Cale Yarborough, who made four Indianapolis 500 starts during his legendary, championship-winning NASCAR career, died Dec. 31 in his native South Carolina. He was 84.
Yarborough was one of the greatest stock car drivers in history, winning three straight Cup Series championships from 1976-78. His 83 victories are tied for sixth on the all-time NASCAR Cup Series victory list.
Among his career accolades were four Daytona 500 victories, in 1968, 1977, 1983 and 1984. But the fiercely determined Yarborough gained just as much renown and helped to launch stock car racing into the national consciousness in the 1979 Daytona 500 when he fought with brothers Donnie and Bobby Allison inside Turn 3 after Yarborough and Donnie Allison crashed while dueling for the win on the final lap.
Before rising to stardom in NASCAR while driving for the legendary Junior Johnson in the mid-1970s, Yarborough showed his versatility by competing in open-wheel racing.
Yarborough made his first Indianapolis 500 start in 1966, driving for Rolla Vollstedt. Yarborough was caught off guard by the throngs who attended qualifying days in May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and got stuck in traffic en route to the track for the first qualifying day. He ended up parking his car in the yard of a local resident and walking to the track, qualifying 24th in the No. 66 Jim Robbins Vollstedt/Ford.
But his four-lap qualification run that year lasted longer than his race. Yarborough’s car was one of 11 collected and eliminated in a first-lap accident that triggered a red-flag delay of nearly 90 minutes, and he was credited with 28th place.
Yarborough returned with Vollstedt’s team in 1967 and finished 17th, completing 176 laps. He made his final two “500” starts in 1971 and 1972 with Gene White’s team, completing 193 laps and finishing 10th in 1972 – both career bests – in a colorful team that also boasted fellow kindred jovial spirits Lloyd Ruby and Sam Sessions.
In 1971, Yarborough raced the entire USAC Championship Trail with White’s team. He produced a best finish of fifth, at Trenton and Michigan, and ended up 16th in the standings in his only full open-wheel season.
Yarborough retired as a driver after the 1988 NASCAR Cup Series season and then focused on team ownership and other businesses. His Cale Yarborough Motorsports raced in the Cup Series through the 1999 season, with John Andretti delivering the team its sole victory in the 1997 Pepsi 400 at Daytona.
His immense success as a driver helped Yarborough earn enshrinement in the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, the NASCAR Hall of Fame and the South Carolina Hall of Fame. He was selected as one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998 and one of its 75 Greatest Drivers in 2023.
Yarborough was an excellent athlete before focusing on racing in his late teens. He was a high school football star and played semi-pro football in his native South Carolina, and he also was a Golden Gloves boxer.