With the AJ Allmendinger episode shining the light (once again) on all that’s wrong with modern day racing and race car drivers, we thought it a good time to highlight one of the great NASCAR drivers of all time and a guy who was one half of a fist fight that helped launch Stock Car racing to stratospheric levels of popularity.
Cale Yarborough was born in 1940. His family operated a tobacco farm in South Carolina, right in the heart of the budding world of jalopy and Stock Car racing. By his pre-teen years Yarborough had fallen in love with fast cars and the idea of racing them. He was so bitten by the bug that he managed to get thrown out of the first ever race he entered into because race officials discovered that he had lied about his age and he wasn’t old enough to compete. That gutsy attitude would come to define his driving style and career in NASCAR.
The late ‘50s saw Yarborough’s career begin, and like many racers it began slowly as he drove local equipment for anyone who would let him in the seat. It would be the early ‘60s that provided Yarborough the solid footing to build a career on. By 1964, he had begun to drive consistently enough to be a factor in whatever race he entered. That year he finished 19th in the NASCAR national points and the next season he’d record his first official victory and rise to tenth place nationally at the end of the season. He had arrived.
In the mid-‘60s Yarborough maintained his reputation as a consistent racer and a constant threat, so much so that Ford singled him out for a couple special-edition cars that are now highly prized collectables today. The Mercury Cyclone Spoiler II was the small-block version of the car and it carried Yarborough’s name on the front fender. The body was modified with a special drooped nose and other aero tricks to allow Ford and Mercury to take advantage on the high banks. Only roughly 500 Cyclone Spoiler II models were built with the rest carrying a normal body and being called a Cyclone Spoiler.
It wasn’t the hottest car on the block with a 290hp 351, but it was a looker and a limited- production one at that. The Ford version, the Torino Talladega, got a 428. We’ll take that one.
Skipping to 1974, Yarborough had a monster year, winning 10 races that season but missing out the championship that went to King Richard. Again, 1976 was a disappointing year for Yarborough with ownership issues for the team he was driving for, but in 1977 everything fell into place.
Yarborough won nine races and during the middle of the season he captured four races in a row. That and his ability to finish races solidly added up to his first championship. It was basically like lighting the fuse on a powder keg: he won the championship again in 1978 and for the third straight time in 1979. It was a feat that would not be repeated for over 30 years until Jimmy Johnson did it in 2006, 2007 and 2008.
If we were to wipe all that great stuff off the map and left only the 1979 Daytona 500, everyone would still know Cale Yarborough. That was the first year that the race was shown from start to finish on national television and the ending was so unbelievable that without the television footage you’d swear it was all a fabrication.
Racing for the win on the last lap of the race, Yarborough and Donny Allison managed to get tangled up and mangle both cars to the point of being inoperable. We’re including the footage of the wreck below because it’s surreal. As Yarborough and Allison’s busted heaps slid down the banking at Daytona, Richard Petty went streaking by for the win, but better stuff was happening on the infield.
In front of a massive television audience, many of whom were snowed into their homes from blizzards in the Midwest and Northeast and had nothing else to watch, Yarborough and Allison decided to settle things the old fashioned way and got into a donnybrook, as if a Hollywood producer had yelled, “action!” One can literally plot the growth of the sport in terms of spectator popularity and sponsorship from that very moment.
In 1981, Yarborough famously participated in the 24 Hours of LeMans. The experience was documented for Sports Illustrated in a famous piece entitles, “Heck Mes Amis, It’s Only Ol’ Cale”. The effort ended 13 laps into the race when the car was totaled in a crash.
Yarborough raced in NASCAR until 1988 and to the end was a consistent competitor he then retired into an owner’s role which he held until 2000.
It’s funny to think that today’s criticized, sanitized, and pre-packaged world of NASCAR racing was really launched by a fight, but such is the truth. We’re sure Cale would prefer that we remember his accomplishments more than his fighting prowess, but it sure makes for a great story.