William Caleb Yarborough is plain Cale to most of the South, where he is a folk hero. The people love to tell about how Cale has wrestled alligators, ridden bulls, made over 200 parachute jumps, dived into swamps from towering cypress trees, pulled water moccasins from those same murky waters with his bare hands, tried to show a bear who was boss (and found out it was the bear), been struck by lightning, and flew and landed an airplane without ever having been at the controls of one before, a situation born of necessity because his ego prevented him from admitting to his "copilot" that he had never flown. The copilot's ego prevented him from admitting to Yarborough that he had never flown. Or so they say, and Cale doesn't deny it.
But mostly Cale Yarborough travels in cars—stock cars, those 200-mph monsters that seem to have an affinity for being raced inches apart. The other day he clinched his third consecutive NASCAR grand national driving championship by winning the American 500 at Rockingham, N.C. Three straight is something no other stock-car driver has achieved, not even Richard Petty, the sport's dominant figure in the '60s and early '70s and a folk hero of even larger dimensions than William Caleb Yarborough. But Yarborough's halo is becoming shinier by the week. Petty's career is in decline; today Yarborough stands alone.
Yarborough is only 5'7" tall, but his 185-pound body gives him the bearing of a big man. He has bulky shoulders that extend into short arms with biceps the size of melons and forearms like clubs, a barrel chest and a thick, tough midsection. He has a round, rosy face resting peacefully atop a tree-stump neck, thinning blond hair, a broad, genuine grin and, when things are not going the way he would like them to, a grimace that so completely scrunches his face it looks like a partly deflated beach ball. Viewed head on, Yarborough sort of resembles the Oldsmobile he races: squat and powerful, his cheeks matching the shape of the car's bulging fenders, his sunglasses the dark-tinted racing windshield.
Yarborough has a favorite outfit around the track: hand-tooled cowboy boots, pressed blue jeans held high above his waist by a wide leather NASCAR champion's belt with a sterling silver buckle, a wristwatch with a Confederate flag on the face, NASCAR championship gold-and-diamond rings, one on each hand, a conservative cowboy shirt with maybe pearl buttons, but no spangles or fringe or frivolous attachments of that sort, and a ten-gallon hat, usually straw, the brim turned down at both the front and back. It is a hat most people would look absolutely goofy in, especially short people, but not Yarborough. The hat's effect is not unlike that of Dolly Parton's wigs—"I love those wigs because I'm six feet tall in them," says the five-foot singer.
The most frequently told Cale Yarborough story is this: 1964 was not a good year for turkeys in Timmonsville, S.C., and it had cost Yarborough his life savings, slim though they were, to learn he was not cut out to be a turkey farmer. He was offered a stock car for a race in Savannah, so he cashed a check for his last $10, made two sandwiches with what he could scrounge out of the refrigerator, packed his wife Betty Jo into their car and headed south to Savannah. They lost the $10 to a policeman for driving 40 mph in a 35-mph zone. They reached a 50¢ toll bridge without the money to cross. Yarborough hopped into the backseat, dug into the crack between the seat cushions like a dog digging for a chipmunk and found 37¢ that had been long lost. The presence of Yarborough's sobbing, hungry, pregnant, pretty young wife in the front seat being fairly persuasive, the tollkeeper himself contributed the 13¢ difference, and Yarborough made it to Savannah, where the race car blew its engine on the warmup lap. With no winnings, Cale had to borrow $20 from the race's promoter in order to get home again. On the return trip he paid the tollkeeper the 13¢ he owed him.
The story is going to be told and retold if Yarborough ever runs for governor: In 1972, running as a Republican, he was elected a councilman in Florence County by a wide margin. "It wasn't even close," he says. "I won every precinct by a landslide." In 1976, running as a Democrat, he was reelected by a similar margin, and he served until Jan. 1, 1977, when he had to relinquish the job because he had moved out of the county. For the time being, Yarborough is not in politics, but he still has public office on his mind. "I would like to get back into politics later on," he says. "Maybe as a congressman, maybe a senator, maybe even governor, I don't know."
Yarborough became a Democrat so he could campaign for his friend Jimmy Carter, a man he is fiercely loyal to. "Jimmy's always been strong in Georgia," says Yarborough. "I met him when he was just a farmer. Someone brought him around to a race at Atlanta and introduced him to me. Later, after he was governor, he came down in the pits at a race one morning and said, 'Cale, I'd like to talk to you for a minute.' So we went over and sat down on a stack of tires; he talked a long time before he got around to it, and finally he said, 'Cale, I'm going to do something tomorrow and I'd like your help.' I said, 'O.K., I'll try, what is it?' He said, 'Tomorrow I'm going to announce I'm running for the Presidency of the United States.' I laughed at him. I sure did. But I said, 'O.K., Jimmy, I'll help you.' "
Yarborough exhibits a politician's style at the races. He likes people and has a natural talent for diplomacy. He poses for photos with kids on his lap the way a politician kisses babies. Women bring him butter beans and such, and later he says something like, "Thank you, ma'am, they sure were good. I ate two helpings even though I shouldn't have." He never turns down an invitation to a Yarborough Fan Club meeting. "Sometimes it's kind of a pain to go to them," he says, "but it's necessary."
Like most politicians, Yarborough is capable of a verbal indiscretion when he thinks he's in safe company and can get away with it. He made one such slip during a press conference after he won the 1977 Daytona 500. A newspaper reporter on the stock-car beat asked him about Janet Guthrie, although the reporter didn't refer to Guthrie by name. "Is the woman [driving] any better?" the reporter asked, his emphasis on the word "woman" indicating disdain. Yarborough, who has a gift for one-liners, replied, "I don't know, I haven't tried her yet," a quip that amused most of the reporters and went unreported in their publications. Yarborough's stock reply for public consumption to queries on Guthrie's ability is, "A woman isn't strong enough to be a winner, and if one is strong enough, I don't want to be around her." To which Guthrie replies, "I drive the car, I don't carry it," revealing that her wit may be sharper than her driving.
At 39, Yarborough knows he can race only a few more years. He also knows he needs to be "strong"—as in "Jimmy Carter has always been strong in Georgia." He doesn't know if being the most successful man in Timmonsville is strong enough, or even being the reigning king of stock-car racing. For now Yarborough would like nothing more than to replace Richard Petty in the minds of stock-car-racing fans as the alltime king. "My goal is to win seven championships," he says, "one more than Richard." In fact, in discussing this, Petty's poorest season in his 20-year career—he is winless so far—Yarborough suggests that there is more to Petty's lack of success than the Dodge he campaigned, and complained about, before he switched to a Chevy. "I don't think the car is the whole problem," says Yarborough. "Richard quit winning last year. But he's been a good driver in his day," he adds.