastily prepared dirt car, would soon extend to the Sportsman and Modified series, where he would eventually post over 100 wins. LeeRoy was the project of race promoter Julian Klein, who tried to knock the edge off a little bit, and make him more, well, promotable. Unfortunately, the similarities between LeeRoy and Bobby Isaac didn't just stop at being dropouts. He had quite a temper like Bobby did, and also liked to scrap. Shortly thereafter, the two parted ways.

After racing sporadically for the next few years, he would make his first appearance at a NASCAR race at Daytona in 1962, in a Sportsman race. Yarbrough would make his debut in the Grand National series (today’s Nextel Cup Series) at Darlington driving a Chevrolet for car owner Lewis Osborne. His engine failed after 23 laps, leaving him 30th out of 32 cars in the field. He would win his first pole a year later driving a Mercury for Lyle Steler at Augusta, GA, a brand that he would solidify his legacy with years later. The next year he would join the Mopar camp, driving Dodges for Ray Fox, and Plymouth Furys for Lewis Weathersbee. His first win would come at a dirt track in Savannah, GA, beating Marvin Panch by one lap, and Richard Petty by three. The next win would come at Greenville-Pickens Speedway (a popular track teams use today for testing), holding off Petty's Plymouth by two car lengths for the win.

1965 saw Yarbrough driving for a slew of different owners, and not faring well, often succumbing to equipment failure in the early stages of the race. Fortunes turned in 1966, with his win at Charlotte in the fall. Driving a Dodge for owner John Thorne, he won the race following winning poles for the previous two races he entered at Daytona and Darlington. Lee Roy dominated the event, leading 301 laps of the 334 that were run. To illustrate how different things were back then, David Pearson, the tenth place car, was 20 laps down.

1967 started off promising, with Yarbrough winning one of the qualifying races for the Daytona 500. He started third in the main event, but soon encountered engine problems after leading ten laps. Out of the 14 races he ran that year, he finished all of two. The rest were marred again by parts failures. In 1967 LeeRoy also tried his hand at the biggest spectacle in racing, the Indianapolis 500. Quite a few NASCAR drivers raced at Indy in the past; it was possible to do the double back then, as the 500 was run on Memorial day, not two hours before the World 600. Ironically enough, he was involved in a crash with Cale Yarborough, and ended up 27th.

The following year, LeeRoy would join with one of the legendary names in the sport, Junior Johnson, with Herb Nab as crew chief. Junior has called LeeRoy "The most raw talent I have ever seen." LeeRoy was now running with a factory backed Ford effort. Running both the Ford Torino and the Mercury Cyclone Spoiler II (why can't they still have cool names like that today?), he ran car No. 26, a number that would be used in the future by Ford drivers Brett Bodine, Johnny Benson, and now Jamie McMurray. Later in the year he would run car No. 98, which later would be campaigned by Cale Yarborough when he became a Ford car owner in the 1990's. LeeRoy would win races in Trenton, NJ and at Atlanta, along with six pole positions. He nearly won the 1968 Daytona 500, surrendering the lead to who else but Cale Yarborough with five laps to go. Even more impressive, his 16 Top 10s (15 of which were Top 5s) out of 26 starts, were a prelude of the success he would enjoy in 1969.

The Daytona 500 has produced it's share of memorable finishes. Last lap battles between David Pearson and Richard Petty in 1974, David Pearson and Pete Hamilton in 1970, the fracas at the end of the 1979 Daytona 500, as well as this year's Great American Race. In 1969 it went down to the wire with Yarbrough erasing an 11 second deficit in ten laps (try that in a plate car), and executing a daring three-wide pass through turn three. Driving it all the way down to the apron to get around a lapped car, he beat Charlie Glotzbach's Hemi Charger 500 to the line in what would be the crowning achievement in his career. Throughout 1969, he piloted his Junior Johnson prepared Fords and Mercurys to wins at the races that define NASCAR's top division: The Daytona 500, the July Firecracker 400, the spring Darlington event, the Southern 500, Memorial Day weekend's World 600 (now the CocaCola 600), and Atlanta Motor Speedway. LeeRoy Yarbrough won NASCAR's Triple Crown before Jeff Gordon was even born. He didn't run the full schedule, so he placed 16th in points. However out of the 30 races entered, seven were wins, and 21 were top 10's.

As quickly as he burst onto the scene and proved his talents, things began to take a turn for the worse in 1970. The performance craze had reached it's pinnacle in Detroit, and along with tightening emissions controls and increased scrutiny from insurance and safety advocates, the racing budgets for the Big Three took a serious hit as well. Ford's suspension of their "Total Performance" campaign meant he would only enter 19 events in 1970, and seven in 1971. He would win his final race in 1970 at the fall Charlotte event. He competed again in the Indianapolis 500 that year, finishing 19th after a failed turbocharger ended his run. His downward spiral began while testing tires at the new Texas World Speedway in College Station, TX (not our current track in Ft. Worth), when he experienced a vicious accident. He was dazed for weeks afterwards, not remembering the ride home a few days later, or the next race he ran at Martinsville. To make matters worse, he experienced another hard crash during Month of May activities in Indianapolis. He would routinely be admitted and discharged from the hospital, complaining of a number of illnesses and trouble with his memory.

After an abbreviated 1972 season that saw him running fairly well in an underfunded effort by Bill Seifert, he crashed on lap 108 at Martinsville, and would never race again. Through the rest of the 70's, he became a recluse of sorts, only being seen coming or going from a hospital. It was said that he suffered from Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, which would help explain away his bouts of memory loss, dementia, and violent outbursts. Others maintain a bout with alcoholism, and suffering the effects of many hard hits in 1970 and 1971. In 1980 he experienced another bout of violent behavior, this time attacking his mother and nearly choking her to death. Shortly thereafter he was committed to a mental institution. Four years later he would pass away, on December 7th, 1984. He had fallen and struck his head, the resulting closed head injury and cerebral hemorrhage leading to his demise.

It's hard to believe that after such a dazzling 1969 season, he would be struggling to enter races just two years later. Imagine Kasey Kahne being on the outside looking in, having difficulty getting a ride for races after his six win season in 2006. Lee Roy was laid to rest in Jacksonville, Florida, and later was inducted into the National Press Association Hall of Fame. In 1998, in observance of NASCAR's 50th anniversary, LeeRoy was named as one of the 50 Greatest Drivers in NASCAR History. Many lifelong Ford fans will remember him as Junior Johnson did, as one of the greatest raw talents ever to get behind the wheel of a Blue Oval product.

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05/04/2007 04:05 AM

A little known story is that after Lee Roy stopped driving and returned to Jacksonville, Junior Johnson would regularly come to see him to see how he was doing.

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