By Richard Goldstein
Cale Yarborough, who won three consecutive NASCAR Winston Cup Series championships and whose 83 victories tied him for sixth place on the winners’ list, died on Sunday. He was 84.
He had been battling a rare genetic disorder, his family told The Associated Press.
At the peak of his success, Yarborough won nine races in 1976, nine in 1977 and 10 in 1978, capturing the points championship each time. His feat wasn’t equaled until 2008, when Jimmie Johnson matched it. Yarborough was also the series championship runner-up 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 achievements, Yarborough was remembered especially for a race he didn’t win, the Daytona 500 in February 1979, the first NASCAR event to be televised in its entirety to a national audience.
Yarborough and Donnie Allison, the brother of Bobby Allison, another of NASCAR’s greatest names, thumped each other several times on the backstretch while vying for the lead. Both Yarborough and Donnie Allison lost control of their cars near the finish, went spinning off the track and wound up unhurt in a grassy area while Petty zoomed to victory.
Moments later, Yarborough and Bobby Allison, who had been out of contention, engaged in a fistfight. The eastern United States had been hit by a Sunday snowstorm, leaving thousands without much to do but watch TV. Most of these viewers had presumably never seen a major stock-car race and tuned in to the CBS network out of curiosity.
The fight between two good old boys from down South — Yarborough, a native of South Carolina, and Bobby Allison, from Alabama — provided an entertaining few minutes for viewers who had only modest interest in the race itself.
That fight transformed NASCAR from a niche sport in the South to a national attraction.
“It put NASCAR on the nationwide map,” Petty told The Tampa Bay Times in 2019. “People thought racing was a Southern sport deal, and they saw the rednecks come out there at the end. It was the perfect storm, the snowstorm, everybody watching, how the race ended.”
Remembering his duel for the lead with Donnie Allison some 30 years later, Yarborough said: “I had the fastest car and had it set up to where I could slingshot him on the last lap. That may have been a mistake on my part. I should maybe have gone on and passed him, gone on and won the race handily. I was trying to make a show out of it. Unfortunately, it really came out to be a show. It was one of the best things ever happened in NASCAR.”
Yarborough said that he reconciled with the Allisons the next day.
William Caleb Yarborough was born on March 27, 1939, in the tiny community of Sardis, South Carolina, near Timmonsville, the oldest of three sons of Julian Yarborough, a tobacco farmer, and his wife, Annie. His father was killed in a private airplane crash when Cale was 10 years old or so. 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. While a teenager, he lied about his age so he could race 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 that he had to delay his arrival on campus to race in a NASCAR event.
“He said: ‘If you go back, pack your clothes, don’t come back. You either go and race or play football,’” Yarborough quoted Howard as saying in a 2008 interview with The New York Times. “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’m going to make racing my career.’”
“He says, ‘Son, you’ll starve to death,’” 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 at a 200-lap race in Valdosta, Georgia. His last victory came at the Atlanta Journal 500 in 1988, his final season.
Yarborough had career winnings of slightly more than $5 million. While continuing to live in Sardis, where he had a farm, he owned a Honda dealership in Florence, South Carolina.
He was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2012 and the Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1994.
“He would not quit,” Junior Johnson, Yarborough’s car owner during his championship seasons, once told the publication 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 his daughters, Julie, Kelley and B.J.
Howard, the coach at Clemson, became a fan of Yarborough, who certainly did not “starve.”
“I’ll never forget that he was at Talladega when I won a race there,” Yarborough once said. “He was in the winner’s circle. He walked up to me and put his hands on my shoulder. He said, ‘Boy, I ain’t never been wrong many times in my life, but I want you to know I was wrong this time.’”