Cale Yarborough, who won three straight NASCAR Winston Cup Series championships and whose 83 victories tied him for sixth on the all-time wins list, died Sunday. It was 84.
He was battling a rare genetic disorder, his family told The Associated Press.
At the height of his success, Yarborough won nine races in 1976, nine in 1977 and 10 in 1978, capturing the points championship each time. His feat was tied until 2008, when Jimmie Johnson matched it. Yarborough was also runner-up in the series in 1973 and 1974 and again in 1980.
He won the Daytona 500 four times (1968, 1977, 1983 and 1984), second only to Richard Petty’s seven victories.
But for all his accomplishments, Yarborough is remembered especially for one race he didn’t win, the Daytona 500 in February 1979, the first NASCAR event to be televised entirely to a national audience.
Yarborough and Donnie Allison, the brother of Bobby Allison, another of NASCAR’s biggest names, hit each other in the rear multiple times while vying for the lead. Both Yarborough and Donnie Allison lost control of their cars near the finish, went off the track and ended up unscathed in a grass area, while Richard Petty zoomed to victory.
Moments later, Yarborough and Bobby Allison, who were not involved in the confrontation, got into a fistfight. The eastern United States was hit by a blizzard on Sunday, leaving thousands of people with little to do but watch TV. Most of these viewers had probably never seen a major auto race and tuned in to the CBS network out of curiosity.
The match between two good Southern boys – Yarborough, a native of South Carolina, and Bobby Allison, from Alabama – provided a few minutes of entertainment for spectators who had only a modest interest in the fight itself.
This race turned NASCAR from a niche sport in the South into a national attraction.
“It put NASCAR on the national map,” Petty told The Tampa Bay Times in 2019. “People thought racing was a Southern sports deal and saw the rednecks go out there at the end. It was the perfect storm, the blizzard, everyone was watching, how the race ended.”
Recalling his duel for the lead with Donnie Allison some 30 years later, Yarborough said, “I had the fastest car and set it up to where I could slingshot him on the last lap. This may have been a mistake on my part. I should probably go on and pass him, go on and win the race handily. I was trying to make a show out of it. Unfortunately, it really turned out to be a show. It was one of the best things that ever happened to NASCAR.”
Yarborough said he reconciled with the Allisons the next day.
William Caleb Yarborough was born on March 27, 1939, in the tiny community of Sardis, SC, near Timmonsville, the oldest of three sons of Julian Yarborough, a tobacco farmer, and his wife, Annie. His father was killed in a plane crash when Cale was about 10 years old. A year or two later, Cale got his first taste of auto racing when he attended the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina. When he was a teenager, he lied about his age so he could compete there.
Yarborough was a football star at Timmonsville High School and received an athletic scholarship to Clemson University, whose team was coached by Frank Howard, who would spend 30 years with the Tigers. But Yarborough told Howard he had to delay his arrival on campus to compete in a NASCAR event.
“He said, ‘If you come back, pack your clothes, don’t come back. You either go and wrestle or you play football,” Yarborough quoted Howard as saying in a 2008 New York Times interview. “So I packed my clothes and left. Of course, he kept calling. I said, “You told me to pack my clothes, and that’s what I did. I will make racing my career.”
“He says, ‘Son, you’re going to starve,'” Yarborough recalled. But Yarborough never returned to Clemson.
He made his NASCAR debut in 1957, driving in the Southern 500 and finishing 42nd. His first victory came in 1965 in a 200-lap race at Valdosta, Ga. His last win came in the Atlanta Journal 500 in 1988, his final season.
Yarborough had career earnings of just over $5 million. While continuing to live in Sardis, where he owned a farm, he owned a Honda dealership in Florence, SC
He was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2012 and the Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1994.
“He wouldn’t quit,” Junior Johnson, Yarborough’s car owner during the championship season, once told Autoweek. “I think if he was in a situation where he had to get out of a race car because of his stamina, it would be the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to him.”
Survivors include his wife, Betty Jo, and daughters, Julie, Kelley and BJ;
Howard, the coach at Clemson, became a fan of Yarborough, who certainly wasn’t “starving.”
“I’ll never forget it was at Talladega when I won a race there,” Yarborough once said. “He was in the winner’s circle. He walked over to me and put his hands on my shoulder. He said, “Boy, I’ve never been wrong many times in my life, but I want you to know that I was wrong this time.”