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They Call Him Cale
The Life and Career of NASCAR Legend Cale Yarborough
By Joe McGinnis
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2008 Joe McGinnis
All rights reserved.
It's September 3, 1951. Labor Day in the Pee Dee region of South Carolina presents a brief respite from the hard summer's work. However, the town of Darlington has become a hubbub of activity. Thousands of people have laid this day of rest aside to witness the spectacle known as the Southern 500, a stock car race that, from its debut just one year prior, had already become the Indianapolis 500 of the South. Excitement filled the air, with sounds, sights, and smells that can only occur when crowds assemble to celebrate sheer competition. As the stands began to fill, a few boys from nearby Timmonsville High School searched for a parking space, anxious to join the throng. They spotted a place in a nearby field, and scattering toward the gate they called out behind them, "Remember where we parked, Cale, and we'll meet you right here after the race. And we ain't waiting on you, so you'd better be here."
Though William Caleb "Cale" Yarborough felt as if he were in a dream, he was actually at the Darlington Raceway. It seemed as if it were the largest thing in the world. From the parking lot, the speedway looked as if it went on forever. As Cale approached the ticket booth, he began to regain control of his thoughts. He had brought enough money for the $2 ticket, but he sure didn't want to have to pay it if he didn't have to — that way he could have more money for hot dogs and Cokes. He had to figure a way inside. As he made his way past the incoming crowd, he came upon a boy handing out pamphlets, and he took one. It read: Darlington International Raceway today is the scene of the nation's greatest stock-car race of the year ... the second annual "Southern 500" strictly stock car speed classic ... under NASCAR sanction.
Darlington, the nation's finest raceway, that's how the new mile-and-a-quarter asphalt track is regarded by the race fans throughout the country.
Not another track in the United States of this size provides such ample facilities ... a grandstand from which you can see every corner of the track from every seat ... something that is better than any other track in the country.
For speed ... Darlington ranks second only to Indianapolis ... with its two-and-a-half mile span.
"For beauty ... there's none finer than Darlington Raceway!"
Three programs were scheduled the first year ... 1950 ... with Johnny Mantz of Long Beach, California, winning the Labor Day race ... then Johnny Parsons, Van Nuys, California, won the 200-mile AAA big car race ... the motorcycle program that included three events was cancelled due to rain after only the novice 50-mile race saw a new record established for all tracks.
The 1951 program includes only two events — the 250-mile AAA big car race on July 4 ... won by Little Walt Faulkner of Long Beach, California ...
So far in the three major races at Darlington Raceway, the California drivers have monopolized honors ... but can they do it today? ... That's the big question ...and the rebels with their confederate flags flying ... are out to upset the California fruit cart.
Who's your favorite today? Pick your own. Everybody else has ... and they can't all be right.
Cale could wait no longer. He walked around the track until he found a place where no one was looking. He found a loose place in the fence, got down on his belly, and slid beneath. He was inside the Darlington Raceway, still had the $2 in his pocket, and was surely the happiest kid in the world.
Cale was no stranger to auto racing. Almost every South Carolina town had a dirt track with weekly action, and Cale had been to Florence many Friday nights, clutching the fence with his dad at his side and yelling for the local heroes as they battled. Drivers whose names race fans still remember, names like Junior Johnson, Cotton Owens, and Fonty Flock. Over the course of the evening, the dirt and dust at the fence would coat you from head to toe. And, standing there at the fence, you could fix your eyes on a certain car and follow it around the track, lap after lap. You were so close that when you waved at the driver, you felt he was looking directly at you. Heck, it was almost like being in the race car.
And now here he was at Darlington! It was the biggest place Cale had ever seen. Grandstands stretched as far as he could see, and they were already almost filled. He strolled around to Turn 1 and looked across the track to Turn 4, feeling as if the other end of the track was in another country, it was so far away. And he imagined how it must feel to race around such a racetrack. Then his attention was drawn to the infield. He had never witnessed such a scene. People were everywhere. They were barbecuing, tossing footballs, eating, drinking, sleeping, laughing, and generally having the time of their lives, it seemed. From the look of it, there couldn't have been any beer or fried chicken left in the state of South Carolina. But then his eyes found the pits, where the race teams were preparing for the day's activities. Like a magnet, Cale immediately joined the stream of people walking across the track.
Walking straight to the pit area, he began to pick out some of the drivers whom he recognized from being at the short tracks and others whose pictures had been in the newspapers. He could see Lee Petty, Fireball Roberts, Fonty Flock, Herb Thomas, and Curtis Turner. All of his heroes together in one place, and he could walk right up to them. "Hiya, Fireball," "Hello, Fonty," he said as he would pass them. And each, in turn, waved back and answered, "Hi, kid." Cale was hooked. If there had been any question as to what he wanted to be when he grew up, he had found the answer.
Wandering from pit to pit, he was able to see and touch the race cars. Lee Petty's Plymouth, Marshall Teague's Hudson Hornet, Frank Mundy's Studebaker, and Buddy Shuman's Ford were there for his inspection. It was like being in heaven — leaning against the cars, listening to the conversation between the different teams' members as they were finishing their preparations, gazing into the engine compartments, and soaking it up like a sponge. It was very doubtful things could be any better than this.
Shortly, the time came for the race to begin, and the guards began to move the people who had made their ways from the grandstands back to their seats. Cale had to join them as they paraded back across the track, and he found a place to stand near the fence at the first turn. "Hey, kid, you can't stand there, you're blocking people's view," someone yelled to Cale. "You'll have to get in your seat or move over there out of the way." He pointed over toward the second turn, where there were nothing but bushes. Having snuck in, he had no seat, so he headed toward the bushes. Several hundred people had joined in the second turn, but there was room for one more boy. Finding a spot where the whole track was visible, he settled in. To Cale, this was as good as a box seat at the start-finish line. And the race was about to begin.
Having no particular driver as a favorite, Cale decided to root for those who were nicest to him in the pits. He waved each on, confident that they were aware of him there. There was a flat spot in the first turn, making for a lot of action in Turn 2, with cars blowing tires, spinning out, and crashing right in front of him. The cars were averaging over 100 mph, and the summer heat of 95 degrees really took its toll on tires. Most of the drivers Cale was rooting for finished the race prematurely in some spectacular way, but the racing was fierce and exciting until the end. Herb Thomas's Hudson finished as the winner, followed by Jesse James Taylor in another Hudson and Buddy Shuman in his Ford. The race had lasted more than six-and-a-half hours because of all the caution flags, but to Cale it seemed like no time at all. He stood at the fence until all the PA announcements had been made. He listened as the announcer detailed the race's outcome, who finished in what place, and how much money they had won. He learned that 40,000 people had enjoyed the race with him. And he felt within himself that he had entered a world where he belonged. He began to dream of what he would do if he had a bunch of money. He would buy himself a Hudson for each day of the week except Sunday. Sundays being special to him, maybe he should reserve that day for a Cadillac like Red Byron's.
As the announcements ended, reality came back into focus. The other guys had said they would leave Cale if he was not back to the car on time. He'd better hurry. Realizing that he still had two dollars in his pocket, he bought a Coke and two hot dogs and headed for the parking lot. He was the first to return, so he waited ... and waited ... and waited for almost an hour. Shoot, he had had time to return to the pits but had missed the opportunity.
* * *
The Yarborough family had deep roots in the Pee Dee region of South Carolina. Cale's Grandpa Yarborough had been quite a successful farmer, and his work ethic and business sense passed to Cale's father, Julian. Julian and his wife, Annie Mae, lived in a small wooden house just outside of Sardis, South Carolina, a small farming community of about 100 residents. Julian farmed tobacco and was also the proprietor of both the Yarborough General Store and the local cotton gin. Cale was born on March 27, 1939, the eldest of three sons. Jerry was born two years later, and the youngest brother, J.C., followed seven years later. Their old wooden farmhouse was typical for the area, built up off the ground on pillars, with a broad front porch, screen doors held shut with springs, and a path around the back that led to the outhouse. The expansive fields around the house were as flat as panes of glass, their sandy soils filled with the nourishment needed to grow some of the best tobacco in the world. The Lynches River flowed nearby, and swampy marshes were situated around and between the fertile lands. The climate was rather temperate, with four distinct seasons, but the summer heat could reach tropical proportions.
Life was good for the Yarboroughs, but between the farm, the store, and the cotton gin, there was always work to be done. Cale was introduced at the early age of five to the rigors of the tobacco fields. He would work up and down the rows, search for tobacco worms on the broad green leaves, knock them to the ground, and stomp them. He was a friendly child, outgoing, and a favorite of the sharecroppers and neighbors who were always there to help. The cotton gin became one of Cale's favorite places. Son Ham James, one of his dad's sharecroppers, worked there. Son Ham had two sons, Donnie and Willie. The three boys would play together, and when the harvest season brought the farmers to town with their crops, they would chip in and help wherever they could. The seeds would be removed from the cotton, the fibers would be bound into bales, and the seeds would be compressed for their oil. Even though Cale was always small for his age, Son Ham had soon taught him to move the big bales around the building.
Always proud of himself, Cale rushed to the store to share his new accomplishments. It was an old country store, with metal signs on the side, advertising soft drinks, chewing tobacco, and the latest remedy. The front screen door was stenciled to read "Merita Bread" in yellow and red, but there were some places where the paint was missing from people pushing the door open. There was an old stove in the middle of the store, with several wooden chairs strewn around it for the locals to gather and discuss the latest news. There was a cardboard box for the farmers to spit their tobacco juice into, but, inevitably, someone would spit on the stove. The odor of the burnt tobacco juice would rise up, giving the place a character only found in an old country store. The nurturing and encouragement Cale received there served to make him believe that there was nothing he could not do, if he wanted to.
From his first day at Sardis Grade School, Cale's favorite part of each day would be the three-mile walk. He would shuffle his feet in the dust and dream of first one adventure and then another. He was sure that he was not going to work in the dirt, but he soon found his education to be a bit boring. He was lucky enough to have the ability to pass his tests without studying much; the classroom was just a waste of time, he thought. But he learned the lesson of courage in the fourth grade, a lesson he has never forgotten. There was a big kid named Jimmy Humphries who bullied everybody around. He was twice their size, and they were all afraid of him, especially Cale. Cale was still quite small, and was very easily intimidated. It was the first day of school, and Cale arrived at school just as the bus arrived. Cale was rushing up the school steps when he ran right into Jimmy Humphries, hard enough to knock him down. Jimmy got up, brushed himself off, and punched Cale in the face. Then he promised, "I'll give you a whipping every day." The walk to school no longer was an adventure, but more like a convicted man's last walk down the corridors of prison to his demise. Cale learned to use every trick in the book to be later than the bus in the mornings, but never said anything about it. If he arrived before the bus, he would hide behind an oak tree until Jimmy went inside, then follow a few minutes later.
One day, as he hid behind the oak, he saw Jimmy step from the bus, and, to his surprise, there was a cast on Jimmy's right arm. Now was his chance. He ran over to Jimmy, grabbed him by the left shoulder, spun him around, and caught him with an uppercut that sent Jimmy to the ground. Jimmy could do nothing but pick himself up, stuttering. Cale became the hero of the school, and he liked the attention. He continued to harass Jimmy for several weeks, but then one day Jimmy showed up at school without the cast. Cale swallowed hard, then hit Jimmy as hard as he could, not knowing the consequences. One more punch, and Jimmy went down. Cale jumped on top of him, and continued to shower punches on Jimmy until Jimmy no longer resisted. Cale jumped up, heading for the school, but hesitated. He felt a little sorry for Jimmy. He decided to go back, reaching out his hand to help Jimmy up. They shook hands and immediately became friends. Jimmy was killed in an auto accident several years later, but Cale still gives him the credit for helping him build his courage and confidence today.
The old wooden house became too small for the family when J.C. was born, so Julian built a new brick house in town for them to live in. It was nice to have a new house, with indoor plumbing and central heat. It was also nice to have close neighbors for the first time. Oh, sure, everybody knew Cale already, and he knew them, but it felt good to be a part of a community.
Cale heard that the Chevrolet dealer in Darlington, about 15 miles away, would be sponsoring a soap box derby on Labor Day, 1950. He rushed home from school that day and began rummaging through the cotton gin and other farm buildings, compiling materials to construct the fastest soap box derby car in the world. He found some lumber, removed some nails from the barn (he didn't have much of a budget at this time), and finally went to his dad to ask for help getting the required wheels and axles, which had to be purchased from the Chevrolet dealer. The rules stated that he must build the car himself, but Cale knew some of his friends had received more than a little help. Julian made sure that Cale did the work, but he was able to come up with some better building materials and a lot of advice. Cale was stoked! He designed and redesigned the car until he was sure that it would be the best, the fastest, and the one to beat. He painted it white because he had learned from the cowboy movies that good guys always wear white.
Race day arrived, and the family loaded up in the pickup, with Cale, his brothers, and the racer in the bed, and headed for Darlington. By the time they reached town, there was already a crowd assembled for the race. Racers were going over their multicolored creations for the last time, making sure they were ready for the competition. Cale's confidence was unabated; he was sure his was the car to beat, and he already daydreamed about receiving the trophy at the day's end. He had felt the admiration of the crowd and the other competitors in the dream, and even now he was forming a victory speech in his young head. Shortly, the racers were paired off, and the racing began.
Cale watched the races one by one, with his dad sharing tips to help Cale get the most from his run. "You've got to hold 'er straight," he advised. "Any time you have to steer from side to side, you will lose speed. Remember that."
Excerpted from They Call Him Cale by Joe McGinnis. Copyright © 2008 Joe McGinnis. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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