First thing, it's important to establish that Cale couldn't help crashing the car. The brakes went blooey coming around that corner and the only safe spot to spin it out was blocked by 30 or so folks standing around eating jambon sandwiches and drinking red wine. So he stuck it in the fence. And it was a dandy—the nose of the Chevy Camaro was slammed so far underneath the guardrail that 15 of those Frenchmen all pulling on a rope couldn't snake it back out. That was the first pity of it all, because until then France was experiencing maybe the most unusual sight and certainly the wildest sound in all the 49 years of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It was a good old American stock car in there with the sporties, an outlaw car creating a hammering roar that can only be called iron thunder.
The real pity is that Cale Yarborough, at 41, had turned out to be a natural for that course: Right at the start he had cranked the Camaro down the Mulsanne Straight at about 210 mph—that's two hundred and some miles an hour—and had pulled back in to allow, "Well, I didn't come over here to poke around; I could be back on the farm, poking around on my combine."
And, of course, that's when the whole crew began to get excited and the tensions started to build, because, up until then, nobody had really figured that any of this could work. Even the cynical oldtimers were getting caught up in it and then, when....
But wait. This is getting ahead of the story, and the best thing to do is to take it from the beginning and tell it straight. It's a sort of saga; it could be called A Yankee Goes to Le Mans.
July 12, 1981
"Wait a minute," Cale says. "You mean A Rebel Goes to Le Mans."
Well, either way.
TUESDAY MORNING, June 9, 1981
They make an arresting tableau, an island surrounded by all the urbane, continental types who are swirling through the terminal at Orly airport outside Paris. There are Cale and Betty Jo Yarborough and their three daughters, Julie, 18, Kelley, 12, and B.J., 10. All of them are wary, and they're circled protectively around two shopping carts that are piled high with luggage. The most conspicuous items on the carts are the red and white Winston Cup championship garment bags with the stickers that picture a racing stock car. The stickers say CALE YARBOROUGH, NASCAR THREE-TIME WORLD CHAMPION, 1976-77-78.
Things are not going well. Everyone is stiff and creaky after the overnight flight from New York—and now Pan Am has lost Betty Jo's suitcase. Among other essentials, it contains comfortable shoes and her four favorite nighties. Little B.J. has to go to the bathroom, but she's blamed if she'll speak to any strangers. The folks around here look pretty hostile, or at least aloof. They do that in France; the French are famous for it: They see you looking forlorn and they stick it to you. Bill Brodrick, the P.R. guy for the racing team, had promised to meet them, but he hasn't shown. (It turned out that Brodrick, 6'5" and 240 pounds—plus another 20 or 30 pounds of neck chains, gold rings and other jewelry—spent the entire day trying to wrestle the spare parts for the race car out of several tag teams of customs agents, "But you do not have ze propaire papairs, monsieur")
Betty Jo is a brightly pretty woman, a former high school cheerleader who has matured gracefully, and she can be fiercely determined. Her South Carolina accent is a wonder; it is so purely whipped cream and honey that it turns heads when she speaks. As with many people who don't speak a foreign language, she has the vague feeling that one will be understood if one just speaks more slowly to the natives, as if to a backward child. "What ah said was," she says to a uniformed passerby who appears to be a French army general, "what ah said was: Surely yew-all have a ladies room around heah?" The W.C. is pointed out and she sweeps up her daughters and marches off in triumph.
Cale is absolutely unflappable, even slightly amused by all this. He has never been to France but he has been in a lot of tough spots, and anybody who has been upside down at Atlanta or Darlington a time or two isn't going to be rattled by a little French disdain. "Listen," he says to the diary-keeper, "you know how to get to Le Mans?" He even uses the French pronunciation: LuhMahn.
"Umm. I know it's somewhere southwest of Paris."
Cale had arranged for an Avis rental car—a Peugeot station wagon, the biggest car they offered but still only about two-thirds the size of Cale's Grand National stocker. We leave Betty Jo and the girls encircling the luggage and wander off to find the station wagon; the process involves a complicated switch of terminals. The Avis lady is not about to produce any upsets at this time in the morning: She's just as snotty as everybody else. The wagon is over there in the lot, she says, with a vague wave of the hand.
"Uh, Miss? Excuse me. How do you get to Le Mans?"
"Allez sud," she says.
The family and luggage are piled into the wagon. There's a road map of France in the glove compartment. Urn, let's see, it looks like there's some sort of, you know, like a beltway, around Paris. And then you catch good old A-11 and....
"You read any French?" Cale asks.
"Well, uh, not much. Maybe enough to order ham and cheese and stuff. Poulet means chicken, you know."
"Sounds fine to me." And the ex-world stock-car racing champion slips behind the wheel of the Peugeot and fires it up. "I'll tell you what. You read and I'll drive."
WEDNESDAY MORNING, June 10
The Camaro looks as if it might have been picked up from some raggedy-pants U.S. trackside and plopped right down in the infield paddock at Le Mans, smack in among the sleek Lolas and glittering Ferraris and some Porsche prototypes so functionally streamlined that they look like horizontal teardrops. Spectators and other drivers are strolling around to look at the Camaro. There is a great deal of Gallic shrugging and rolling of eyes. The car is, urn, how you say....
Hurley Haywood, the card-carrying preppy sports-car and road racer from Jacksonville, Fla., has a word for it. "Junk," he says scornfully.
Haywood's absolutely right, but in a shallow way; too many European and sporty-car types fail to see the difference between junk and creative junk—the very cars that made stock-car racing great and made bootlegging a major art form in the U.S. southland.
This Camaro is a pure, direct descendant of a long racing line; it's squatty and wide-shouldered and its nose is down and its tail is up. All worthy U.S. stock cars look crooked; it's part of their rakish charm. Everybody knows you're not supposed to look at one directly; you stand off to one side and squint at it in bright sunlight, your head tilted a bit, and everything becomes clear. Cale's Camaro weighs 2,351 pounds and has a 350-cubic-inch engine that's been bored out to 393 cubic inches, and it'll pound out 600 horsepower. The body sits on an "outlaw" frame; that is, a 108-inch chassis designed for small, backwoods U.S. racetracks—and that's the trick that has gotten it into Le Mans in its GTO category, right in there with the BMWs and other good stuff, all of which come up to about the door handles of Cale's car. It's a real stock car, and the only things on it that ever saw a Camaro production line are the taillights.
"It could have been a Pontiac Firebird or an almost-whatever-you-want," says Billy Hagan, who owns the car and is financing this whole adventure. "But we chose Camaro because we can get plastic body panels for replacements in case we smash something up."
At 49, Hagan is mustached and seamed and grizzled, a Louisianian who made a fortune in the oil business. His company does stratigraphic readings for drillers—Billy Hagan can tell them if they're going to strike oil before they get there. And now he lavishes money on auto racing. He owns and campaigns a car on the Grand National circuit (seventh in the standings at the moment), and he hits the road-and endurance-racing circuit with his Camaro. As for Le Mans, "This is about a $200,000 trip for me," he says. "Figure about $60,000 for the car, another $30,000 in spare engines, and maybe $60,000 in expenses for the crew and hotels and meals and all. Now, for just a little bit more money, I could have bought me a Porsche or something fancy. But I want this to be an All-American operation with all by-God U.S. equipment."
Junk, indeed. Hagan shrugs and looks down at his battered cowboy boots. "This year we're gonna learn how they do this thing at Le Mans," he says. "It's tricky. They tend to make it awful tough on strangers. But next year I'm comin' back here with two cars and I'll blow their damn doors off." He nods toward his star driver, who is walking around the Camaro, really seeing it up close for the first time. "We were very lucky to sign Cale; that makes all the difference," Hagan says. "We got to show these folks over here that we mean bidness. Cale gives this operation credibility."
The Yarboroughs have been billeted in a 16th-century chateau, one of the most beautiful in all of France. The castle, as the kids call it, is Chateau de Vizè overlooking a village called Vire, and the owners, Colonel and Mme. Jean Launay, also own 600 acres around it. The chateau, which has been painstakingly restored, has its own private chapel and dungeon, and the furnishings are authentic and expensive and rare.
Madame Launay is a handsome and imperious woman, and she is not at all keen on having guests. But the town fathers of Le Mans prevail on her to take in a celebrity now and then so that the visitors can enjoy the full flavor of rural France.
Well, if one must. But...Mr. and Mrs. Cale Yarborough and three kids from Timmonsville, South Carolina?
Coolly, Madame Launay shows them around the chateau, drawn to her full height, with her hands folded at her waist. Little B.J. looks up at her with absolute awe. And back in the giant main hall, Betty Jo looks around and says, "I swear, there sure is a lot of French Provincial furniture in here, isn't there?" She turns to a friend and adds, "But then, I guess that figures, doesn't it?"
Madame Launay sighs and looks at the ceiling.
The instructions and warnings at the drivers' meeting are spooky:
Slower cars are required to stay to the right on the Mulsanne Straight. Use your rearview mirror at all times.
A yellow flag with red stripes means that it's raining somewhere on the course—after all, the circuit is 8.36 miles around. Part of the course runs through a dark wood and parts of it are on public highways that have been closed to normal traffic for the occasion. The flag could also mean there's oil or gravel somewhere on the course.
Hold the pit speeds down to about 50 mph. The pit lane is very narrow; try not to run over any fingers and toes.
Cale sits calmly, with his muscular arms folded. He wears a sports shirt and jeans, plus tan cowboy boots with CALE stitched in a script of raised dark brown leather across the toes, and a big belt buckle, about the size of a salad plate. It's the solid silver and gold Winston Cup NASCAR championship belt.
The drivers will start their first practice session in a few hours. So far, all Cale has done is sit in the bare metal cockpit of the Camaro and shake the steering wheel a bit. The car has no niceties—no carpeting, no padding—just a tachometer, two oil gauges, water, fuel and amp gauges, and a fire extinguisher. "It'll do just fine," Cale says. "It's not absolutely right, but, hell, it's only 24 hours and anybody can stand that."
Now a race official reads the names of drivers who haven't had physicals. The stewards are irritated because this vital item hasn't been completed. No physical exam, no race driving. The name Yarborough is read, with the r's rolled so that it sounds especially elegant and foreign.
Then the meeting breaks up and, at the infield medical tent, the doctor looks for Cale's name on his list of drivers.
"It's not here," he says. "Your name."
Cale checks the list. "Yer right," he says.
"Write it down for me," the doctor says. He tears off a little scrap of paper.
Cale bends over the desk and carefully prints out his name in block letters.
"Fine," the doctor says. "Now the, uh, the number, please." He means Cale's age.
Yarborough leans over and prints out "35," which is the number of the Camaro.
"Thank you," says the doctor. "That will be all."
"Best racing physical I ever had," Cale says outside the tent. "Just makes me feel good all over to know that I'm in such fine condition."
The drivers are permitted just two practice sessions, on Wednesday and Thursday evenings, timed so they'll stretch from daylight into twilight into darkness. Strangely, the practice also doubles as qualifying. The problem with this system is obvious: it creates pressure to get out and hammer the car right away instead of shaking it down sensibly. "I got to remind myself," says Cale, "that this here is a ride, not a race. That is, the main thing is, we got to keep that Camaro rolling for 24 hours."
He climbs in through the car window, stock-car style, although the Camaro has a functional door. Chief Mechanic Tex Powell leans in with last-minute instructions. Powell has crewed with some of the best racers in the game, Richard Petty and guys like that, and it was Powell who got the car race-ready at his shop in Asheboro, N.C. Tex is a racing purist; he finds the Le Mans operation a little too slapdash, but he's philosophical about it. "We just do the best we can and let the rough end drag," he says.
With the hotted-up engine, Powell figures the Camaro will get four miles to the gallon at best—or burn perhaps two gallons per lap. "Now, ever' chance you get," he says to Cale, "breathe her a little bit." In other words, ease off on the throttle from time to time so the engine can catch its breath and cool down. Cale nods and pulls on his driving gloves. Then he flicks on the ignition switch. And suddenly, there it is—the sound that shook Le Mans.
There's a heavy cough followed by a huge barrroooooom! and the roar of it spills out on all sides. In the pits nearby, mechanics and drivers stiffen in momentary alarm, then turn to look at the Camaro. It sits there bubbling mightily, going hood in, hood in, hood in, blam, blam, blam. Then Cale pops the clutch and it screams away, trailing pale blue smoke from the tires.
His first lap takes 6:33 minutes, second lap, 6:45—"Doggone circuit is so long that by the time you come around once you plumb forgot where to go next time." But now, flashing past the pits on the uphill main straight, Cale hunches up his shoulders and gets on it. The speed climbs dramatically and his next laps are 4:51, then 4:21. That means he's averaging better than 115 mph and hitting 200 or so down the 3¾-mile Mulsanne Straight. Next time around, the car comes burbling up the pit road at about the required 50 and slams to a stop.
Now this looks like old-time racing: The inside of the cockpit is coated with spattered hot oil, and Cale's face and goggles shine with it. When he grins, his teeth look whiter against the grime. "I swear," he says. "You know that long, long straightaway—the part that's actually the state highway goin' into the town of Mulsanne? Well, there's a hotel down there with a patio right next to the guardrail. People sitting at little round tables under big umbrellas and all. And you go past there at 200-and-something miles an hour, just inches from their noses, and they raise a toast to you. It's really something to see. It sure must make some whitecaps in their wineglasses."
FRIDAY MORNING, June 12
Something strange has happened to Madame Launay.
She is sitting in the sun on the chateau terrace, impeccably groomed, as ever, mais alors!, she is smiling hugely. She is surrounded by the Yarborough girls and Southern gentility has struck again. Julie, Kelley (the family pronounces it Cale-ee) and B.J. are gracious-mannered and extremely soft-spoken; each one of them can murmur a phrase like "yes, ma'am," and get about six syllables out of it. They have now seized control of the chateau. And B.J. is full of historic news.
"The madame tole me that a knot once owned this castle and that they fought real wars over it and all," she says.
"Oh, really? A...a knot?"
She nods brightly. "Uh-huh. You know, knots in shining armor and all like that."
"Oh. A knight."
"That's what ah said," she says—and Madame Launay nods approvingly. That's what the little girl said, mats out. You do not understand ze English?
SATURDAY, June 13
It's Race Day, and the Camaro will start in 39th spot on the grid. Fifty-five cars will race—from 3 o'clock this afternoon until 3 o'clock tomorrow—and now they're all parked in a long, long row in front of the main grandstands. A crowd estimated at around 200,000 is on hand, and the air is rich with the smells of gasoline and exhaust fumes, mingled with the odors of heavy red wines and overripe cheeses and Grand Marnier crepes sizzling in the infield concession stands. The noise level is rising, and by now the Americans are excited. They shouldn't be—they're all pros—but they are. A few moments ago, the loudspeaker played The Star-Spangled Banner in honor of this one little old Camaro—nobody paid any attention but the raggedy U.S. pit crew, of course—and now the band is playing La Marseillaise. The crew gathers around the car, grinning into the stands. An American flag had been flying from a standard taped to the side of the Camaro, but now it is down and draped across the hood.
Cale's isn't really too bad a starting spot. On the second night of practice-qualifying, the team had started to show its stuff. Cale's backup and co-drivers had been out: Bill Cooper, 34, an instructor at Bob Bondurant's race-driver school in California; Bobby Mitchell, 39, a Huntsville, Ala. physicist and sports-car racer; and Billy Hagan himself, cowboy boots and all. The lap times had come winding down until finally Cale had roared off to a 3:59.57, an average speed of 125.76 mph for the circuit, including a clocked 220-mph burst down the long straight. It was said to be the fastest that an American had driven there in the past 10 years.
Now race officials make their way through the milling crowds around the cars for a last check of the entries. At the Camaro, a couple of crewmen quickly sit down on the track just behind the car, resting their backs against the tail-lights. Two more crewmen stand near them, seeming to lean on the rear spoiler. They all sport manic grins. What, me worry? The American flag has been pushed slightly askew. And Tex Powell, a dirty rag wadded in his hands, is just a touch too relaxed. Oh, oh.
"What we got us here is a tiny problem," he says, talking quietly through his clenched teeth and not relaxing his smile. "We got us a small fuel leak. Gah-damn. Far as I can tell, it's maybe a little bitty hole in the filler neck goin' down into the fuel cell. Now, it'll run itself down below the hole in a few minutes, we think. And it sure enough will once we get to running. But now I got our guys sort of pretending to lean on the car to tilt it out—and those guys sittin' on the track are hiding the gas puddle. And I got a couple of rags throwed down there to soak it up. And finally, we're kind of hiding all of it behind the flag."
He looks around, still grinning and nodding at passers-by. "You know how it is with these here French officials," he says. "They been on us all along; one nitpickin' thing after another. If they see some little ole thing like this, they'll throw our ass right out of the race."
Beautiful. This is a scam worthy of a gutsy band of U.S. stock-car racers transplanted into this foreign setting and—sure enough—Tex pulls it off. The race officials, in jackets and ties, stroll past, exchanging bright smiles, and the gas-soaked rags are recovered. A team of gendarmes sweeps the course free of visitors and Cale climbs into the car through the window. And, one by one, then in groups, the drivers start their engines.
Cale sits calmly inside the Camaro, watching Tex, who is standing off to one side. A flagman walks up to the Camaro and holds his thumb up at Cale, nodding his head yes. The flagman can't hear anything because of the din, obviously; the gesture is meant to ask Cale if his engine is running. Cale shakes his head no, grinning thinly at the man, and then he looks back at Tex. They continue to wait. Finally, Tex makes a switch-on signal with one forefinger. And Cale hits it.
The timing is ab-so-lutely perfect. Most of the cars are running, producing a chorus of strained, high-pitched whines from engines not half the size of the Camaro's...then BaROOM! The Camaro comes to life with a shattering roar. Movies and TV film will bear this out; journalistic history will record it: there is a flicker of a moment when all heads turn toward the squatty red, white and blue car. There is a look of collective shock, followed by purest delight. What is this, this wonderful banger? It is, how you say, ze stock car? Is it ever, you Frenchies.
And away they roll.
First lap, and the cars flash past the stands in a continuous blur of bright color, a long, fast streak across the vision. And then, in the middle of the pack coming from down the hill, from Maison Blanche, the White House corner, comes the advancing sound: Yarborough has got the Camaro in second gear and already the crowd can hear it winding higher and higher, a sort of metallic yang, yang, yang—and then, brrraaaammm comes the iron thunder when he pops it down a gear. In the stands on both sides of the track, there is a sensation of silver fillings dropping out of teeth.
Cale settles the car into a pattern of roughly four-minute laps, as planned, and at 11 laps he makes a 2:45-minute pit stop. Nothing NASCAR about that, but with 23 hours and 16 minutes to go and French slow-drip refueling, who cares? In one of the pits just down the line, the crewmen have already opened bottles of cold beer and they stand there sipping them, watching the race. Tex Powell looks at them in astonishment.
Out on the circuit, Cale finds that he can eat up some of the cars. "Hell, I had to back off to keep from running right over some Porsches," he says later. But then it happens.
He had just swung boldly out of the hairpin turn after the Mulsanne Straight and was picking up speed again, headed into a twisty section toward Arnage Corner. "On the first left-hand turn, the brakes went real mushy," he says. "And in the next turn, they went zero. I didn't have any brakes at all."
Like any NASCAR veteran, Cale looked immediately for a soft spot to spin it out. There was a fine, grassy patch just off the track ahead. But, unhappily, it was crowded with spectators, and there were a couple of race marshals there as well. Cale recalls that an image instantly froze on his mind: the spectators were chewing on those long, thin loaves of bread and drinking red wine from bottles without labels. And with the fat, 20-inch-wide tires on the Camaro, there was no way he could spin it on the track to scrub off speed. "I tried everything," he says. "I tried grabbin' gears
. But, no. And I sure couldn't wipe out all those people. So I just aimed her toward the guardrail and slammed her in."
The car slammed in, all right, driving its nose in almost up to the windshield and pulling a few guardrail supports right up out of the ground. Cale unhooked himself and climbed out. And, in a probably illegal gesture, some spectators threw him a rope. Cale tied it to the back of the Camaro. About 15 of them tugged and heaved, spit on their hands and tugged some more. No way.
Back in the pits far up the track, the crewmen paced around, fretting. Cale was long overdue. It got to be 4:25 p.m. and nobody knew what had happened; for all the speed of the race, word travels slowly at Le Mans. And if he had crashed, under the rules they couldn't go out to help him, not even to yank his car free. If the driver could somehow get the car around to his home pit again, they would be permitted to build practically a whole new car if necessary, but the driver had to get there on his own. Then, finally, the report came: Cale was all right, he was just fine. But the car was an awful lot squattier than when it had left. A tow truck was winching it out from under the guardrail.
Well, uh, damn. End of race. End of the mighty thunder. They had run one hour out of 24—52:54.3 minutes, to be exact. Thirteen laps. The Camaro was the second car out of the race. Tex Powell sat on the toolbox and looked down at his greasy hands, then around at the crew. His eyes were red from lack of sleep. "Y'know," he said, "I been so busy all week with the car that I haven't even had time to send any postcards to the folks back home. Why don't someone here run out to one of them stands in the infield and get us all some postcards."
SUNDAY MORNING, June 14
Cale finishes stuffing the last red and white Winston Cup garment bag into the Peugeot. Betty Jo and the girls are crisp and fresh, as befits Southern ladies. Madame Launay stands watching; she is struggling to maintain her austere look, but regality is obviously tough this morning. And then little B.J. approaches and takes her hand and says, "We want to thank yew for bein' so nice, ma'am." And that does it: Madame Launay impulsively bends down and hugs and kisses the girls.
Off at Le Mans, over in the next valley, the race is still going on. It already has been marred by two deaths—a driver's and a race marshal's—and at the end, only 21 of the 55 cars that started will finish. The race will ultimately be won by a Porsche, of course, a 936 driven by Belgium's Jacky Ickx, with Britain's Derek Bell, each of whom had won the race before; this will be Ickx's fifth victory. They will average 125.30 mph, covering 2,997.5 miles. Not a record, and a slightly slower speed than the Camaro ran—when it was running.
"But that's racin'," Cale says.
He has maintained his composure through it all. After his crash, when Cale had made it back to the Camaro compound, it had taken a worried Betty Jo several more minutes to get to him from her seat in the stands through the dense infield crowd. By then, he had his driver's uniform pulled down to his waist and his arms were folded across his thick chest. He had been standing alone, looking bemusedly at the wrecked car.
"Daddy!" she said. "What in the world happened?"
He shrugged. "Oh, I ran it under a guardrail," he said.
"Honey," he said, and it was the only time all week that a slight edge was to come into his voice. "Honey, ah crashed."
But now the station wagon is loaded and the diary-keeper/map-reader will see if they can find their way back to Paris.
Cale turns and looks out at the chateau property. "They sure got themselves a lot of farmland here," he says. "Speak-in' of which, let's head for South Carolina. I got a lot of wheat to cut before the next race."