When news broke that three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Cale Yarborough had passed away on Dec. 31, 2023, the headline was difficult to read. He was a giant among NASCAR legends who defied all odds throughout his 84 years. Every day was an adventure. Driving a race car at speeds over 200 miles was just something else on his list of things to accomplish.
Wrestling an alligator, flying and occasionally crashing airplanes, being struck by lightning twice, competing as a Golden Gloves boxer and running for touchdowns as a high school and semi-pro football player were just parts of his tremendous life story. A strong faith in GOD and an unwavering obsession to be the best defined exactly who he was.
“I had a scholarship to Clemson, a football scholarship, playing under Frank Howard. I was racing during the summer,” Yarborough said in a 2012 article for Fox Sports. “I was just about to win the track championship. I went to coach Howard and told him I needed to go home to race one more race that I’d be through with it. He said, ‘If you go back, pack your clothes, don’t come back. You either go and race or play football.’ So I packed my clothes and left.”
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From the farm to the racetrack
Yarborough was born March 27, 1939, the oldest of three boys born to Julian and Annie Yarborough in Sardis, South Carolina, a small community just outside of Darlington. His family made a living by farming tobacco and cotton, and also owned a small local country store. His father was killed in a private airplane crash in the late 1940s, leaving him to help his mother manage everything at a relatively young age.
In September of 1951, the year Yarborough turned 14, the second-annual Southern 500 was being held. Without a ticket, Yarborough managed to slip under a fence to gain entrance. Five years later in 1956, he tried his skill at driving the treacherous egg-shaped track, which was then 1.25 miles in length. NASCAR discovered he lied about his age and parked him in the garage before the race began.
He made his debut in the 1957 Southern 500 in Bob Weatherly’s Pontiac and finished 42nd with a broken hub. For six years, he drove for various team owners and then in 1964, joined John Holman and Ralph Moody as a floor sweeper before being given a factory Ford to drive in select short-track events.
In 1965, Yarborough scored his first NASCAR victory at Valdosta Speedway for team owner Kenny Myler. That same year, he proved indestructible yet again after sailing over the second-turn wall at Darlington in Banjo Matthews’ Ford while battling Sam McQuagg for the lead in the Southern 500.
In 1966, Yarborough joined Wood Brothers Racing and won his first superspeedway race at Atlanta. All told, Yarborough won 13 major events over four seasons but was released after Ford withdrew factory support for NASCAR teams in 1970. He entered only four Cup races in 1971 and five in 1972 but logged one top-five and five top-10s.
“Cale was one of the best drivers we had,” said Eddie Wood, co-owner of Wood Brothers Racing. “He was a hard charger that would give everything he had, no matter where we raced. He was as tough as they come.”
Teaming with Junior Johnson
Yarborough joined USAC Indy Car team owner Gene White for select open-wheel events. His biggest finishes came with two Indianapolis 500s in 16th and 10th in 1971 and ’72.
In early January of 1973, team owner Richard Howard offered Yarborough a full 29-race season with NASCAR legend Junior Johnson as team manager with crew chief Herb Nab. That year, he won four races and finished second in series points — a milestone Yarborough had never reached.
All told, Yarborough won 55 Cup races from 1973–1980 under Johnson’s direction. Johnson bought the team from Howard in 1974 and in 1976, ’77 and ’78, Yarborough collected consecutive Cup championships for the first time in NASCAR history.
Citing the need to spend more time with family, Yarborough left Johnson’s team to join team owner M.C. Anderson at the start of the 1981 season to run a limited schedule of 18 races. The highlight of his 1982 season came with his fifth-career Southern 500 win at Darlington.
From 1983 to 1986, Yarborough drove Harry Ranier’s Chevrolets to nine Cup wins, including Daytona 500s in 1983 and 1984. In 1985, Yarborough won at Talladega and at Charlotte, his final Cup victory. All told, he logged 83 wins in 560 starts, 255 top-fives, 319 top-10s and 69 pole positions.
In 1987, Yarborough purchased the Cup team owned by Jack Beebe and shared driving duties with Dale Jarret before retiring from driving in November of 1988. He fielded the team in 371 starts through 1999 with one victory by John Andretti at Daytona in July of 1997.
“The coolest thing about Cale was his competitive spirit,” said Jeff Hammond, a noted crew chief with Johnson’s team in Speed Sport Magazine. “He had so much desire to drive. He would always say, ‘Put me behind the wheel and I’ll find whatever it needs to go fast and win.’ That was true whether it was 500 miles at Daytona or 500 laps at Martinsville. His determination, ability to persevere and incredible work ethic made him one of the most fit drivers of that era in cars with no power steering, which was tough. He could drive the fool out of a race car and push a car until it broke. He was fearless.”
Yarborough considers his time in NASCAR his greatest venture.
“I’m going to remember this as being one of the best days of my life,” Yarborough said after being inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2012. “I’m so proud to be a part of (NASCAR) and so blessed to climb that long ladder from the bottom step to the top step. I can’t go any higher, but no one can push me off, either.”