When Cale Yarborough wheels his growling Mercury Cyclone into victory lane, right away one can sense that he never felt he wouldn't get there. He unbuckles his safety harness, takes off his helmet to expose a fast-diminishing crop of blond hair, then somehow un-stuffs his 5'6", 185-pound body from inside the sheet-metal and tube-steel roll cage and climbs through the window. He loosens a red bandana from around his neck and wipes the perspiration from his smiling, maiden's blush-pink face. Yarborough simply cannot tan; he is either pale white or burned.
The last time all this happened was on July 4 at the Daytona International Speedway when Yarborough—having disdained a cool-suit despite the 94° temperature (120° in the car) for fear the extra 50 pounds would cost him a precious hundredth of a second or so per lap—won the Firecracker 400 Grand National stock-car race. Not that he needed those fractions. He won by over seven miles, or nearly three laps. He said the usual nice things into the microphone: how he couldn't have done it without the aid of the Ford Motor Company, which was true, and without Glen Wood and his fine pit crew, which also was true.
Then Betty Jo stepped up beside him. Betty Jo is Mrs. Yarborough, 5'2" of absolutely beautiful blonde with deep, dark brown eyes and a voice that comes out dipped in warm honey. Betty Jo was a cheerleader at the high school in Hebron, S.C., and William Caleb was an all-state fullback at the high school in Timmonsville, which is also in South Carolina. He met her at his uncle's drugstore in Olanta, where she was working behind the soda fountain, and they have a 5-year-old daughter named Julianne, who is going to be one fine cheerleader herself in 10 or 12 years.
At 29 Cale Yarborough is rapidly becoming the next great Southern stock-car driver, having pushed his way toward the top during an era when a new generation of drivers has been scrambling to fill vacancies left by the death, retirement or suspension of the old heroes: Curtis Turner, Fireball Roberts, Joe Weatherly, Junior Johnson, Fred Lorenzen.
August 4, 1968
Into the near-vacuum occupied only by Richard Petty and his Blue Angel Plymouth have rushed a host of promising newcomers. The three most likely to succeed are: Lee Roy Yarbrough (no kin of Cale—note the slight difference in spelling), 30, of Columbia, S.C. via Jacksonville, Fla., a superb qualifier—he has been on the pole in four of the fastest, richest races of the year—who nevertheless has not won any of the top NASCAR events in nearly two years; Buddy Baker, 27, of Charlotte, the son of former Grand National star Elzie (Buck) Baker, a 6'6" 240-pounder with a violent temper who won this year's World 600 at Charlotte; and, of course, Cale Yarborough. Baker drives a Dodge, Lee Roy a Ford or Mercury and Cale a Mercury. All three men are flat-out chargers. "If Cale and Lee Roy and Buddy are ever ramming together on the last lap of a race," one stock-car official said recently, "the guy riding fourth is gonna win."
In the volatile atmosphere of Southern stock-car racing (just the other day Richard Petty's brother Maurice got annoyed at Bobby Allison for bumping Richard in a race and flattened him—twice—in the pits), Cale Yarborough somehow has managed to reach the top without antagonizing anybody. Last year he was voted NASCAR's most popular driver by the fans, but, more significant, there isn't a driver around, including Buddy and Lee Roy, who will badmouth Cale.
With his victory in the Firecracker 400, Yarborough moved clearly ahead of his two rivals, and if he outruns them again this Sunday, in the important Dixie 500 at Atlanta, the year will be Cale's for certain. The 400 was his third straight victory at Daytona, and he thus became only the second driver in NASCAR history to win three consecutive races at a major track. (The other was Fred Lorenzen at Charlotte in 1964-65.) Daytona was Cale's third superspeedway victory of the season; in each race Lee Roy was second. The $18,000 first prize at Daytona boosted Cale's total earnings for 1968 to nearly $100,000, and with four big races left he is well within range of Richard Petty's record $130,000 earnings for last year.
Cale did not have a day to himself until nearly two weeks after the Firecracker. Ford needed him for engine tests at Charlotte and the Mercury people needed him for public appearances, but Cale put most of that aside one weekend to go back to Timmonsville, a town of 2,500 in the middle of Florence County, to check on the plumber who was supposed to do some work at his house and the carpenter and electrician who were trying to fix up a building Cale is turning into a small business center.
On the Sunday of that weekend Cale and Betty Jo, with Julianne, drove out of town along Route 53 toward the hamlet of Sardis, past one of the three signs announcing to everybody that Timmonsville is the "Home of Cale Yarborough, the World's Fastest Stock Car Driver," which he is.
"They used to run me out of town for speeding," Cale said. Along the road was cotton and tobacco and in practically every house lived a relative of Cale's. His father, Julian, was killed in a plane crash on a Friday the 13th in 1951, but seven of his brothers and sisters live in his home county. Then there is his mother's family and his stepfather's family. "If you throw a brick around here you're bound to hit a cousin or two," Cale said.
In Sardis, Cale and Betty Jo stopped at his stepfather's mother's house for Sunday dinner, everything from pickled cucumbers to potato salad to barbecued pork and the hottest barbecue gravy imaginable. Uncles and aunts and those inevitable cousins, about 40 people in all, were gathered, and most wanted to talk with Cale or even take his picture.
When Cale stepped away to get some dessert, Dr. Blees Floyd, a brother of Cale's stepfather, Vernon, said, "That Cale, driving those stock cars. He's not afraid of the devil himself."
After his stepfather had showed off his cured tobacco Cale gathered up Betty Jo and Julianne and his brother Jerry and Jerry's wife, and got into Cale's twin-engined Piper Aztec and flew down to Santee-Cooper. Cale went water skiing despite some bruised ribs acquired earlier this year at Charlotte and Darlington. He kept motioning for the boat to go just a little faster.
All in all, it was a weekend in which Cale showed that racing success, a recent acquisition, has not spoiled him. "I hope I haven't changed," Cale said one day. "My father told me that if people don't like you the way you are, they're sure not going to like you if you pretend to be somebody else."
But for all his back-home folksiness, Cale Yarborough is very different from you and me—unless you happened to catch water moccasins barehanded as a kid or dived off 90-foot cypress trees into Carolina lakes. Listening to Cale, one begins to understand why he believes he can win any race, survive any danger. Consider his account of the way he started flying. "Wib Weatherly and I had bought a plane," Cale said, "a Piper J-4. When it got here, Wib and I started to talking, each of us telling the other about how good we could fly. So finally we went out and got in the plane, and I said, 'I'll turn it over and you take the controls,' and he said, 'Naaw, you take the controls and I'll turn it over.' So I did, and never let on about anything and just taxied and took off as pretty as you please. Every time I'd offer to give the controls over, Wib'd say, 'Naaw, Cale, you're doing just fine.' Well, pretty soon we were running low on fuel and it was time to land and I said, 'Wib, I took off; you land it,' and Wib said, 'Naaw, you're doing fine, Cale. You land it.' Then I confessed that that was the first time I'd been at the controls of an airplane. Wib confessed, too. He said that was the second time he'd ever even been up in an airplane. Well, I brought it in, bouncing all over the place and with Wib's eyes as big as saucers, and the next day I was out there and took off again and practiced landings in this field until I could do it pretty good. Never had a lesson in my life."
He has also barged into sky diving, and is perhaps the only diver alive who has missed the entire Atlantic Ocean on a jump. "I was supposed to come down in this little bay by Beaufort," Cale recalls, "but we misjudged the wind and I wound up on top of a dentist's office in the middle of a shopping center about two miles inland."
One day Cale drove to a place just outside Sardis, where the house in which he was born stood before it burned down. "This is where I learned to drive," Cale said, pointing to a deserted stretch of sandy road. "My father had a Dodge he converted into a pickup. I'd put a wash pan on the seat to see up over the steering wheel. It wasn't dangerous. There's nothing out here you can hit very hard."
Between 6 and 17 there was nothing to particularly distinguish Cale as a race driver-to-be. He had a so-so soapbox derby career, and that was about it. He did make all-state as a fullback at Timmonsville High (he later considered several college football scholarships and a tryout offer by the Washington Redskins), but spent most of his time cropping tobacco, cutting timber and otherwise working the family's 500-acre farm. Then came the 1957 Southern 500, the oldest of the stock-car races, at Darlington, S.C., just up the road in the next county from Timmonsville.
The official NASCAR record book reads that Cale Yarborough completed 42.6 miles in the 1957 Southern 500 and won $100 in prize money. What it doesn't tell is that Cale was just 17 at the time (the same year he learned to fly) and that the minimum age for Grand National racing is 21. "I've got about five birth certificates on file with NASCAR," Cale said. What happened was that Cale and Bob Weatherly (Wib's brother) and a few other fellows from around Timmonsville took a stocker over to Darlington, but spent so much time getting it through inspection that by race day neither Cale nor Bobby had ever been on the track, which was probably just as well because neither of them had ever raced on a big track before. The car was not qualified, but in those days it did not have to be, and just before the race Cale pulled the car into line behind 75 others.
"I'm sitting in my stocker," Cale remembers, "and ol' Johnny Bruner, the chief steward, comes over and leans in my window and tells me that they've found out about how I'm too young and got to get out of the car. Well, I get out and put Bobby in the car, but right before the race, with all the cars sitting there roaring their engines, I run out of the pits to my car. I go in the right window and Bobby goes out the left, and when the cars pull away I'm sitting right there at the wheel.
"I do a lap or two and then Bruner spots me and black-flags the car off the track. I think it was the bright red shirt I was wearing. Anyway, when I pull in he really burns my behind.
"I put Bobby back in the car, and he goes out and does a few laps. Then I go down to the end of the pit area and signal him to come in for a pit stop. When he gets in we do the same thing: me in one window, him out the other. There was so much confusion with all those cars stopping and stalling and all that Bruner never saw the switch. Now I'm back on the track and I get by with another two or three laps, and then I get spotted again. This time Bruner puts me in his car and drives me clean outside the track. He lets me out on the other side of the fence, but he gets caught in a little traffic while he's getting back into the track.
"I get over the fence and I'm back in my car before he can drive back from the gate, so I get some more laps in. I get scrunched way down in the car so that he can't tell it's me back at the wheel. I go by a time or two with him standing there, and then I'm coming out of the No. 4 turn and he walks right out into the middle of the front straightaway with all these cars flying by and puts his hands up like a traffic cop and stops me. He wouldn't even let me drive around and come in the pits. He stands there and makes me back up against all them cars back to the pit entrance!"
During the next six years, Cale got rides wherever he could, mostly on the dirt tracks that abound in the Carolinas, in jalopies, modifieds and sportsman racers. He met Betty Jo in that drugstore and got married in April 1961 at Moncks Corner and lost $30,000 in two years on a turkey farm. "Everybody was making money on turkeys," Cale said. "But when I got in, the turkey market had the worst two years it's ever had."
During the winter of 1963-64 Yarborough and Herman (the Turtle) Beam, for whom Cale had been driving some, went to Detroit and cornered Jacque Passino, the "Grey Fox," who is director of racing for the Ford Motor Company. Passino, like most racing executives, has something of a split personality to outsiders. To some, Passino is the swinger who taught Henry Ford II how to dress; to others he is a cold manipulator of money and machines who treats drivers like robots, gives them 30-day driving contracts and if they don't produce, bounces them.
Cale's request was simple. He wanted factory support. Passino, who had given some help to Yarborough previously, gave an equally simple reply. "I'll help you," Passino said, "but the first time you mess up, you're history."
In Cale's second race under this arrangement he was challenging Ned Jarrett for the lead in a 125-mile race at Richmond, Va. when Jarrett blew his engine right in front of him. Cale slid in the oil and bounced end over end three times.
The next day Cale called Passino. "Jacque," he said, "about that car...."
No problem. Passino gave him another one, which he ran with indifferent success until the 1964 Rebel 300 in May at Darlington. Again Cale challenged for the lead, until a wheel bearing burned out. Cale pitted and got out of the car while Beam and his crew worked to fix it. Suddenly Passino came up. "What happened?" he asked.
"The bearing was all right last week," Beam and Yarborough said.
"Did you check it before the race?"
Passino said, "You have messed up."
Cale was back in the slums of racing, and actually quit for a while. That fall he played a little semipro football with the Sumter (S.C.) Generals.
That same fall the telephone rang. It was Passino. "Cale," he asked, "are you going to play football or go racing?"
The offer wasn't much. In fact it consisted entirely of a job with Holman Moody, Ford's stock-car builders—as a handyman—but Yarborough took it, and finally in the spring of 1965 Cale got his ride with a factory car. He had three second-place finishes in major races that year, but at Darlington was involved in one of the most spectacular crashes in stock-car history during the Southern 500. Racing side by side with Sam McQuagg deep into the No. 1 turn, he was nudged by Sam's car and lifted into the air and right out of the ball park. Darlington is not Cale's favorite racetrack.
The following year Ford boycotted NASCAR and Cale sat out the season until late summer. Then the boycott was lifted, and in a realignment of Ford drivers Cale got the car prepared by the first-rate Glen Wood team, and nothing but good things have happened since. In 1967 Yarborough won two major races, the Atlanta 500 and the Firecracker 400, and this season has been even better.
So there he sits, dressed in cutoff pants and a sportshirt, his arm around Betty Jo, luxuriating in the comfort of his living room in his comfortable Colonial house set on seven acres of land just outside Timmonsville, the Lincoln Continental and Mercury Cyclone outside.
He talks of a trip he made to Savannah at the time he was going under with the turkeys, and with Betty Jo pregnant with Julianne, and how they had to scrounge in the back seat to find enough money to get across a toll bridge and how all they had to eat on that trip were the two sandwiches Betty Jo had made before they left.
Now Cale is fast becoming the Howard Hughes of Timmonsville. Besides his house he owns three other pieces of property in or near the town, plus an undeveloped lot at Santee-Cooper, plus two "Cale Yarborough 60-minute Cleaners" in Columbia, one in Lumberton, one in Hartsville, one in Winnsboro and a pickup station in his Timmonsville shopping center. To handle his businesses, he employs two accountants, a lawyer, a broker and an agent.
"I used to dream a lot," Cale said. "When I was just starting in racing I would sit on the tractor plowing cotton and dream—dream fantastic, impossible things. Like my name in headlines and winning big races; or I'd look up in the sky and see a plane and say some day I'm gonna have a big plane like that. I'd plow right across into the next furrow. In the world—I'm not considering myself now—there are how many good drivers? A handful, maybe 12. Every sport has a wide base and like a pyramid it comes to a point at the top. Auto racing, I think, has a narrower pyramid than anything else. I love to race. Money is important now because I have a family, but I would race, I think, if I were a millionaire. It's something that clicks inside you—it does for me, anyway—and especially on the big tracks. Someday it'll end. I know that. I hope not soon, but someday I know the clicking will stop.
"Now when I'm flying I still dream. I set the automatic pilot and dream of bigger and more fantastic things—thrilling things I'd like to do when I retire. I've never dived into the ocean at Acapulco. I'd love to do that."