"To have 83 and to tie him is just absolutely mind blowing.”
By now you surely know that Jimmie Johnson tied Cale Yarborough for sixth on the all-time NASCAR wins list last Sunday in Dover with his 83rd career win. You’re also probably familiar with the story of a young Jimmie sulking out of a Hardee’s with just a cheeseburger in hand and head hung low over the disappointment that he didn’t get to meet his hero Cale, who drove the No. 28 Hardee’s car in the eighties. And odds are you know he matched his stock car racing hero of so long ago wearing a helmet that pays tribute to Yarborough’s Hall of Fame career.
But do you know why Cale? What was it about “The Timmonsville Flash” that drew in a young Johnson as he watched on the couch from so far away on the west coast?
“He reminded me of my grandfather a little bit in his personality, so that was a takeaway or a reason that I watched him and was into him. He won a lot when I was watching him race at that point in time, and then that 28 car just looked good. There was just something about it, the looks of the car, it looked mean. It was fast. He had that big crash I think at Talladega, almost went over the fence and the windshield blew out of it. For a young kid, there was just a lot about his personality, his driving style, his winning. I think my grandfather - there was something about his personality that carried over and between all those is why I was drawn to him.”
So it’s no surprise that Jimmie was excited to have Cale on his helmet in anticipation of this most recent milestone. But what’s the full story on how the slick lid came to be?
“It was time for a new helmet. We're trying to increase our inventory of our helmets, and we had one coming in this weekend, and my helmet painter and I discussed doing a tribute helmet. It just felt really good last year to honor Dale and Richard with the helmet that I wore at Homestead and was able to tie those guys with seven championships, and just kind of opened my mind to the opportunity I have to help some younger fans and to honor Cale Yarborough, to help younger fans know the name, know the face. So it's something that's been in the works. It's been under way for a few weeks being painted and it just arrived here this weekend. I really anticipated wearing it more than one race. I'm not prepared for what my next plan is necessarily, so I might wear this helmet for a few more weeks, but it's just a great opportunity. A great opportunity for me to honor Cale and drivers have always used their helmets as their voice and a way to honor someone or send a message, their own personality. There's always been a lot of freedom with the driver's helmet, and I think it's just really been a neat opportunity for me to honor Dale and Richard and now Cale.”
So whether you’re a young fan and the name Yarborough is new to you, or you’ve been watching the roundy-rounds for decades and Cale is a household synonym for “damn good racecar driver” – here’s a crash course on who the NASCAR Hall of Famer is…
Born on March 27, 1939 in Timmonsville, South Carolina, Cale bulked up on the family tobacco farm and put his muscles to use on the field and court as a football, baseball, and basketball stud in high school. He could have even gone pro – but he was lured away from the Washington Redskins by the prospect of wrestling a steering wheel for a living. And not the ones on the school buses he drove (just like Jimmie’s mom!) – the ones inside hot, sweaty, bulky stock cars: just like the ones he had snuck under the fence at Darlington in 1951 to get his first glimpse of. This experience cast the line, but it was his first time behind the wheel at a small dirt track that hooked him for life: “There was metal scraping and dust flying everywhere! Man, this sure beat anything I had ever done. I was as happy as a kid in a candy store.”
The story of his first NASCAR race reads like an Abbot and Costello skit. The following is an excerpt from the August 5, 1968 issue of Sports Illustrated, a publication he would later become only the second NASCAR driver to appear on the cover of:
The official NASCAR record book reads that Cale Yarborough completed 42.6 miles in the 1957 Southern 500 and won $100 in prize money. What it doesn't tell is that Cale was just 17 at the time (the same year he learned to fly) and that the minimum age for Grand National racing is 21. "I've got about five birth certificates on file with NASCAR," Cale said. What happened was that Cale and Bob Weatherly (Wib's brother) and a few other fellows from around Timmonsville took a stocker over to Darlington, but spent so much time getting it through inspection that by race day neither Cale nor Bobby had ever been on the track, which was probably just as well because neither of them had ever raced on a big track before. The car was not qualified, but in those days it did not have to be, and just before the race Cale pulled the car into line behind 75 others.
"I'm sitting in my stocker," Cale remembers, "and ol' Johnny Bruner, the chief steward, comes over and leans in my window and tells me that they've found out about how I'm too young and got to get out of the car. Well, I get out and put Bobby in the car, but right before the race, with all the cars sitting there roaring their engines, I run out of the pits to my car. I go in the right window and Bobby goes out the left, and when the cars pull away I'm sitting right there at the wheel.
"I do a lap or two and then Bruner spots me and black-flags the car off the track. I think it was the bright red shirt I was wearing. Anyway, when I pull in he really burns my behind.
"I put Bobby back in the car, and he goes out and does a few laps. Then I go down to the end of the pit area and signal him to come in for a pit stop. When he gets in we do the same thing: me in one window, him out the other. There was so much confusion with all those cars stopping and stalling and all that Bruner never saw the switch. Now I'm back on the track and I get by with another two or three laps, and then I get spotted again. This time Bruner puts me in his car and drives me clean outside the track. He lets me out on the other side of the fence, but he gets caught in a little traffic while he's getting back into the track.
"I get over the fence and I'm back in my car before he can drive back from the gate, so I get some more laps in. I get scrunched way down in the car so that he can't tell it's me back at the wheel. I go by a time or two with him standing there, and then I'm coming out of the No. 4 turn and he walks right out into the middle of the front straightaway with all these cars flying by and puts his hands up like a traffic cop and stops me. He wouldn't even let me drive around and come in the pits. He stands there and makes me back up against all them cars back to the pit entrance!"
His South Carolina home track would be Grand Central for some of the most memorable moments of Cale’s career. He has said, “I have been under the fence, over the fence, on top of the fence and tried to knock every fence down there.” In 1965 he took a detour clear over the fence and into the parking lot:
Then in 1968 he captured what he now calls his favorite victory in the last Southern 500 on the old Darlington layout in the iconic Wood Brothers No. 21 Mercury – his first win in the event. That same year he even had a production car made in his honor: the 1968 Cale Yarborough Special Edition Mercury Cyclone Spoiler II.
In 1971 Cale took a sidestep from stock cars into a USAC Indy-style racer after losing his Wood Brothers ride after Ford pulled out of racing. This wasn’t his first time in an Indycar, having run the Indy 500 in 1966 and ’67 in the famous Volstedt Bryan Heating & Cooling Special. He would contest a total of 13 events on the USAC championship trail in his career, including four Indianapolis 500’s that netted a best result of tenth in the only one of the four he finished in 1972.
It wasn’t until 1973 that Cale began to run the full series schedule in pursuit of a championship. In 1976 he drove for Junior Johnson, and much like another Johnson you’re very familiar with, he won four races in a row late in the year to secure his first title (Jimmie won four straight in 2007 on the way to his second straight crown). In 1977 he finished every race (quite an accomplishment for the era) and capped the season off with 11-straight top fives to grab his second straight Cup trophy. Sounds a lot like a No. 48 Chase performance, doesn’t it? Then in 1978 he was back at it, matching a personal best ten wins and setting a NASCAR record with his third consecutive premier series championship. It would be thirty years until somebody (you know who) would tie and eventually extend that record to five. Jimmie’s personal best also happens to be ten wins in a single season (2007).
In 1979, two of the six fists that catapulted NASCAR into the national spotlight with “The Fight” at Daytona belonged to tough little Cale, who to this day defends that he was victor by default of that showdown:
Later that same year Cale was in the national eye once again as he starred in an episode of “The Dukes of Hazzard” revolving around the southern racing legend.
After the 1980 season Cale stepped back into part time racing from full time competition to spend more time with his wife and three daughters. This brings us to the era where a young Jimmie Johnson first noticed an orange and white Hardee’s car flying across the television screen.
It was in this Hardee’s get-up that Cale achieved perhaps his most impressive feat at Daytona in 1983. On the first lap of qualifying he became the first driver to eclipse a 200 MPH qualifying lap in NASCAR. On the second lap he did an unintended Neil Armstrong impression as he flew through the air and destroyed his brand new Monte Carlo. Back then they didn’t have backup cars, and the Harry Ranier team scrambled and found a year old Pontiac Le Mans show car appearing at a nearby Hardee’s. The crew prepared the car in time for race day and Cale won his third Daytona 500…in a show car!
When Cale climbed out of the window for the last time after the 1988 Atlanta Journal 500, Jimmie Johnson was still in middle school competing on dirt bikes. In a career that spanned 31 years and 560 starts, Cale won four Daytona 500’s and five Southern 500’s. His 69 poles rank fourth all-time, including a record 12 at Daytona (four in the 500) and a single season record 14 in 1980.
Cale is often asked how they did it back then, and he ponders the same question himself: “Thinking about it, I wonder how we did it, too. As hot as it was and 500 miles around that place [speaking of Darlington], 100 percent concentration, I wonder how we did it, too. It would get so hot you could hardly breathe. A lot of the times our shoes would melt and stick to the floorboard. These boys don’t know how good they got it these days.”
So what does all this mean to Jimmie as he equals that darn tough little driver from Timmonsville?
“The meaning? To remember that old, dirty couch I was sitting on in El Cajon, California, with my parents, we didn't want to turn the A/C on because it cost too much, sweating out in 100 whatever degree heat out in El Cajon and sitting on the couch and pulling for that 28 - to tie him is just mind blowing. I was very fortunate to have a similar experience when I tied him with the three consecutive championships, and he surprised me at the banquet, but to tie him at 83 wins, I swear to you, I only dreamed of winning a race, and to have 83 and to tie him is just absolutely mind blowing.”