HOMESTEAD — Cale Yarborough somehow gets lost in the discussion, his statistics overshadowed by contemporaries Richard Petty and David Pearson, his image defined by the photograph of a scuffle with Bobby and Donnie Allison at the end of the 1979 Daytona 500. But Jimmie Johnson's pursuit of a third consecutive Sprint Cup title has underscored the fact that the turkey farmer, semipro football player, boxing champion, alligator wrestler and would-be cowboy from Sardis, S.C., was one of the sport's best in a 31-year career that ended in 1988, a true character in an era that bred them, the only driver — at least until Sunday — to win three straight titles at NASCAR's highest level.
Yarborough, who grew up on a South Carolina farm and grew to love racing from watching short-track shows with his father, won 28 races and had 70 top-5s in 90 races in winning titles from 1976 to 1978 (after finishing second in '73 and '74). Yarborough is fifth all time with 83 wins at NASCAR's top level, and though he was a popular figure during the 1970s, his exploits are often smothered by those of Petty, a seven-time champion and 200-race winner and Pearson, who won 105 races and three titles.
"I never forgot going to the races with my dad when I was a little boy, hanging on the fence at the old dirt tracks and all, and it never got out of my blood," Yarborough said. "So I had to start from scratch and built my first race car when I was 15 years old. My old car wasn't very good, and another car came along that was a little bit better and the fellow was looking for a driver. Every time someone was looking for a driver I would throw up my hand. I don't care what it was, who it was and it just went from there."
Yarborough grew from those modest origins into a Southern icon, winning public office as a Republican and a Democrat, befriending fellow farmer Jimmy Carter and speaking on his behalf when Carter ran for president. On a USO tour of Vietnam in 1968, he was bunked for a night on the fourth floor of an abandoned hotel about 200 yards from a Viet Cong encampment across a river. Viet Cong attackers raided during the night, making it to the second floor. Yarborough was upset the military hadn't let him have a weapon so he could help defend the base.
Yarborough won four Daytona 500s, and it's hard to tell if he's more embarrassed or annoyed that most fans to this day only want to talk to him about the 1979 edition when he and the Allisons battled in the grass as a curious nation watched the first flag-to-flag broadcast on CBS. All three of his championships came for legendary driver/owner Junior Johnson.
Yarborough came up learning the value of working for what he wanted. The son of a tobacco farmer who died flying his plane when Cale was 11, Yarborough milked cows before school and tended to crops afterward, before football practice. He married a local girl named Betty Jo in 1961 when she 17, and he had cobbled together a living from turkey farming and playing semipro football before he decided that racing would be his sole and most sensible path.
When the turkey business went bad in 1964, they moved to Charlotte, N.C., so he could be ready to pounce on any opportunity, and he took a job sweeping floors at the legendary Holman-Moody shop for $1.25 an hour. He raced 24 of 62 events for another team in 1964, won six races for the Wood Brothers in 1968 but didn't begin running full schedules until 1973.
"One night we took my paycheck, and we went to the grocery store and rolled the cart around the grocery store and had it filled up with everything," Yarborough, 69, remembered. "We knew how much we could spend, and we didn't have a credit card to back up what cash we had. We came across a big old display of black-eyed peas that they had inside the store and they were on sale for 10 cents a can.
"I grabbed Betty Jo by the hand and I said, 'You follow me,' and we went back around the store and we went to all the counters and put everything back that we had in the cart and went and bought every can of those black-eyed peas that our check would let us have. We had black-eyed peas for breakfast. We had black-eyed peas for lunch and black-eyed peas for supper. There were some lean, hard times in there, but, hey, I still love black-eyed peas."