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Bob Ottum
July 13, 1981
Culture shock gained a whole new dimension when Cale Yarborough revved up his stock car at Le Mans
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July 13, 1981

Heck, Mes Amis, It's Only Ol' Cale

Culture shock gained a whole new dimension when Cale Yarborough revved up his stock car at Le Mans

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First thing, it's important to establish that Cale couldn't help crashing the car. The brakes went blooey coming around that corner and the only safe spot to spin it out was blocked by 30 or so folks standing around eating jambon sandwiches and drinking red wine. So he stuck it in the fence. And it was a dandy—the nose of the Chevy Camaro was slammed so far underneath the guardrail that 15 of those Frenchmen all pulling on a rope couldn't snake it back out. That was the first pity of it all, because until then France was experiencing maybe the most unusual sight and certainly the wildest sound in all the 49 years of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It was a good old American stock car in there with the sporties, an outlaw car creating a hammering roar that can only be called iron thunder.

The real pity is that Cale Yarborough, at 41, had turned out to be a natural for that course: Right at the start he had cranked the Camaro down the Mulsanne Straight at about 210 mph—that's two hundred and some miles an hour—and had pulled back in to allow, "Well, I didn't come over here to poke around; I could be back on the farm, poking around on my combine."

And, of course, that's when the whole crew began to get excited and the tensions started to build, because, up until then, nobody had really figured that any of this could work. Even the cynical oldtimers were getting caught up in it and then, when....

But wait. This is getting ahead of the story, and the best thing to do is to take it from the beginning and tell it straight. It's a sort of saga; it could be called A Yankee Goes to Le Mans.

"Wait a minute," Cale says. "You mean A Rebel Goes to Le Mans."

Well, either way.

They make an arresting tableau, an island surrounded by all the urbane, continental types who are swirling through the terminal at Orly airport outside Paris. There are Cale and Betty Jo Yarborough and their three daughters, Julie, 18, Kelley, 12, and B.J., 10. All of them are wary, and they're circled protectively around two shopping carts that are piled high with luggage. The most conspicuous items on the carts are the red and white Winston Cup championship garment bags with the stickers that picture a racing stock car. The stickers say CALE YARBOROUGH, NASCAR THREE-TIME WORLD CHAMPION, 1976-77-78.

Things are not going well. Everyone is stiff and creaky after the overnight flight from New York—and now Pan Am has lost Betty Jo's suitcase. Among other essentials, it contains comfortable shoes and her four favorite nighties. Little B.J. has to go to the bathroom, but she's blamed if she'll speak to any strangers. The folks around here look pretty hostile, or at least aloof. They do that in France; the French are famous for it: They see you looking forlorn and they stick it to you. Bill Brodrick, the P.R. guy for the racing team, had promised to meet them, but he hasn't shown. (It turned out that Brodrick, 6'5" and 240 pounds—plus another 20 or 30 pounds of neck chains, gold rings and other jewelry—spent the entire day trying to wrestle the spare parts for the race car out of several tag teams of customs agents, "But you do not have ze propaire papairs, monsieur")

Betty Jo is a brightly pretty woman, a former high school cheerleader who has matured gracefully, and she can be fiercely determined. Her South Carolina accent is a wonder; it is so purely whipped cream and honey that it turns heads when she speaks. As with many people who don't speak a foreign language, she has the vague feeling that one will be understood if one just speaks more slowly to the natives, as if to a backward child. "What ah said was," she says to a uniformed passerby who appears to be a French army general, "what ah said was: Surely yew-all have a ladies room around heah?" The W.C. is pointed out and she sweeps up her daughters and marches off in triumph.

Cale is absolutely unflappable, even slightly amused by all this. He has never been to France but he has been in a lot of tough spots, and anybody who has been upside down at Atlanta or Darlington a time or two isn't going to be rattled by a little French disdain. "Listen," he says to the diary-keeper, "you know how to get to Le Mans?" He even uses the French pronunciation: LuhMahn.

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