Race car driver, businessman. William Caleb “Cale” Yarborough was born on March 27, 1939, just outside of Sardis, South Carolina, to Julian and Annie Mae Yarborough. He was the oldest of the couple’s three sons. His father, Julian, was a tobacco farmer and the proprietor of the local cotton gin and Yarborough General Store. He was killed in a private airplane crash when Yarborough was eleven years old. Yarborough attended Timmonsville High School, where he played fullback and linebacker. He would later play semiprofessional football as a fullback for the Sumter Generals. Yarborough also was a Golden Gloves boxer who competed in the welterweight division, and, during his senior year of high school, he became state champion.
Yarborough attended the second Southern 500 in Darlington, South Carolina, in 1951 as a young spectator without a ticket, and the experience helped build in him a love for motorsports that would lead to his greatest fame. He participated in his first race in Sumter, while still a teenager. In 1957, when he was eighteen, he decided that he would drive in the Southern 500. NASCAR rules, however, dictated that the minimum age for a driver was twenty-one. Yarborough had a friend at the courthouse fill out a fake birth certificate for him. Yarborough mailed it and a five-dollar fee to NASCAR and received his license. Prior to the race, however, NASCAR discovered the deception and disqualified him.
For Yarborough the 1960s were a time of immersion into his chosen sport. He honed his skills racing on short tracks throughout the region and gained a reputation as an enthusiastic and aggressive driver for any team that needed a driver. In 1960 Yarborough drove in his first Daytona 500, for Roger Odom, but his engine seized with twenty laps to go. In 1963 he drove for owner/builder Herman Beam from Johnson City, Tennessee. Together they competed at a number of short tracks and Grand National events, with Yarborough attaining seven top-ten finishes and three top-five finishes. Yarborough went to work for the Holman and Moody team and recorded his first Grand National victory at Valdosta Speedway in 1965. The following week at the Firecracker 500 at Daytona, he led 72 of the first 108 laps before his engine seized. Soon thereafter Banjo Matthews hired Yarborough as one of his drivers, and he finished the year 1965 having run in 46 races and having finished in the top ten 21 times and in the top five 13 times. His prize money for the year was more than $24,000.
In 1966 Yarborough entered his first Indianapolis 500, and he later competed in that race again, in 1967, 1971, and 1972. Yarborough became a driver for the successful Woods Brothers team, and in 1967 he won the Atlanta 500 and the Firecracker 400 and finished the year with $57,000 in earnings. In 1968 Yarborough won his first Daytona 500, his first Southern 500, and the Firecracker 400 to finish the season with six victories and $138,000 in purse money. In 1969 he took six pole positions (qualified with the fastest time) won at Atlanta and Michigan, and earned $75,000.
During the 1970s Yarborough rose to the pinnacle of NASCAR racing. In 1974 he won a career high of ten races. He won the Daytona 500 for the second time in 1977 and the Southern 500 in 1973, 1974, and 1978. His point totals earned him the title of Winston Cup Champion in 1976, 1977, and 1978. For his accomplishments on the track, he was named the National Motorsports Press Association Driver of the Year in 1976, 1977, and 1978.
In addition he was named American Driver of the Year in 1977 and was in- ducted into the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame in 1978. In 1979 Yarborough did much to increase the widespread popularity of the sport, when he got in a fight with Bobby Allison following a wreck on the final lap of the Daytona 500. That was the first NASCAR five-hundred-mile race to be broadcast on live television in its entirety (through CBS Sports), and the confrontation, and the race that preceded it, heightened national awareness and interest in NASCAR.
Yarborough would continue his success in the 1980s. In 1980 he won a career high of fourteen pole positions, also a modern-era record. In 1982 he again won the Southern 500, and later he won the Daytona 500 in 1983 and 1984. He also captured the IROC Championship in 1984. He would record his final victory in 1985 at the Miller High Life 500 in Charlotte, North Carolina, but he continued racing until he retired in 1988. He finished his racing career with an impressive set of statistics that would make him a legend in his sport. In total he competed in 560 races and compiled a record of 83 victories, 319 top-ten finishes, and 69 starts on the pole position. Near the end of his racing career, Yarborough became an owner. In 1986 he bought Harry Ranier’s racing team and competed as an owner/driver in 1987 and 1988 before retiring from driving. His team experienced its best year in 1997 with driver John Andretti recording seven top-ten starts, the pole position at Talladega, and a victory at the Pepsi 400 at Daytona. Andretti’s win at Daytona was the only victory that the Yarborough-owned team ever achieved. Andretti departed from the team after his record year, but Yarborough continued in his ownership until selling the team to Chip McPherson in 2000. With the sale of this team, Yarborough ended his forty-three-year active affiliation with auto racing.
Both during and after his career, Yarborough invested heavily in local businesses. At one time he owned several dry-cleaning businesses, a Goodyear Tire distributorship, and Cale Yarborough Honda/Mazda in Florence, South Carolina. He married Betty Jo Thigpen in 1961, and the couple has three daughters.
Yarborough received a number of accolades following his racing career. A portion of South Carolina Highway 403 that passes through Timmonsville is named Cale Yarborough Highway in his honor. He was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1993, the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1994, and the Court of Legends at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1996, and he was also recognized as one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998. He was a member of the inaugural class of nominees for the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2009, and he was inducted in 2012.
McGinnis, Joe. They Call Him Cale: The Life and Career of NASCAR Legend Cale Yarborough. Chicago, Ill.: Triumph Books, 2008.