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Cale Yarborough obituary: Remembering NASCAR’s toughest competitor

Yarborough was born in the small town of Timmonsville, South Carolina, in 1939. His father was killed in an airplane crash when Cale was just 12-years-old, and as the oldest of three sons, he was forced to grow up fast.

He spent some time as a semi-pro football player and as a Golden Gloves boxer, but it was auto racing where he would make a name for himself. After attending the second-ever Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (without a ticket) in 1951, he would later attempt to make his NASCAR Cup debut in one of the sport’s most physically-demanding races. However, he was still a teenager and lied about his age. The sanctioning body found it, and he was disqualified. Now there’s a garage at Darlington named after him…

Cale Yarborough in front of the Darlington garage area named in his honor

Photo by: NASCAR Media

Cale Yarborough in front of the Darlington garage area named in his honor

He finally made his debut at Darlington in 1957, aged 18, completing just 31 laps before a mechanical failure forced him out of the event. Undeterred, he returned two years later, finishing 27th and completing 219/364 laps.

In 1960, he ran at a track other than Darlington for the first time, finishing 14th at the Southern States Fairgrounds dirt track in Charlotte, North Carolina.

In the ensuing years, he started to enter more and more races. Cale was running nearly half the 60+ race schedule in 1964, and in 1965, he captured his first checkered flag. At a half-mile dirt track in Valdosta, Georgia, he won the race with a three-lap advantage over the competition. 

He continued to run a partial schedule in the years that followed, teaming up with the iconic Wood Brothers Racing team late in the 1966 season. It didn’t take long for them to win together. He won both the Atlanta 500 and the Firecracker 400 at Daytona in ’67, and that was just the beginning.

During this time, he also attempted the 1966 and 1967 Indianapolis 500. Driving a Vollstedt-Ford, he crashed out in both races. 

Starting just 21 of 49 races in 1968, he still managed to win six times with the Wood Brothers including his first of four Daytona 500s. He would go on to win the Firecracker 400 again as well, sweeping the Daytona races. He finally won at his home track of Darlington Raceway, leading 169 of 364 laps in the Southern 500.

Cale Yarborough takes the checkered flag in his third consecutive victory

Photo by: RacingOne/Getty Images

Cale Yarborough takes the checkered flag in his third consecutive victory

The conclusion of the 1970 season was a turning point for Yarborough. Ford pulled its factory support for its NASCAR teams and he found himself without a ride. He turned his eyes to open-wheel racing, running ten USAC races. This would include his third attempt at the Indy 500, finishing 16th. His best finish was fifth, coming at Trenton Speedway and later repeated in the Michigan 500.

In 1972, he ran only a few Cup races while also completing his fourth and final Indy 500. He finished a career-best tenth after starting 32nd.

In 1973, he returned to NASCAR after running just nine races total in the previous two years. This time, he completed the full schedule for the first time in his career. Driving a Chevrolet for Richard Howard, he won four races and ended the year as the championship runner-up to Benny Parsons.

1974 would be even better, winning ten races, but again falling just short of the title — this time to Richard Petty. During the season, Howard sold the team to Junior Johnson, who had transitioned to team ownership after winning 50 races as a driver.

This combination proved near-unstoppable. Yarborough became the first driver in history (and to this day one of only two) to win three consecutive championships. Between 1976 and 1978, he won a third of the races he entered. He won his second Daytona 500 in ’77, his fourth Southern 500 in ’78, and he still wasn’t done yet.

Cale Yarborough carries a CBS camera in his car for the second time and wins

Photo by: RacingOne/Getty Images

Cale Yarborough carries a CBS camera in his car for the second time and wins

Strangely enough, Yarborough’s most iconic moment came in a race where he lost. He and Donnie Allison were battling hard for the 1979 Daytona 500 victory, the first NASCAR race to ever be presented with flag-to-flag coverage. With CBS cameras rolling, he and Allison slammed doors on the final lap of the race. The cars became entangled and both drivers crashed, clearing the way for Petty to take the checkered flag. And then they fought. With Donnie’s brother Bobby joining in, the frustrated drivers got into a physical altercation in the infield. The race and ensuing drama afterwards is often cited as the turning point for NASCAR going from a regional sport to a national spectacle.

Cale Yarborough holds his helmet in his right hand while fighting off Bobby Allison with his left leg and Bobby's brother Donnie

Photo by: RacingOne/Getty Images

Cale Yarborough holds his helmet in his right hand while fighting off Bobby Allison with his left leg and Bobby’s brother Donnie

The 1980s brought more wins and a new team for Yarborough, joining with M.C. Anderson and returning to a part-time schedule in 1981.

That same year, he ran the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a Chevrolet Camaro. Unfortunately, the team completed just 13 laps before crashing out around the two-hour mark.

#35 Stratagraph Inc. Chevrolet Camaro: Cale Yarborough, Bill Cooper, Billy Hagan

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch / Motorsport Images

#35 Stratagraph Inc. Chevrolet Camaro: Cale Yarborough, Bill Cooper, Billy Hagan

He continued to run a partial NASCAR schedule in the years that followed, winning several more races for Ranier-Lundy after Anderson’s team closed its doors.

At the start of the 1983 season, he became the first driver to ever put down a lap average above 200mph at Daytona International Speedway (200.503 mph). Pushing the limit even further in his second lap of qualifying, he lost control and went airborne the following lap. It was a minor setback in the end, as he went on to win the 500 with the back-up car anyway.

In 1984, he won his fourth and final Daytona 500, doing so with three different teams. He almost swept Daytona that year, but again, he instead became the central figure to an iconic moment for the sport where he came out on the losing end.

With U.S. President Ronald Reagan in attendance, he drag-raced Petty to the line in a thrilling finish to that year’s Firecracker 400. Petty would narrowly take the race-ending yellow flag in what was to be his 200th and final win in the NASCAR Cup Series.

In 1984, he also won the IROC title (International Race of Champions). He beat several fellow NASCAR stars, as well as Gordon Johncock, Johnny Rutherford, Emerson Fittipaldi, Jacky Ickx, Tom Sneva, Derek Bell, and Danny Ongais.

Cale Yarborough

Photo by: David Phipps

Cale Yarborough

Yarborough’s 83rd and final victory as a driver, which currently puts him sixth on the all-time wins list, came the very next year. He beat Bill Elliott to the checkered flag at Charlotte Motor Speedway, leading 49 of 334 laps.

He ended his career as a driver/owner, scoring a top-ten in his final race at Atlanta in 1988. His driving career concluded with 560 starts, 83 wins, 255 top-fives, 319 top-tens, and 69 poles. He won the Southern 500 five times, a record that stood for over two decades until Jeff Gordon toppled it.

His record of three consecutive titles was only ever repeated by Jimmie Johnson, who is also tied with Yarborough on the all-time wins list.

Jimmie Johnson, Cale Yarborough

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

Jimmie Johnson, Cale Yarborough

Although he didn’t enjoy much success as an owner, his driving career was more than enough to solidify his place at the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1993 and the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2012.

Yarborough is widely considered to be one of the toughest drivers to ever get behind the wheel. His grit goes beyond the driver’s seat though. Cale once survived a skydiving accident from 5,000ft when his parachute failed. He was struck by lightning and bit by a rattlesnake as a kid, escaping both ordeals with his life. There was also the time his car was launched outside of the track at Darlington Raceway, and he walked away unscathed.

As they say, there’s tough, and then there’s Cale Yarborough tough. He was an integral part in NASCAR’s growth, but more than that, he was simply one of the best to ever do it.

Race winner Cale Yarborough

Photo by: NASCAR Media

Race winner Cale Yarborough



This article was originally published by a www.motorsport.com . Read the Original article here. .

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