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January 12, 2012
DRIVER, 1957--88
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January 12, 2012

Cale Yarborough

DRIVER, 1957--88

CLAIM TO FAME The first to take three championships in a row (1976--78), Yarborough won the Daytona 500 four times, including in '68 (right). His duel with Bobby and Donnie Allison on the backstretch at Daytona in 1979 became one of the defining moments in NASCAR history.

MY DAD USED TO TAKE ME TO THE RACES WHEN I was a kid, and I just fell in love with them from the first time I went. I never have lost that love. I started off in a soap box derby when I was 10 years old [in Darlington, S.C.]. That was before they had go-karts. I built my first race car when I was 15 and raced on the short dirt tracks in the Carolinas. I got hooked at an early age. I still watch every race on television. I'm still a big fan.

There were some tough times in my early days as a driver. I had a wife and a young daughter, and we spent a lot of nights at the Holiday Inn. That is, in the car in the parking lot at the Holiday Inn.

As time went on I started getting better rides. The head of racing for Ford Motor Company, Jacque Passino, had an eye on me, even before I knew it, and he gave us a little help. When Herman Beam hired me [in 1963] to drive his race car—my first major team—Jack gave us parts and pieces. That made a big difference.

There were a lot of good moments [in the '70s] driving for Junior Johnson. We won a lot of races; we won a lot of poles. We had a good team. All three championships were special, but that first one was the real special one. It was the first for me and the first for Junior Johnson. Jimmie Johnson came along and broke my record—but didn't it last a long time?

What made the people I raced against special is they all had to be tough. To be able to run the long races that we ran with no air conditioning ... the cars were extremely hot. You had to be tough to run all day under those conditions.

Today's cars have so much downforce and so much more aerodynamics. The cars we drove back then didn't have any of that stuff. You had to be an excellent driver to do what we did with those cars. We were running faster than they are now with cars nowhere near [as technologically advanced as] what they got now.

At Daytona in '79 my take on the whole thing is, I knew I could beat Donnie, and instead of waiting to do it on the last lap, I should have just gone on and passed him [earlier] and had it over with. But the way it turned out was the best thing that happened to NASCAR. About half the country was snowed in that day, and people were watching racing who had never watched racing before. When they saw the excitement, they became race fans. It seemed like NASCAR's fan base probably doubled or tripled after that day.

It means an awful lot [to be in the Hall of Fame]. I started off on short dirt tracks and just climbed the ladder. Being inducted into the Hall of Fame is the last step on that ladder.