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Nice Meetin' Ya, The Name's Cale
Sam Moses
November 06, 1978
Having just won an unprecedented third straight stock-car title, Cale Yarborough of South Carolina has some notions of a first governorship
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November 06, 1978

Nice Meetin' Ya, The Name's Cale

Having just won an unprecedented third straight stock-car title, Cale Yarborough of South Carolina has some notions of a first governorship

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There is another framed message on Yarborough's office wall, a poem titled the "Risks of Life." It goes:

He was a very cautious man,
He never smoke, he never drank.
He never romped or played,
Nor even kissed a maid.
And when he up and passed away,
Insurance was denied.
For since he hadn't ever lived,
They claimed he never died.

Bold as he may be with his body, Yarborough is a cautious, even secretive man with his soul. He is moved by currents deeper than he admits. His public face is one of self-confidence and gregarious-ness, but, says Betty Jo, offering an insight into the man she knows as only a wife can, "Back when we were just starting out, living in a house trailer and really scratching, many a night Cale cried to me, 'Momma, I just don't know if I can make it.' "

One NASCAR insider says, "Cale is close to his home and family, but not much else." Says another, "Nobody likes being a star more than Cale does." Both observations are accurate.

Yarborough reveals only glimpses of his emotions for others to connect for themselves into some sort of whole. He is moody, but controls his moods, if not completely concealing them. He believes a real man is strong and silent like a cowboy, a real cowboy. He is self-conscious about the fact that he now wears glasses (to correct an astigmatism) when he is watching television—but not while racing. "I don't really need them, but there's nothing wrong with wearing glasses," he says, as if to reassure himself, pointing out with a little grin of satisfaction that David Pearson "can't see a lick for reading without glasses."

Yarborough is proud of his reputation as NASCAR's toughest driver, a reputation he repeatedly earns. He is the only active racer never to have used a relief driver during a race. He sneers at "cool suits"—special driving uniforms that circulate cool water to keep a driver's body temperature down—and will not wear a "neck strap," which counteracts the centrifugal pull on a driver's head. Virtually all other NASCAR drivers use them.

The Volunteer 500 in August in Bristol, Tenn. is usually the most exhausting race on the circuit: the track is a steeply banked half mile (36 degrees, steeper than either Daytona or Talladega), the kind of circuit that creates tremendous G forces. The heat and humidity can be withering inside a race car—the temperature can reach 150°. This year the race was held at night to reduce the effects of the heat—but it was increased to 500 laps. Yarborough won, for the eighth time in the last 12 races. In winning a race at Bristol five years ago, he led every lap, a feat that has been accomplished only three times on NASCAR tracks, and two of those times Yarborough was the driver.

"I'd use a relief driver if I ever needed one," he says, "but I never have." But there is reason to wonder how much of his stamina is sheer determination. Yarborough's back sometimes gets sore from sitting in an easy chair and watching television. His left shoulder periodically troubles him, the result of being broken more than 20 years ago when he fell out of a tree while hunting. His right shoulder blade is not intact, having been shattered nine years ago in a head-on crash into the wall at Texas Speedway when a tire blew on his stock car at 180 mph. "They told me I wouldn't ever have enough strength to drive a race car again," says Yarborough. "Two months later I set a qualifying record at Daytona that still stands—194.015 mph. My shoulders never bother me in a race car, though," he says, somewhat defensively.

ABC has invited Yarborough to compete in The Superstars, but he has declined. "Well, I'll tell you the truth," he says, "I couldn't do good. It's tough to compete with those guys who use their legs. I wouldn't do it unless I could do good." It hurts him to admit that, but not nearly as much as it would if he competed and didn't do well. He once appeared on a show called Dynamic Duos; he and Johnny Rutherford bowled against Jim Taylor and Jim Brown and lost, 139 to 98; to add insult to injury, Rutherford carried Yarborough. Cale tried to laugh it off—after all, it was only bowling—but his agony was real as he watched himself throw two gutter balls on television while the two NFL fullbacks chuckled at his expense. It was the same sort of agony he might have felt when Janet Guthrie was described by Red Smith in The New York Times as being "taller than Cale Yarborough."

The Yarboroughs are a "television family," as Betty Jo puts it. "We fight to see who gets the chair at the dinner table facing the TV." On the roof of the house is a large television antenna, a 60-foot-high tower on which are mounted three collateral antennas: one facing Charleston, one facing Columbia and one facing Florence. Yarborough has built a junction box that collects the signals from all three antennas and allows each of the five television sets in the house to get the best possible picture on any station.

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