Hometown: Timmonsville, S.C.
Birthdate: March 27th, 1939
Top Fives: 255
Top 10s: 319
Southern 500s: Five
Daytona 500s: Four
Last weekend’s race at California Speedway was again largely reviled not because of what it was, but for where it wasn’t. The Southern 500 traditionally ran on Labor Day weekend from 1950 to 2003. The Southern (California) 500 has consistently failed to live up to the hype or the legend of the race at Darlington. Is it the location? Is it the lack of excitement provided by the track, other than when Brad Keselowski isn’t trying to go Cale Yarborough at Darlington in 1965, and exit through the first and second turns? Speaking of which, Yarborough and Darlington Raceway always made a pretty good pair. The Timmonsville, S.C. native won the late summer classic five times during a storied career which produced 83 wins, four Daytona 500 victories, as well as the only winner of three consecutive Winston Cup championships. As amazing as his career was, it was an even bigger surprise that he lived long enough to experience it. This week we take a look back on Yarborough and not only his accomplishments, but his uncanny ability to cheat death as well.
William Caleb Yarborough was born the son of a tobacco farmer on March 27th, 1939, just outside of Darlington, S.C. Later on in life, Cale would raise not tobacco but turkeys. He had little interest in the product, but more so what was happening down the road. 1950 was the first year of the Southern 500, the first super speedway oval specific to NASCAR, and one of the first to feature banking. Cale didn’t have a ticket, so he slipped through a break in a chain linked fence to watch the action. A few years later he attempted to make the race, lying about his age to gain entrance. His first start at the track would be in 1957 driving a Pontiac for owner Bob Weatherly. Starting dead last, he’d only improve two positions to 42nd, a failed hub ending his day, but not his desire to race.
The fact that he even got this far is a story in and of itself. When he was seven years old while walking through his yard, a rattlesnake bit him. His father rushed him to the hospital, and he was violently ill for nearly a month. Not long after he recovered, he was standing in his house, looking out the window as a thunderstorm that was rolling in. Suddenly a bolt of lighting struck the ground in front of the window, and then blew it out, striking Cale in the chest, knocking him unconscious. When he came to, he smelled something burning. Luckily, it wasn’t him.
Cale had another memorable incident involving airplanes a year after his first start in 1958. Jumping out of a perfectly good airplane is never advisable, but working as part of an air show, it was his job. For nearly 2,000 feet he fought with a malfunctioning parachute that would not deploy. Seconds before impact, the chute released, but he was going so fast, the chute blew apart. He had enough chute material remaining to slow him down; so when he landed in a muddy field he was left with only some scrapes and a chipped elbow.
During this time, Cale was not only fostering a burgeoning racing career, but was quite an athlete who aspired to play football. He was the back-up fullback for the Sumter, South Carolina Generals. It was around this time that he also suffered a leg injury. No, not from some 300-pounder rolling over him on, but from a gunshot wound. While on a date with high school sweetheart and future wife Betty Jo, Cale got into it with a guy who was making lude comments. Things escalated when the guy pulled a gun on him, and fired a shot into the pavement in front of him. The bullet ricocheted upwards and went through his calf.
And they say racing is dangerous.
With those pesky near-death experiences behind him, Cale embarked on a racing career. After making a few one-off starts for Bob Weatherly from 1957 to 1961, he got his first real shot at the big time driving for Herm Beam in 1963. His No. 19 Fords would post seven top 10s in 14 starts, finishing no worse than 17th. He would race with Beam again through 1964, eventually moving to the Ford team, Holman-Moody towards the end of the season. A year later he would drive for a number of different car owners, finally notching his first win at a half-mile dirt track in Valdosta, Ga. for owner Kenny Myler, in his No. 06 Ford.
Cale would only make 14 NASCAR starts the next season, but he made one other important start… in the Indianapolis 500, where he qualified 24th and finished 28th. All told, Cale would make four starts in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, his best finish coming in 1972, with a 10th-place effort.
For 1967, Cale would move to another Ford team that has become synonymous with the Blue Oval. Driving the Wood Brothers famous No. 21 Ford, he would capture his first speedway victory with a win at the 1.5-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway. A second triumph would follow at the biggest track on the circuit at the time, with a win in the Firecracker 400 in Daytona, outlasting Dick Hutcherson to claim career win number three.
The 1968 Daytona 500 saw the Ford Motor Company’s “Total Performance” campaign in full swing. The Ford Torino and Mercury Cyclone were the first salvos fired in the aero wars, as Dodge showed up with the new Charger that looked fast, but was an aerodynamic nightmare. Plymouth’s new Roadrunner was a shapely as a cinderblock, and had a vinyl roof that would rip loose at speed. It was thought that the dimples in the roof would act much like a golf ball to speed up the air going over the car.
Not so much.
FoMoCo showed up with a roster of drivers so stacked, that it reads as a who’s who of racing legends today: David Pearson, Mario Andretti, AJ Foyt, Yarborough, Lee Roy Yarbrough and Donnie Allison. Andretti, Yarbrough and Yarborough in Mercury Cyclones, Pearson, Foyt, and Allison in Ford Torinos. Yarbrough led late in the event in his Junior Johnson prepared Mercury, as Cale was battling back from clutch issues suffered at about the halfway point of the race. He lost a lap, but made it up with about 20 to go, ripping off lap times faster than the rattlesnake that nailed him earlier in his life, striking harder than that bolt of lighting that knocked him out when he was seven.
With three laps to remaining, Cale pulled even with Lee Roy, passing him with relative ease, and pulled away by nearly a second to win his first of four Daytona 500s. It was the first of six wins for 1968, which included wins at Atlanta, Martinsville, and another Daytona triumph in July, and his first of five Southern 500 victories at his home track in Darlington, S.C. The only two cars on the lead lap were Yarborough and Pearson, with Cale holding off the Silver Fox by about 50 feet.
In 1969, Cale would only make 19 starts, but posted victories at Michigan and Atlanta. It was about this time too that Cale was beginning to establish a reputation for being quite a qualifier. He claimed six poles in 1969, which translated into an average starting spot of fourth. After winning just four poles in 1970, his average dropped to fifth.
As the ’70s progressed, Cale’s past came back to haunt him. After enduring several years of not facing mortality, that all changed. During the 1973 spring Talladega race, the first recorded “Big One” took place. It eliminated over 20 cars, and by race’s end, only 17 were running. That may sound like a normal Talladega Big One, but this one was different.
60 cars started the race.
As Ramo Stott exited turn two, his big Mercury disemboweled itself, spewing oil and smoke everywhere, leaving the 45-plus cars behind him blind and out of control. As the cars spun and scattered to the infield, plumes of dust obscured the vision of the rest of the drivers, resulting in a melee of spinning, flipping cars that looked like something out of a video game. Buddy Baker had narrowly avoided killing Stott, who had exited his machine but dove back in it as cars came through the smoke and dust. Buddy’s car struck Stott’s car, tearing the engine clear out of his car. As he sat in a plume of dust he heard the sound of a screaming engine. It was Yarborough sailing overhead, his car launched “as high as a telephone pole” in the air according to Baker. Buddy ran to see if Cale was okay, which he was. The two, thankful to be alive, hugged each other.
About this same time they saw another car spinning out of control headed right at them, threatening to permanently put an end to the touching Brokeback ‘Dega moment. They dove out of the way over the inside dirt embankment, narrowly avoiding meeting their maker. Several drivers were injured in the wreck, including Wendell Scott, the African-American racing pioneer who suffered a broken pelvis and broken ribs.
This would not be the only time that Yarborough would nearly die while outside of a racecar. During the May 1979 race, Yarborough and Baker would tangle as Baker had a left rear go flat and lost control of his car at over 200 mph at the start-finish line.
Yarborough struck Baker in the passenger side door as he hit the outside retaining wall head-on. This triggered another “big one” that was every bit as violent and spectacular as the accidents we’ve become accustomed to seeing today. Things turned ugly when Yarborough exited his car. He was struck by Dave Marcis, Cale pinned between the two cars, with Marcis’ machine hit by another car driven by DK Ulrich. Yarborough was in shock, and was sure that he had lost his legs. He was too afraid to look and had to ask Marcis to tell him if they were intact.
Of course in between these two life-threatening accidents, Yarborough managed to win three consecutive NASCAR Winston Cup championships, under the new Latford points system that was introduced in 1975. 1976 and 1977 were nine win seasons, giving him the title by 195 points over Richard Petty in 1975, and 386 points over the King for 1977. His third championship in 1978 was the result of a 10-win season in 29 starts. Cale claimed “if we were going to win three championships in a row, he wanted to do it in style.” They never backed off or ran conservatively all season long, winning their 10th race of the year at Rockingham by two laps over Bobby Allison. He won the championship by 474 points over Allison, leading car owner Junior Johnson to remark that the team was the best ever.
After winning three consecutive titles by over 1,000 points, it’s kind of hard to argue with him.
Yarborough and Johnson were poised to make a run for an unprecedented fourth title in 1980. In 31 starts, Cale and his No. 11 Busch Beer Chevrolet would combine for six wins, 19 top fives, 22 top 10s, and 14 poles. In the final five races, Cale would post a pair of wins, two third place finishes, and a second, but could not close the gap to the eventual champion, Dale Earnhardt. He would lose the title by a mere 19 points, proving yet again that the best championship chases, are Chase-less. It would be the last full-time season for Yarborough, who would run a partial schedule over the next eight years, yet still racking up wins each season; including the Superbowl of Motorsports.
Cale’s next really scary encounter was during qualifying for the 1983 Daytona 500. Chevrolet had introduced its snarky new Monte Carlo SS. It’s pointed nose piece allowed the car to knife through the air, but also produced a quite a bit of front downforce, pinning the car at the nose. The notchback rear window and tiny rear spoilers laid flat as they were back then, made for a lot of turbulence, as Yarborough found out the hard way.
Coming through turn 4 to complete his second lap, a 30-mph gust of wind caught his car, and it spun sideways. With no side window, side skirts, roof rails or flaps, as we have today, the car filled up with air as air got under the car and flipped it upside down. It was tossed like a toy against the turn 4 wall, sending it tumbling down the track and smashing the glass windshield out of the car. Cale was okay, and would start the race in the dated and odd-looking Pontiac Ventura. No problem. Cale still went on to win his third Daytona 500.
In 1984, the Monte would keep all four tires planted on the ground as he became the first driver to qualify at Daytona at over 200 mph. The speed didn’t stop there, as the CBS in-car camera captured a fist-pumping Yarborough celebrating his fourth win in The Great American Race. While being interviewed by Ken Squier in victory lane, his emotions overflowed after having won back-to-back Daytona 500s.
Cale’s final victory would come at the fall Charlotte event in 1985, edging Bill Elliott out by less than one second. Cale would continue to compete in the now familiar white and orange Hardee’s machine; though the No. 28 team, which he won two Daytona 500s with, would be purchased by Robert Yates and become the ride of a second generation driver Davey Allison. Yarborough would start his own team, taking No. 29, and make selected starts in 1987 and 1988. Although he was still competitive, scoring top fives and top 10s, things changed when fellow long-time competitor Bobby Allison suffered career-ending near fatal injuries at Pocono in 1988.
Betty Jo said it was time to stop driving. So he did.
Yarborough would find modest success as an owner, winning the 1997 Pepsi 400 at Daytona with John Andretti driving the No. 98 RCA Ford Thunderbird. Yarborough was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1993, the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame in 1994 and the Court of Legends at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1996. He was named as one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998 and an attempt to start a competing series to NASCAR a few years ago never quite got off the ground.
With Cale’s past experiences involving leaving the ground, maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all.