Stock-car racing is a better training ground for politics than one might imagine. The NASCAR power system is entwined with Southern politics. Bill France Sr., NASCAR's founder, ostensibly is retired but still maintains control over its operations, and he is an expert on the subject. He was George Wallace's campaign chairman in the 1972 Florida presidential primaries and is credited with delivering Wallace's upset victory in that state. Compared to France, Yarborough is politically inexperienced. France's position as de facto head of NASCAR is one of strength; Yarborough's, as NASCAR's leading driver, is one of isolation, drivers being notorious for their independence and indifference to organization. So Yarborough must dance to France's tune. He seems to get a break or two—e.g., his pole position in this year's Daytona 500 (he eventually finished second) was in part a result of NASCAR officials approving a spoiler of doubtful legality on his Oldsmobile—but he gets away with no more than France wants him to. "I don't necessarily agree with the system," says Yarborough, "but how do you fight it? It's a family-owned operation; we're playing in their ball park with their rules. I sometimes wish I could fight it more. Sometimes I'd like to have more say-so in matters, to better the sport. It frustrates me a lot. I've got a mind of my own. I'm not a puppet on a string. I can think, too."
Yarborough has spoken out for the need of some sort of drivers' organization, although he stops short of calling it a union. "In a sport this big," he says, "it's really a shame that the people who made it that way have no benefits, no retirement plans. Most of them have ended up broke. I think we need something." But so far Yarborough's voice has been ineffectual because neither he nor anyone else has a specific plan; besides, Yarborough is not eager to risk what he has struggled so hard for by fighting France—and, make no mistake, France would resist the formation of a drivers' union. He crushed two earlier attempts, each led by the star driver of the time. In 1961 it was Curtis Turner, in 1969 Petty.
Actually, France has been given the most grief over the years by Yarborough's crew chief, Junior Johnson, the celebrated part-time chicken farmer, coon hunter, erstwhile moonshiner and NASCAR star. The silver-haired, pot-bellied driver-owner has been immortalized in prose and on film as The Last American Hero. Johnson has been France's nemesis for two decades, but now they seem to have a relatively smooth working relationship, which is fine with Johnson, because it leaves him free to build his cars and lead his crew of mechanics, something he does inimitably. Since Johnson hired Yarborough in 1973, they have won 45 of their 173 races, more than any other team during that period, but the accomplishment that may well be recognized as the most impressive in Johnson's career was his cars' unprecedented perfect record of finishing races last season: 30 for 30. And so far this year they have finished 26 of 28. "I don't know of anybody else who can even touch that," says Yarborough, not bothering to mention his own contribution in winning or his ability to avoid crashes in races where cars carom off cement walls at 180 mph.
Johnson's crew is likely the most determined in NASCAR, an organization in which there are some very determined crews. A finishing record like Yarborough's does not come without a great deal of extra effort. At Charlotte three weeks ago, for example, on lap 205 of a 334-lap race, Yarborough pulled into the pits with a blown engine, which eliminated all chances of his winning and would have eliminated virtually any other car from the race altogether. But the Johnson crew, in order to earn championship points for the driver, changed Yarborough's engine right then and there, something that had never been done in a grand national race before the same crew did it two years ago.
As Yarborough coasted off Turn 4, he radioed to the crew to get its tools ready. He coasted past his pit, behind the pit wall and toward the garage, as nine mechanics chased him, almost comically, dragging heavy toolboxes and wheeling big hydraulic jacks behind them. They scurried over, under and inside the jacked-up car while Yarborough waited at the wheel, his seat harness still locked, a look of patience on his face belying the ants in his pants. They shouted orders and requests to each other, some of them lying on their backs in an expanding puddle of warm water and oil. Five pairs of hands moved quickly under the hood. In five minutes the blown engine had been extracted like a bad tooth. Just 7½ minutes later a new engine had been installed and Yarborough was on the track again; he finished 22nd, good enough for 102 points. It had been a world-record engine change by about 3½ minutes, the old record having been set by the Johnson crew, of course, at Pocono International Raceway in June.
In December, Yarborough moved to the tiny community of Sardis, S.C., after living 10 years in Timmonsville, six miles away. He was born in Sardis, in an unpainted, foundationless house away from the road and lost amid the fields. Cale's father, Julian, a tobacco farmer, expanded his farm from 100 to 200 acres and moved his family into a brick house on the road in 1950, when Cale, the eldest of three sons, was 10. Julian Yarborough had a plane, and he was killed when it crashed in 1951. Annie Mae Yarborough ran the tobacco farm as well as a cotton gin and country store herself until she remarried two years later. "Just like a man," Cale says proudly. It is a trait Yarborough appreciates. He himself was a manly youngster, an all-state fullback at Timmonsville High. Later he played some semipro football, and twice won the South Carolina Golden Gloves welterweight championship.
Since 1968 Yarborough has owned a 1,000-acre farm near Sardis, and it was onto that farm that he decided to move his own family—his wife Betty Jo and three daughters. "Our old house in Timmonsville was just a couple of miles off I-95," he says. "I-95 is the main interstate to Myrtle Beach, and it seemed every race fan that ever went to Myrtle Beach stopped by. Sometimes they would be lined up in the driveway—really. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate it, but sometimes you like to have your privacy. Out here we got privacy."
Yarborough's new house, finished a year ago, can be seen from a country road across a 40-acre field that last summer was a cornfield. Yarborough had hoped to plow it into a pasture long before now but has not had time. There is a dirt driveway along the edge of the field between the house and the road, and Yarborough says, "I'm not going to pave the driveway. It's earth, the way it should be, and it's going to stay that way."
The house is 7,000 square feet, a long, low, brown-brick rectangle with a short wing in the back, next to which are a swimming pool and a tennis court. Yarborough is aware that the first impression one gets of the house is that it looks as if it should have a sign over the columns on the porch. "It looks like a motel, doesn't it?" he says to guests, a comment offered with a small smile.
There's no denying that the house does resemble a motel. "I drew it up myself," says Yarborough. "The master bedroom is bigger than the house I was born in." His eyes display a sudden boyish sparkle.