NASCAR Beginnings Featuring Cale Yarborough

On Tuesday, June 14, 2011, the NASCAR Hall of Fame announced the 2012 class of inductees. It should come as no surprise that Cale Yarborough’s name is at the top of the list. Yarborough received the highest percentage of votes with 85 percent.

Driver, car owner, businessman, author and actor, Cale Yarborough has done it all. This hard-charging three-time Cup champion was known for giving 100 percent from the first to the last lap.

Richard Petty said of Yarborough, “It didn’t make no difference if he was two laps behind or 20 laps ahead, he drove that car as hard as he possibly could.”

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Cale Yarborough ruled NASCAR in the 1970’s with three consecutive Sprint Cup championships from 1976-78. No one had ever shown such dominance and his record stood until 2008 when Jimmie Johnson won the championship for the third straight year.

During those three years, Yarborough won 28 races – nine in 1976, nine in 1977 and 10 in 1978. He not only won those championships, but by a huge margin. In 1978, Yarborough won by a margin of 474 points.

His 31-year career total of 83 victories ranks fifth all-time and his 69 poles rank third all-time. Yarborough won the Southern 500 at Darlington five times.  He also managed to win the Daytona 500 four times (1968, 1977, 1983-84), second only to Richard Petty’s seven.

William Caleb Yarborough was born in the small town of Timmonsville, South Carolina in 1939. He was the oldest of three sons born to Julian and Annie Mae Yarborough. As a small boy, he attended races in the nearby towns of Florence and Columbia with his father and fell in love with racing. Yarborough remembers the first Southern 500 in Darlington in 1950. His father had been looking forward to it and he was hoping his Dad would take him to see it.

“We’d certainly talked about the Southern 500,” Yarborough remembers. “I don’t know whether he was going to take me or not.”

Sadly, he never got the chance to go. That summer Yarborough lost his father when he was killed after his small plane crashed. Yarborough made it to the Southern 500 the next year, crawling under the fence to get in. He had a ticket but was too excited to wait in line.

“I wasn’t sneaking in to be sneaking in,” he said. “I was just too anxious to get inside and see my heroes.”

It seems like no coincidence that Yarborough made his racing debut at that very same track in 1957. It was not the start he had envisioned. Yarborough finished in 42nd place after a broken hub took him out of the race.

Yarborough only drove in three more races over the next four years but in 1962, he earned his first top ten finish when he placed tenth in the Daytona 500 qualifying race. Over the next few years, he drove for various owners on a limited schedule including Herman Beam, Holman Moody and Banjo Matthews.

In 1965, he ran in 46 races and captured his first win at Valdosta, Georgia. That year he also had one of the scariest moments of his career at the Southern 500 while trying to pass race leader, Sam McQuagg.

“We went in the corner side by side, and for some reason my car just got airborne,” said Yarborough. “I went over the hood of his car, never even touched the guardrail, and went out into the parking lot. I ended upside of a telephone pole.”

In 1966, Yarborough began to find some success. He won both the Atlanta and Firecracker 500 while driving for Bud Moore and finished out the season driving the No. 21 car for the Wood Brothers team.

Yarborough started to make a name for himself after his partnership with the Wood Brothers and won six races in 1968 including his first Daytona 500 win. That year also saw him in victory lane for the first time at the Southern 500. Yarborough considers it the biggest of his 83 career wins. This was the track where he had watched so many of his heroes race as a young boy. More importantly, it was the last race on the old track before it was repaved.

“It’s still hard to drive today,” Yarborough says, “but back before they changed it, it was almost impossible to race on. The difference between the old track and the new one is like night and day.”

“I think Jeff [Gordon] ought to have to win six to equal my five,” he jokes, “because my first one was on the old track, and it was twice as hard to win.”

Finally, in 1973, Yarborough was able run a full schedule. He won four races that year, including the Southeastern 500 at Bristol International Speedway, where he led every lap from start to finish. What makes it even more unusual is that the race took two weeks to complete because of rain.

Yarborough finished second in the points standing in 1973, behind Richard Petty. In 1974, he captured ten victories but again finished second to Petty in points. But Yarborough was not to be denied.

With nine victories in 1976, Yarborough won the first of his three consecutive championships, driving for the legendary Junior Johnson. According to Johnson, winning with Yarborough was easy.

“When you got a driver you know is going to give you everything he’s got,” Johnson said, “you can take away 30% of the car and he’ll still give you enough to beat everybody.”

One of Yarborough’s most memorable moments was in 1979 at the Daytona 500. It was the first stock car race ever televised in its entirety. Yarborough and Donnie Allison were fighting for the lead and wrecked when Yarborough tried to pass for the lead during the final laps. The wrecked cars slid into the infield and both drivers jumped out of their cars. Fists started flying with Bobby Allison joining in to help his brother. The entire episode was captured on television and has become one of the most notorious NASCAR fights in its history.

Yarborough retired as a driver in 1988, ending his driving career with a phenomenal 83 wins. He remained on the NASCAR scene as a car owner until 2000. He had limited success as an owner and recorded only one win with John Andretti in 1997. After leaving NASCAR, he opened a successful Honda dealership in Florence, South Carolina.

Cale Yarborough was a small town boy with big dreams. He joined the ranks of the heroes he watched race as a young boy to become a NASCAR legend. He remains one of NASCAR’s most beloved drivers and an integral part of its history.

Achievements:

1967 NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Award
1976 Cup Championship
1976 Five Consecutive Race Wins – Single Season Record
1977 Cup Championship
1978 Cup Championship
1980 Won 14 Pole Positions – Single Season Record
1984 First driver to qualify at the Daytona 500 at over 200 mph
1986 Wrote his autobiography, with William Neely: ‘Cale: The Hazardous Life and Times of the World’s Greatest Stock Car Driver’
1993 Inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame
1994 Inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame
1994 Inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America
1996 Inducted into the Court of Legends at Charlotte Motor Speedway
1996 Talladega Walk of Fame inductee
1998 Named one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers
2009 Monument on the Darlington Legends Walk
2010 Nominee NASCAR Hall of Fame
2011 Nominee NASCAR Hall of Fame
2012 Will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame
4-Time Winner of the Daytona 500
5-Time Winner of the Southern 500
83 Career Wins (Fifth All-Time)
69 Poles (Third All-Time)

Trivia:

Yarborough appeared in two episodes of the TV show ‘The Dukes of Hazzard,’ playing himself.

1979: ‘The Dukes Meet Cale Yarborough’
1984: ‘Cale Yarborough comes to Hazzard’
1983: Yarborough appeared in the Burt Reynolds movie, ‘Stroker Ace’

Thanks to darlingtonraceway.com and NASCAR Hall of Fame for Cale Yarborough quotes.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpeedwayMedia.com.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks Doug. He was an incredible driver and I hope we see him inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame soon. He certainly deserves it, in my opinion.

  2. Angie, Nice story on Cale. Even though I worked for many Nascar drivers back then, Cale was always my favorite driver. Like Jr. Johnson said he give it his all on every lap. Those 3 Championship years, I worked for him were fond memories. He also was my first Nascar customer in 1974. Your story brought me back in time, to a much simplier, but tougher Nascar.

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