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Yarborough keeping busy in the slow lane

Published Sep. 27, 2005

The retired driver and car owner is content to leave the slippery turns of the Southern 500 to younger racers.

The neighbors are coming over to the ranch-style house on Cale's Lane today as they always do for the Southern 500.

Cale Yarborough will sit in his usual spot _ in front of the television, anticipating the start of the race.

"He just sits there in the den," his wife, Betty Jo, said. "You don't talk to him during the race. He likes to concentrate. He enjoys watching."

For decades, the Southern 500 was Yarborough's race.

Fifty years ago, an 11-year-old from Timmonsville, S.C., crawled under a fence at Darlington Raceway and watched the second Southern 500.

Yarborough remembers the day clearly, but not only for sneaking in.

"Oh man, I was dumbfounded," he said. "I thought that was the greatest thing I ever saw in my life. It was quite a show.

"When I saw that one, I was hooked. Seeing people like Fireball Roberts, Curtis Turner, Joe Weatherly, Lee Petty and all those guys you know. They walked on water as far as I was concerned."

Some say the same of Yarborough.

His 83 NASCAR wins rank fifth all time. His 70 pole positions are third best. His three straight championships from 1976-78 are a record.

Nobody has equaled his five wins in the Southern 500.

"It takes a tenacity to win here," Darlington Raceway president Jim Hunter said. "Five hundred miles at this place is just unbelievable when you're about to spin out every time you go into the corner. You never for an instant get to relax.

"Cale won the Southern 500 five times. It's 100 degree heat. He'd get out of the darn car and look like he could run another 500 miles. He was a bulldog, the most tenacious driver I've ever known."

Yarborough also was driven as a car owner, though he won only once in 371 races.

Now, the man who never required a relief driver in 559 career starts has taken relief from his owner's role.

Yarborough is out of NASCAR for the first time since 1957 and has no plans of returning.

Attempts to keep his race team afloat the past two years failed and forced the 61-year-old to retire from the sport late last year.

"It's a little bit of a relief," said Yarborough, who is focused on running two car dealerships in nearby Florence, S.C.. "I feel like I served my time. I did it for a long time, enjoyed it. The sport was good to me. I feel like it's time for the younger people to do it and let me spend a little more time with my grandkids and stuff."

As his driving career wound down in the '80s, Yarborough hoped he could satisfy his competitive urge by owning a team.

He drove in 26 races for himself from 1987-88. He hired such drivers as Dale Jarrett, Dick Trickle, Lake Speed, Randy LaJoie, Chad Little, Derrick Cope, Jeremy Mayfield and John Andretti.

"The first time I ever talked to him, he called and said, "If you're ever thinking about making a move, give me a call,' " Andretti said. "It was cool that he just called. Cale is not a guy that has an outward-going personality. He'll do anything for you. He's a great person and his family is great to be around. He's like The King (Richard Petty)."

Andretti's first win, the Pepsi 400 in 1997, was Yarborough's only victory as a car owner.

The reality is that the cost of doing business pushed him out.

Finding a sponsor willing to spend enough to field a competitive team, equal to the multi-million dollar funds Roush Racing and Hendrick Motorsports secure for their Winston Cup teams, hampered Yarborough's single-car effort.

"They've raised the bar tremendously high," he said. "I think it has hurt the sport. Well, the sport is probably at an all-time high so how can you say it has hurt it? But it's hurt the people that helped make the sport what it is today."

The strain was felt by everyone, including Betty Jo.

"I think he wanted things to work out and it was just real hard on the both of us," she said. "It put a lot of strain on us, not financially as much as knowing he wanted to be a success and keep everybody (on the team) together."

Rick Mast drove for the team last year and finished 32nd in the standings with two top-10 finishes. Cale Yarborough Motorsports was sold in December.

"I tell you what, that was a horrible nightmare trying to keep up with all that stuff," Betty Jo said. "It was nice to have all that but if you can't compete and really do things well, the best thing to do is to get out of it. Cale wanted so much to be successful."

Life is simpler now.

But still hard.

"Going wide open," Yarborough says, using the racing term.

In addition to the car dealerships and other businesses, Yarborough is dismantling two race shops in North Carolina and transporting the parts to his farm in Olanta, S.C. He is reassembling the buildings as a farm shop.

"It's a lot of hard work," he said, "but I've enjoyed it."

Today, he'll probably work on the shop in the morning, then settle in his den and watch the Southern 500.

None of the visitors will talk to him.

They'll remember how he owned the Southern 500 though he always despised the toughness of driving the track. How he owned a Winston Cup team. How he owned the sport at one time, winning 50 races between 1969-78.

How stock-car racing always will be in his blood, as it has been since he scooted under that fence.

"I still miss the competition," Yarborough said. "I've always been a competitive person all my life and I still miss that door-to-door, bumper-to-bumper competition."