When Cale Yarborough wheels his growling Mercury Cyclone into victory lane, right away one can sense that he never felt he wouldn't get there. He unbuckles his safety harness, takes off his helmet to expose a fast-diminishing crop of blond hair, then somehow un-stuffs his 5'6", 185-pound body from inside the sheet-metal and tube-steel roll cage and climbs through the window. He loosens a red bandana from around his neck and wipes the perspiration from his smiling, maiden's blush-pink face. Yarborough simply cannot tan; he is either pale white or burned.
The last time all this happened was on July 4 at the Daytona International Speedway when Yarborough—having disdained a cool-suit despite the 94� temperature (120� in the car) for fear the extra 50 pounds would cost him a precious hundredth of a second or so per lap—won the Firecracker 400 Grand National stock-car race. Not that he needed those fractions. He won by over seven miles, or nearly three laps. He said the usual nice things into the microphone: how he couldn't have done it without the aid of the Ford Motor Company, which was true, and without Glen Wood and his fine pit crew, which also was true.
Then Betty Jo stepped up beside him. Betty Jo is Mrs. Yarborough, 5'2" of absolutely beautiful blonde with deep, dark brown eyes and a voice that comes out dipped in warm honey. Betty Jo was a cheerleader at the high school in Hebron, S.C., and William Caleb was an all-state fullback at the high school in Timmonsville, which is also in South Carolina. He met her at his uncle's drugstore in Olanta, where she was working behind the soda fountain, and they have a 5-year-old daughter named Julianne, who is going to be one fine cheerleader herself in 10 or 12 years.
At 29 Cale Yarborough is rapidly becoming the next great Southern stock-car driver, having pushed his way toward the top during an era when a new generation of drivers has been scrambling to fill vacancies left by the death, retirement or suspension of the old heroes: Curtis Turner, Fireball Roberts, Joe Weatherly, Junior Johnson, Fred Lorenzen.
Into the near-vacuum occupied only by Richard Petty and his Blue Angel Plymouth have rushed a host of promising newcomers. The three most likely to succeed are: Lee Roy Yarbrough (no kin of Cale—note the slight difference in spelling), 30, of Columbia, S.C. via Jacksonville, Fla., a superb qualifier—he has been on the pole in four of the fastest, richest races of the year—who nevertheless has not won any of the top NASCAR events in nearly two years; Buddy Baker, 27, of Charlotte, the son of former Grand National star Elzie (Buck) Baker, a 6'6" 240-pounder with a violent temper who won this year's World 600 at Charlotte; and, of course, Cale Yarborough. Baker drives a Dodge, Lee Roy a Ford or Mercury and Cale a Mercury. All three men are flat-out chargers. "If Cale and Lee Roy and Buddy are ever ramming together on the last lap of a race," one stock-car official said recently, "the guy riding fourth is gonna win."
In the volatile atmosphere of Southern stock-car racing (just the other day Richard Petty's brother Maurice got annoyed at Bobby Allison for bumping Richard in a race and flattened him—twice—in the pits), Cale Yarborough somehow has managed to reach the top without antagonizing anybody. Last year he was voted NASCAR's most popular driver by the fans, but, more significant, there isn't a driver around, including Buddy and Lee Roy, who will badmouth Cale.
With his victory in the Firecracker 400, Yarborough moved clearly ahead of his two rivals, and if he outruns them again this Sunday, in the important Dixie 500 at Atlanta, the year will be Cale's for certain. The 400 was his third straight victory at Daytona, and he thus became only the second driver in NASCAR history to win three consecutive races at a major track. (The other was Fred Lorenzen at Charlotte in 1964-65.) Daytona was Cale's third superspeedway victory of the season; in each race Lee Roy was second. The $18,000 first prize at Daytona boosted Cale's total earnings for 1968 to nearly $100,000, and with four big races left he is well within range of Richard Petty's record $130,000 earnings for last year.
Cale did not have a day to himself until nearly two weeks after the Firecracker. Ford needed him for engine tests at Charlotte and the Mercury people needed him for public appearances, but Cale put most of that aside one weekend to go back to Timmonsville, a town of 2,500 in the middle of Florence County, to check on the plumber who was supposed to do some work at his house and the carpenter and electrician who were trying to fix up a building Cale is turning into a small business center.
On the Sunday of that weekend Cale and Betty Jo, with Julianne, drove out of town along Route 53 toward the hamlet of Sardis, past one of the three signs announcing to everybody that Timmonsville is the "Home of Cale Yarborough, the World's Fastest Stock Car Driver," which he is.
"They used to run me out of town for speeding," Cale said. Along the road was cotton and tobacco and in practically every house lived a relative of Cale's. His father, Julian, was killed in a plane crash on a Friday the 13th in 1951, but seven of his brothers and sisters live in his home county. Then there is his mother's family and his stepfather's family. "If you throw a brick around here you're bound to hit a cousin or two," Cale said.