NASCAR legend Cale Yarborough dies at age 84

Published 1:24 pm Sunday, December 31, 2023

Cale Yarborough, considered one of NASCAR’s all-time greatest drivers and the first to win three consecutive Cup titles, died Sunday. He was 84.

NASCAR announced the death of the Hall of Famer and South Carolina native in a statement. No cause was given.

“Cale Yarborough was one of the toughest competitors NASCAR has ever seen. His combination of talent, grit and determination separated Cale from his peers, both on the track and in the record book,” said Jim France, chairman and CEO of NASCAR. “He was respected and admired by competitors and fans alike and was as comfortable behind the wheel of a tractor as he was behind the wheel of a stock car.”

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Known for his fierce toughness and grit, Yarborough won the Daytona 500 four times and the Southern 500 at his home track of Darlington Raceway five times. His 83 Cup Series victories are tied with Jimmie Johnson for sixth on NASCAR’s all-time wins list, and Yarborough ranks fourth with 69 pole positions.

But one of his most famous moments came in the 1979 Daytona 500, the first to be televised live flag to flag across the country. Yarborough, a Golden Gloves boxer who also earned a football scholarship to Clemson, crashed while racing with Donnie Allison on the final lap for the win. The two drivers got out of their wrecked cars to fight, Allison’s brother, Bobby, pulled over to join the scrap and it was two Allison brothers versus Yarborough as Richard Petty crossed the finish line first.

It was a breakthrough moment for NASCAR, which, because of a snowstorm on the East Coast, was being shown on live television to its largest audience ever.

Yarborough quit full-time racing after winning six races in 1980 and finishing second in the Cup standings after winning three straight crowns from 1976-78. He said at the time it was to spend more time with his three daughters. During his NASCAR Hall of Fame induction speech in 2012, Yarborough said he felt like he’d completed his journey from the bottom rung of the ladder to the top.

“I sure hoped I was going to get to this point because working in the back of the fields in that hot sun would make you want to do something else,” he said. “I always dreamed of … ending up where I have ended up tonight.”

After retirement, Yarborough opened and operated a used car dealership in the Pee Dee region of South Carolina and served on the Florence County Council.

“The NASCAR industry and our millions of fans have lost one of the grittiest and most successful superstars of all time,” Winston Kelley, executive director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, said in a statement. “Cale’s remarkable legacy and accomplishments in NASCAR will live in our minds, our hearts and the archives of the NASCAR Hall of Fame forever.”

Yarborough is survived by his wife, Betty Jo, and daughters Julie, Kelley and B.J.