William Caleb Yarborough is plain Cale to most of the South, where he is a folk hero. The people love to tell about how Cale has wrestled alligators, ridden bulls, made over 200 parachute jumps, dived into swamps from towering cypress trees, pulled water moccasins from those same murky waters with his bare hands, tried to show a bear who was boss (and found out it was the bear), been struck by lightning, and flew and landed an airplane without ever having been at the controls of one before, a situation born of necessity because his ego prevented him from admitting to his "copilot" that he had never flown. The copilot's ego prevented him from admitting to Yarborough that he had never flown. Or so they say, and Cale doesn't deny it.
But mostly Cale Yarborough travels in cars—stock cars, those 200-mph monsters that seem to have an affinity for being raced inches apart. The other day he clinched his third consecutive NASCAR grand national driving championship by winning the American 500 at Rockingham, N.C. Three straight is something no other stock-car driver has achieved, not even Richard Petty, the sport's dominant figure in the '60s and early '70s and a folk hero of even larger dimensions than William Caleb Yarborough. But Yarborough's halo is becoming shinier by the week. Petty's career is in decline; today Yarborough stands alone.
Yarborough is only 5'7" tall, but his 185-pound body gives him the bearing of a big man. He has bulky shoulders that extend into short arms with biceps the size of melons and forearms like clubs, a barrel chest and a thick, tough midsection. He has a round, rosy face resting peacefully atop a tree-stump neck, thinning blond hair, a broad, genuine grin and, when things are not going the way he would like them to, a grimace that so completely scrunches his face it looks like a partly deflated beach ball. Viewed head on, Yarborough sort of resembles the Oldsmobile he races: squat and powerful, his cheeks matching the shape of the car's bulging fenders, his sunglasses the dark-tinted racing windshield.
Yarborough has a favorite outfit around the track: hand-tooled cowboy boots, pressed blue jeans held high above his waist by a wide leather NASCAR champion's belt with a sterling silver buckle, a wristwatch with a Confederate flag on the face, NASCAR championship gold-and-diamond rings, one on each hand, a conservative cowboy shirt with maybe pearl buttons, but no spangles or fringe or frivolous attachments of that sort, and a ten-gallon hat, usually straw, the brim turned down at both the front and back. It is a hat most people would look absolutely goofy in, especially short people, but not Yarborough. The hat's effect is not unlike that of Dolly Parton's wigs—"I love those wigs because I'm six feet tall in them," says the five-foot singer.
The most frequently told Cale Yarborough story is this: 1964 was not a good year for turkeys in Timmonsville, S.C., and it had cost Yarborough his life savings, slim though they were, to learn he was not cut out to be a turkey farmer. He was offered a stock car for a race in Savannah, so he cashed a check for his last $10, made two sandwiches with what he could scrounge out of the refrigerator, packed his wife Betty Jo into their car and headed south to Savannah. They lost the $10 to a policeman for driving 40 mph in a 35-mph zone. They reached a 50¬¨¬®¬¨¢ toll bridge without the money to cross. Yarborough hopped into the backseat, dug into the crack between the seat cushions like a dog digging for a chipmunk and found 37¬¨¬®¬¨¢ that had been long lost. The presence of Yarborough's sobbing, hungry, pregnant, pretty young wife in the front seat being fairly persuasive, the tollkeeper himself contributed the 13¬¨¬®¬¨¢ difference, and Yarborough made it to Savannah, where the race car blew its engine on the warmup lap. With no winnings, Cale had to borrow $20 from the race's promoter in order to get home again. On the return trip he paid the tollkeeper the 13¬¨¬®¬¨¢ he owed him.
The story is going to be told and retold if Yarborough ever runs for governor: In 1972, running as a Republican, he was elected a councilman in Florence County by a wide margin. "It wasn't even close," he says. "I won every precinct by a landslide." In 1976, running as a Democrat, he was reelected by a similar margin, and he served until Jan. 1, 1977, when he had to relinquish the job because he had moved out of the county. For the time being, Yarborough is not in politics, but he still has public office on his mind. "I would like to get back into politics later on," he says. "Maybe as a congressman, maybe a senator, maybe even governor, I don't know."
Yarborough became a Democrat so he could campaign for his friend Jimmy Carter, a man he is fiercely loyal to. "Jimmy's always been strong in Georgia," says Yarborough. "I met him when he was just a farmer. Someone brought him around to a race at Atlanta and introduced him to me. Later, after he was governor, he came down in the pits at a race one morning and said, 'Cale, I'd like to talk to you for a minute.' So we went over and sat down on a stack of tires; he talked a long time before he got around to it, and finally he said, 'Cale, I'm going to do something tomorrow and I'd like your help.' I said, 'O.K., I'll try, what is it?' He said, 'Tomorrow I'm going to announce I'm running for the Presidency of the United States.' I laughed at him. I sure did. But I said, 'O.K., Jimmy, I'll help you.' "
Yarborough exhibits a politician's style at the races. He likes people and has a natural talent for diplomacy. He poses for photos with kids on his lap the way a politician kisses babies. Women bring him butter beans and such, and later he says something like, "Thank you, ma'am, they sure were good. I ate two helpings even though I shouldn't have." He never turns down an invitation to a Yarborough Fan Club meeting. "Sometimes it's kind of a pain to go to them," he says, "but it's necessary."
Like most politicians, Yarborough is capable of a verbal indiscretion when he thinks he's in safe company and can get away with it. He made one such slip during a press conference after he won the 1977 Daytona 500. A newspaper reporter on the stock-car beat asked him about Janet Guthrie, although the reporter didn't refer to Guthrie by name. "Is the woman [driving] any better?" the reporter asked, his emphasis on the word "woman" indicating disdain. Yarborough, who has a gift for one-liners, replied, "I don't know, I haven't tried her yet," a quip that amused most of the reporters and went unreported in their publications. Yarborough's stock reply for public consumption to queries on Guthrie's ability is, "A woman isn't strong enough to be a winner, and if one is strong enough, I don't want to be around her." To which Guthrie replies, "I drive the car, I don't carry it," revealing that her wit may be sharper than her driving.
At 39, Yarborough knows he can race only a few more years. He also knows he needs to be "strong"—as in "Jimmy Carter has always been strong in Georgia." He doesn't know if being the most successful man in Timmonsville is strong enough, or even being the reigning king of stock-car racing. For now Yarborough would like nothing more than to replace Richard Petty in the minds of stock-car-racing fans as the alltime king. "My goal is to win seven championships," he says, "one more than Richard." In fact, in discussing this, Petty's poorest season in his 20-year career—he is winless so far—Yarborough suggests that there is more to Petty's lack of success than the Dodge he campaigned, and complained about, before he switched to a Chevy. "I don't think the car is the whole problem," says Yarborough. "Richard quit winning last year. But he's been a good driver in his day," he adds.
Stock-car racing is a better training ground for politics than one might imagine. The NASCAR power system is entwined with Southern politics. Bill France Sr., NASCAR's founder, ostensibly is retired but still maintains control over its operations, and he is an expert on the subject. He was George Wallace's campaign chairman in the 1972 Florida presidential primaries and is credited with delivering Wallace's upset victory in that state. Compared to France, Yarborough is politically inexperienced. France's position as de facto head of NASCAR is one of strength; Yarborough's, as NASCAR's leading driver, is one of isolation, drivers being notorious for their independence and indifference to organization. So Yarborough must dance to France's tune. He seems to get a break or two—e.g., his pole position in this year's Daytona 500 (he eventually finished second) was in part a result of NASCAR officials approving a spoiler of doubtful legality on his Oldsmobile—but he gets away with no more than France wants him to. "I don't necessarily agree with the system," says Yarborough, "but how do you fight it? It's a family-owned operation; we're playing in their ball park with their rules. I sometimes wish I could fight it more. Sometimes I'd like to have more say-so in matters, to better the sport. It frustrates me a lot. I've got a mind of my own. I'm not a puppet on a string. I can think, too."
Yarborough has spoken out for the need of some sort of drivers' organization, although he stops short of calling it a union. "In a sport this big," he says, "it's really a shame that the people who made it that way have no benefits, no retirement plans. Most of them have ended up broke. I think we need something." But so far Yarborough's voice has been ineffectual because neither he nor anyone else has a specific plan; besides, Yarborough is not eager to risk what he has struggled so hard for by fighting France—and, make no mistake, France would resist the formation of a drivers' union. He crushed two earlier attempts, each led by the star driver of the time. In 1961 it was Curtis Turner, in 1969 Petty.
Actually, France has been given the most grief over the years by Yarborough's crew chief, Junior Johnson, the celebrated part-time chicken farmer, coon hunter, erstwhile moonshiner and NASCAR star. The silver-haired, pot-bellied driver-owner has been immortalized in prose and on film as The Last American Hero. Johnson has been France's nemesis for two decades, but now they seem to have a relatively smooth working relationship, which is fine with Johnson, because it leaves him free to build his cars and lead his crew of mechanics, something he does inimitably. Since Johnson hired Yarborough in 1973, they have won 45 of their 173 races, more than any other team during that period, but the accomplishment that may well be recognized as the most impressive in Johnson's career was his cars' unprecedented perfect record of finishing races last season: 30 for 30. And so far this year they have finished 26 of 28. "I don't know of anybody else who can even touch that," says Yarborough, not bothering to mention his own contribution in winning or his ability to avoid crashes in races where cars carom off cement walls at 180 mph.
Johnson's crew is likely the most determined in NASCAR, an organization in which there are some very determined crews. A finishing record like Yarborough's does not come without a great deal of extra effort. At Charlotte three weeks ago, for example, on lap 205 of a 334-lap race, Yarborough pulled into the pits with a blown engine, which eliminated all chances of his winning and would have eliminated virtually any other car from the race altogether. But the Johnson crew, in order to earn championship points for the driver, changed Yarborough's engine right then and there, something that had never been done in a grand national race before the same crew did it two years ago.
As Yarborough coasted off Turn 4, he radioed to the crew to get its tools ready. He coasted past his pit, behind the pit wall and toward the garage, as nine mechanics chased him, almost comically, dragging heavy toolboxes and wheeling big hydraulic jacks behind them. They scurried over, under and inside the jacked-up car while Yarborough waited at the wheel, his seat harness still locked, a look of patience on his face belying the ants in his pants. They shouted orders and requests to each other, some of them lying on their backs in an expanding puddle of warm water and oil. Five pairs of hands moved quickly under the hood. In five minutes the blown engine had been extracted like a bad tooth. Just 7½ minutes later a new engine had been installed and Yarborough was on the track again; he finished 22nd, good enough for 102 points. It had been a world-record engine change by about 3½ minutes, the old record having been set by the Johnson crew, of course, at Pocono International Raceway in June.
In December, Yarborough moved to the tiny community of Sardis, S.C., after living 10 years in Timmonsville, six miles away. He was born in Sardis, in an unpainted, foundationless house away from the road and lost amid the fields. Cale's father, Julian, a tobacco farmer, expanded his farm from 100 to 200 acres and moved his family into a brick house on the road in 1950, when Cale, the eldest of three sons, was 10. Julian Yarborough had a plane, and he was killed when it crashed in 1951. Annie Mae Yarborough ran the tobacco farm as well as a cotton gin and country store herself until she remarried two years later. "Just like a man," Cale says proudly. It is a trait Yarborough appreciates. He himself was a manly youngster, an all-state fullback at Timmonsville High. Later he played some semipro football, and twice won the South Carolina Golden Gloves welterweight championship.
Since 1968 Yarborough has owned a 1,000-acre farm near Sardis, and it was onto that farm that he decided to move his own family—his wife Betty Jo and three daughters. "Our old house in Timmonsville was just a couple of miles off I-95," he says. "I-95 is the main interstate to Myrtle Beach, and it seemed every race fan that ever went to Myrtle Beach stopped by. Sometimes they would be lined up in the driveway—really. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate it, but sometimes you like to have your privacy. Out here we got privacy."
Yarborough's new house, finished a year ago, can be seen from a country road across a 40-acre field that last summer was a cornfield. Yarborough had hoped to plow it into a pasture long before now but has not had time. There is a dirt driveway along the edge of the field between the house and the road, and Yarborough says, "I'm not going to pave the driveway. It's earth, the way it should be, and it's going to stay that way."
The house is 7,000 square feet, a long, low, brown-brick rectangle with a short wing in the back, next to which are a swimming pool and a tennis court. Yarborough is aware that the first impression one gets of the house is that it looks as if it should have a sign over the columns on the porch. "It looks like a motel, doesn't it?" he says to guests, a comment offered with a small smile.
There's no denying that the house does resemble a motel. "I drew it up myself," says Yarborough. "The master bedroom is bigger than the house I was born in." His eyes display a sudden boyish sparkle.
Betty Jo decorated the interior. She is a petite, dark-eyed woman with the kind of beauty that has doubtless caused her to be described all her life as a "pretty little thing." She was 18 when she married Cale 17 years ago. He calls her "Momma," which she is to Julie, 16, Kelley, nine, and B.J., seven. B.J. stands for Betty Jo. In fact, B.J.'s full name is Betty Jo Yarborough Jr., because, says Cale, "B.J. was supposed to be a Cale Junior. All my boys are girls."
"Cale has always wanted a son, but he can't complain, he gets all the attention around here," says Betty Jo.
Last spring there was also a lion cub in the family, but it grew too big and had to be given to a zoo (as did an earlier pet, Susie the bear), which not only broke the girls' hearts—B.J. was especially fond of Leo—but also the heart of George, a Springer Spaniel. Replacing Leo as the object of George's affection is Rip, a black Labrador puppy, who in turn is regarded jealously by the half-dozen hunting dogs (both bird and coon) in a pen out back. Yarborough hunts quail and dove on his farm whenever he can, but he recently lost his best bird dog, the victim of insecticide dusted on a soybean field near the dog pen. "Best setter I ever had," laments Cale. "I wouldn't have taken $1,000 for him."
On the average, Yarborough is away from home from Wednesday or Thursday until Sunday night, 30 weeks a year. He flies to the races in his twin-engine Piper Aztec, and because all but eight of them are in the South, he can be home for supper on Sunday. This means that, like many athletes' wives, Betty Jo must assume household reponsibilities customarily managed by the man. She travels to some races—more during the summer when the girls are not in school—but usually only those run on Sunday.
Says Betty Jo, "People say to me, 'How can you live like that, with Cale gone all the time?' But if I hadn't married Cale, what would I be doing? I'd probably be married to some farmer around here, living in a house trailer. I appreciate being able to live out here in the country like this. Not everyone can. It's a good life."
There are plans to make life better. Cale thinks a lot about a pasture he plans in front of the house. There are four white wooden rocking chairs spaced evenly between the brick columns on the long front porch. They seem to have been placed there purely in anticipation, the way a man might titillate himself by keeping his new Christmas golf clubs by the front door until spring. "I'm going to build a split-rail fence around the pasture, and I'm going to get me some horses and cows and goats, and next summer they'll be roaming around out there," Cale says. "I'm going to sit out on the porch on summer evenings after supper just looking over my pasture and listening to the quail in the woods."
Yarborough was a dreamer as a boy, and he still is. Living on the farm, moving back to the community where he was born and raised—returning home a conquering hero—fulfills the dream he has had the courage to pursue.
Yarborough drives around the farm in a 1929 Model A Ford that he bought from Glen Wood, who, with his brother Leonard, owns and prepares David Pearson's stock car. The Model A admits to 61,000 miles and is rusty, dented and creaky, its interior torn and musty-smelling, but Yarborough has no intention of restoring the car; to him that would be like paving his driveway. "What for?" he asks. Everything on the car works, he proudly points out, and besides, the car's imperfections give it character. Restored Model A's are common; a beat-up but perfect running Model A, one that regularly jounces along dirt roads in the South Carolina backwoods, is something special.
Yarborough drives it wearing dusty boots, jeans, a T shirt, a down vest with a tear over the right shoulder blade—"Just the size of a lion claw," he jokes—and a crusty, sweat-stained cowboy hat with a leather band. While dust drifts in to join gas fumes from a leaky carburetor, Yarborough spits tobacco juice out the window and grins widely. "Man," he says. "This is Uptown, ain't it?"
The farm was originally a 650-acre plantation that had been inherited by two elderly women. When they died, they willed it to an orphanage, which sold it to Yarborough. He bought an adjoining farm of 350 acres at the same time. The price was $300,000. Today Yarborough estimates the timber alone is worth that much, and the entire parcel between $1.3 million and $1.5 million. But it is neither a modern nor a money-making farm. Four or five black sharecropping families, augmented by day laborers, work the tobacco, corn and soybean fields.
There are few structures on the land: weatherworn tobacco sheds, some barely standing, their rusty tin roofs heating up in the sun, their gray boards groaning at the occasional gust of wind, the delicate aroma of tobacco scenting the afternoon air. At the edge of a bean field is a pole with a dozen or so large gourds strung around it like bells on a court jester's hat. The gourds have been hollowed and serve as nests for martins that, says Cale, live in South Carolina in the summer and South America in the winter. "They're nice to have around here," he says. "One martin eats about 2,000 bugs a day."
The Model A chugs along a weedy road, deep into a sparse but broad area of pine trees.
"I dug this drainage ditch here with a drag line 2½ years ago," he says, his eyes revealing both pleasure and pride. "This ditch is 3½ miles long." He heads off the dirt road and back onto the pavement and stops at a crossing. There is no sign of life in any direction. "I own all four corners of this crossing," he says. "There's some valuable property here." There is satisfaction in his voice, but it is matter-of-fact. The pride is missing. All he did was buy the corner; he dug the ditch.
He drives slowly along the country road. First one, then two, then three, then four scruffy and excited dogs begin chasing the Model A, nipping at the skinny white-wall tires and darting across its path so close they disappear below the rusty hood. Yarborough ignores the dogs (which are even more experienced at flirting with death than he) and points at a dirty white wooden building, stacked on cinder blocks like many of the houses along the road. "That's a church," he says. "I own it; it came with the farm.
"I took a real gamble when I bought this farm 10 years ago," Yarborough says. "I scraped up enough money for the down payment, but had no idea where the rest of the $300,000 was coming from. That was a big chunk to bite off then. I was driving for Ford at the time, and they pulled out of racing soon after that, and I thought, 'Well, there goes the farm.' I had to race Indy cars for a while, I had to know where some money was coming from. I didn't want to lose it. This farm was really what I wanted. It made me work a little harder. Today the farm is paid for, lock, stock and barrel."
Yarborough's fling with open-wheeled racing was brief and inconclusive. In four Indy 500s, he finished only once, a 10th place in 1972. His only full Indy-car season, 1971, was beset with problems, mostly organizational. He was No. 2 man on a two-man team, No. 1 being the taciturn Texan, Lloyd Ruby. "Cale did have a little problem," says Ruby. "You know, there is a difference between stock cars and Indy cars."
Says Dave Laycock, Yarborough's and Ruby's crew chief that year, "The problem Cale had was that the whole operation was in an uproar and Cale was a victim of circumstances. Cale didn't have second-rate equipment, but he had second-rate help. He's a hell of a driver, but one thing he didn't do was catch on to the flat tracks as good as he should have—he was used to banked tracks. He had all the talent; it was just a matter of bringing it out of him. If he could have been dealt with a little better, he would have done better. He would have had a hell of a lot better shot if it had been a one-car operation." "You got to take a chance to have a chance," says Yarborough.
The bookshelf behind the television set in the Yarborough living room contains only a handful of books: Emily Post on etiquette, a racing history of the Ford Motor Company, Beautiful Bible Stories, The Total Woman. The book on the end of the shelf, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, is Yarborough's favorite.
Yarborough's office in Timmonsville is a cluttered room, hidden behind the Cale Yarborough Dry Cleaners. The desk is covered with dozens of letters, some opened, some unopened. Yarborough has no secretary and answers all his fan mail himself. Also on the desk is an assortment of mementos from a crowded career: a heavy, leather-handled hunting knife Yarborough uses as a letter opener; photographs of his daughters; a baseball autographed by the Little League team sponsored by the dry cleaners; a valve from a racing motor; a box of Milk-Bones for horses. There are two three-foot-high trophies at each end of a brick fireplace (the building once was a restaurant), and on the wall are an 8"-by-10" glossy of Billy Carter, wearing a grin and Cale's tall hat, his arm draped around Cale's shoulder; half a dozen posters of products Yarborough endorses; a calendar with a watercolor of a setter at point; a color photo of Cale's 1977 race car, a machine affectionately called the "Ole Yaller Chicken Special" (the car was mostly yellow, the sponsor Holly Farms poultry); a highway map of Florence County; two young fans' crayon drawings; two pencil sketches of Cale and Betty Jo in a victory circle; a certificate of honorary membership in the Boy Scouts; a personally inscribed photograph of Gen. William Westmoreland posing beside South Carolina and American flags (Yarborough supported Westmoreland in his unsuccessful gubernatorial nomination bid in 1974); a photo of South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond ("He can give you 50 pushups just like that, and he's got him a young wife, too"); and a framed message: a drawing of four wooden barrels overstuffed with dollar bills, under which is the caption OUR BUSINESS IS MAKING MONEY.
"I love racing, but as far as I'm concerned, the name of the game is making money," says Yarborough. "I've invested every penny I've made in racing. I've spent very little. I've thrown none away. We don't live like I make half a million dollars a year. I've got three kids to worry about. Let me place my money somewhere we can enjoy it later on." That somewhere, in spirit at least, may be his piggy bank. In the bedroom that is bigger than the house he was born in—a bedroom off of which is a sunken whirlpool tub and a sauna—Yarborough keeps a 10-gallon milk can painted red, with a slot in the lid, which is welded on. Every night before he goes to bed he empties the change from his pockets into the milk can.
There is another framed message on Yarborough's office wall, a poem titled the "Risks of Life." It goes:
He was a very cautious man,
He never smoke, he never drank.
He never romped or played,
Nor even kissed a maid.
And when he up and passed away,
Insurance was denied.
For since he hadn't ever lived,
They claimed he never died.
Bold as he may be with his body, Yarborough is a cautious, even secretive man with his soul. He is moved by currents deeper than he admits. His public face is one of self-confidence and gregarious-ness, but, says Betty Jo, offering an insight into the man she knows as only a wife can, "Back when we were just starting out, living in a house trailer and really scratching, many a night Cale cried to me, 'Momma, I just don't know if I can make it.' "
One NASCAR insider says, "Cale is close to his home and family, but not much else." Says another, "Nobody likes being a star more than Cale does." Both observations are accurate.
Yarborough reveals only glimpses of his emotions for others to connect for themselves into some sort of whole. He is moody, but controls his moods, if not completely concealing them. He believes a real man is strong and silent like a cowboy, a real cowboy. He is self-conscious about the fact that he now wears glasses (to correct an astigmatism) when he is watching television—but not while racing. "I don't really need them, but there's nothing wrong with wearing glasses," he says, as if to reassure himself, pointing out with a little grin of satisfaction that David Pearson "can't see a lick for reading without glasses."
Yarborough is proud of his reputation as NASCAR's toughest driver, a reputation he repeatedly earns. He is the only active racer never to have used a relief driver during a race. He sneers at "cool suits"—special driving uniforms that circulate cool water to keep a driver's body temperature down—and will not wear a "neck strap," which counteracts the centrifugal pull on a driver's head. Virtually all other NASCAR drivers use them.
The Volunteer 500 in August in Bristol, Tenn. is usually the most exhausting race on the circuit: the track is a steeply banked half mile (36 degrees, steeper than either Daytona or Talladega), the kind of circuit that creates tremendous G forces. The heat and humidity can be withering inside a race car—the temperature can reach 150°. This year the race was held at night to reduce the effects of the heat—but it was increased to 500 laps. Yarborough won, for the eighth time in the last 12 races. In winning a race at Bristol five years ago, he led every lap, a feat that has been accomplished only three times on NASCAR tracks, and two of those times Yarborough was the driver.
"I'd use a relief driver if I ever needed one," he says, "but I never have." But there is reason to wonder how much of his stamina is sheer determination. Yarborough's back sometimes gets sore from sitting in an easy chair and watching television. His left shoulder periodically troubles him, the result of being broken more than 20 years ago when he fell out of a tree while hunting. His right shoulder blade is not intact, having been shattered nine years ago in a head-on crash into the wall at Texas Speedway when a tire blew on his stock car at 180 mph. "They told me I wouldn't ever have enough strength to drive a race car again," says Yarborough. "Two months later I set a qualifying record at Daytona that still stands—194.015 mph. My shoulders never bother me in a race car, though," he says, somewhat defensively.
ABC has invited Yarborough to compete in The Superstars, but he has declined. "Well, I'll tell you the truth," he says, "I couldn't do good. It's tough to compete with those guys who use their legs. I wouldn't do it unless I could do good." It hurts him to admit that, but not nearly as much as it would if he competed and didn't do well. He once appeared on a show called Dynamic Duos; he and Johnny Rutherford bowled against Jim Taylor and Jim Brown and lost, 139 to 98; to add insult to injury, Rutherford carried Yarborough. Cale tried to laugh it off—after all, it was only bowling—but his agony was real as he watched himself throw two gutter balls on television while the two NFL fullbacks chuckled at his expense. It was the same sort of agony he might have felt when Janet Guthrie was described by Red Smith in The New York Times as being "taller than Cale Yarborough."
The Yarboroughs are a "television family," as Betty Jo puts it. "We fight to see who gets the chair at the dinner table facing the TV." On the roof of the house is a large television antenna, a 60-foot-high tower on which are mounted three collateral antennas: one facing Charleston, one facing Columbia and one facing Florence. Yarborough has built a junction box that collects the signals from all three antennas and allows each of the five television sets in the house to get the best possible picture on any station.
The television comes on early Sunday morning, before church, and a television evangelist speaks to the Yarboroughs at the breakfast table. Whenever Cale is home he attends the Sardis Baptist Church. Before services Cale goes to a men's Bible class, in which 12 or 15 men discuss Scripture and current events and also do some gossiping.
One recent Sunday night Yarborough was watching a war movie on television, and the dogfights with Japanese Zeros lit up his eyes. More than anything else, Yarborough would like to have been a World War II fighter pilot; in fact, it is a dream vivid enough that he speaks of it as if the war were on today. "If I weren't a race driver," he says, "I'd like to be a World War II fighter pilot." In 1968 he went to Vietnam at the request of the Defense Department. "I won more races, more money than anyone that year," he says. "Most of the guys over there were young, they had a car back home, they had racing magazines, so I wasn't a stranger to them. That made me feel good. It was a gratifying experience, although it left me with mixed emotions. I saw a lot of burns and amputees.
"They gave me the rank of colonel, a full bird, for priority reasons, I guess, and said I could be in whatever service I wanted. I decided to be in the Marines, since I always wanted to be a Marine. They told me I didn't have to go to any outposts, but I didn't turn down one request to go to an outpost—some with only a dozen guys.
"I was there without a USO tour or anything like that. One night they put me up in an abandoned hotel by a river and had me stay in this little old room on the fourth floor by myself. The Viet Cong were across the river, about 200 yards away, and had been coming over the river every night on raids. I wanted a weapon, but it was against government regulations to give me one. I was told the best thing to do if the Viet Cong attacked was to get under the bed. But the bed was only about four inches from the floor—how in the world was I going to get under the bed?
"In the middle of the night I heard them. Pretty soon there was shooting in the lobby—Army guys were trying to hold them off. But then I heard them on the first floor. Then the second floor. Suddenly there was plenty of room under the bed."
The Viet Cong got no higher than the second floor, but there were dead men on the staircase and in the lobby. One can picture Yarborough, a man who dreams of being a fighter pilot, on his belly under a bed, his cheek pressed to the floor, while beneath him soldiers died. It must have been a moment of great frustration.
Every Monday morning Yarborough makes his rounds in Timmonsville. He stops first at his office. On the window of the adjoining store is what amounts to Yarborough's personal crest, a checkered flag crossed with a Confederate flag. "I used to have dry-cleaning plants all over both Carolinas," he says, "but it was too spread out. I couldn't look after them. Now I'm down to three, and it's a good business." Next to the dry cleaners is a Goodyear tire store, proprietors Cale Yarborough and Bill Singletary. "We're out of room there," says Cale. "We're going to build on pretty soon."
At his desk, Yarborough does a strange thing for a superstar; he returns a call to a man he has never heard of and without knowing what the call is about. Another call ends with him saying, "I might just call someone and see what can be done for you." Making another call, to a realtor, it seems, he says, "I need some land, anywhere from 20 to 100 acres, as long as it can be seen from I-95. I can bring something big in the area if I can get the land right away."
There is a clean-cut young man waiting politely at the office door for Yarborough. He is a local would-be truck driver in need of a truck, and Yarborough is cosigning the man's truck loan. "I had some help myself when I was starting out," says Cale. "It means a lot." He is the cosigner on a number of loans in town. "Probably more than I should be," he says. "I've always had a problem with saying no. I can't help it. A lot of times people take advantage of that. My mother always said I'd never amount to nothing because I'd never say no, I'd always be giving away everything I had."
Yarborough leaves his office and drives about five miles to the Floyd and Yarborough Farm Center, a feed and fertilizer store originally bought into by Cale and now run by his stepfather and his brother, J.C. There is a sign in front of the store that says CHATHAM DOG FOOD SPECIAL, and a black man in his 30s is loading 50-pound bags of dry dog food from a pickup truck into the store. "How you doing, son?" says Cale.
Inside are half a dozen wooden chairs in a circle about the room, with men sitting in the chairs and discussing things in general. The scene is not unlike that in Bible class; but chewing tobacco is allowed, and the subjects being addressed tend to be somewhat more earthy.
The next stop is Yarborough's carpet-yarning company. It is a small factory in an 11,000-square-foot white concrete building just outside of Timmonsville. In chipped paint on the outside of the building is the crossed-flags emblem, over the words CALE YARBOROUGH DISTRIBUTORS. Yarborough first rented the building to the carpet yarners, who were just starting out, but the next week he bought a major interest in the company, later a controlling interest. "Now I'm in the textile business," he says. "This looks like it's going to be a winner. We've got to expand here, too; we're going to double the size of the building."
As he is leaving the plant, two black women enter and meet Yarborough at the door. He greets them cordially. The plant is hiring, and they seem to be looking for work. The women ask Yarborough where the office is. "It's over there in the corner at the other end of the building," he tells them. "You'll find the bossman in there."
Yarborough drives to the Timmonsville post office next, waving a greeting to many of the cars he passes. "I guess I know everyone in town," he says. At the post office, a customer in line behind Cale, a man of about 70, says, "You doing all right with the Oldsmobile this year." A heavy, cheerful black woman asks, "Why you left Florence County? We're jealous you left us." Yarborough is turning his head left and right to talk to both of them, because their comments come virtually at once.
The eyes of the people in Sardis light up, and smiles come to their faces, when they see Yarborough on the street. It is appreciation their expressions reveal. Yarborough is one of them. He is their boy, or as one young Sardis farmer referred to him at church, "our prize onion." There is pride in Yarborough's voice when he says, "I've lived here all my life.
"Sardis is an old community. It's the kind of place where when someone needs help, everyone comes together," he says. "I've been almost all over the world, there are very few places I haven't been through, been over or been around, and I've yet to see any place I like better than Sardis." Yarborough's roots are deep, and his people show him they are proud of him every day. A man would have to be crazy to leave such applause.