CONCORD, N.C., Oct. 3, 2001 - Thirty-five years ago this fall, the late LeeRoy Yarbrough won his first superspeedway race in what was then the National 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The driver who went on to claim 10 more superspeedway...
CONCORD, N.C., Oct. 3, 2001 - Thirty-five years ago this fall, the late LeeRoy Yarbrough won his first superspeedway race in what was then the National 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The driver who went on to claim 10 more superspeedway trophies, including the Triple Crown of NASCAR in 1969, won that first superspeedway race in a purple Dodge Charger.
The win at Charlotte (now Lowe's Motor Speedway) was the third Grand National victory for the 28-year-old driver from Jacksonville, Fla. Yarbrough started 17th and quickly showed that his Dodge Charger was the class of the field as he moved into seventh place by the second lap. He took the lead for the first time on the 19th lap and led 301 laps on his way to an 18-second margin of victory.
Yarbrough started his NASCAR career in 1960 and endured plenty of frustration and disappointment on his way to that first superspeedway win. His comments after the win showed his relief as it all came together for him that day. "I've always known a race car could perform this way, and that it would be possible to have the fastest car in the field and nothing go wrong," said Yarbrough then. "But I've never experienced it. I've had the fastest car before but always had trouble."
The win was the first NASCAR Grand National victory for 21-year-old car owner Jon Thorne of Valdosta, Ga. Thorne, Yarbrough and Dodge got their second win together in the first 100-mile qualifier for the 1967 Daytona 500. Yarbrough passed A.J. Foyt with five laps to go and held on to win by a car length. Starting third on the grid for the Daytona 500, Yarbrough led four times for a total of 10 laps before mechanical problems sent him to the garage. He was awarded 34th place in the 50-car field.
Yarbrough drove two more races for Thorne and Dodge before switching to Bud Moore's team in June. He stayed with Moore through September and then joined forces with Junior Johnson. The Yarbrough/Johnson partnership clicked and led to Yarbrough's greatest success on the race track. Driving for Johnson in 1969, Yarbrough won an incredible seven superspeedway races, including the Big Three - Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway, World 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway, and Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Yarbrough is one of only three drivers to win those races in the same year. Unfortunately, Yarbrough won the Triple Crown long before R.J. Reynolds offered $1 million to anyone who could do it. He was NASCAR's top money winner that year at $188,605.
"It was a great year," recalled Johnson. "We won half the races we ran. I'm not taking anything away from my car, but you just have to give it to him (Yarbrough). He was beyond any other driver there was at that particular time with taking chances and just going beyond what anybody thought anybody would do.
"He just out-nerved most of the drivers that he ran that year. It was unbelievable to see the chances he'd take," continued Johnson. "LeeRoy had no, you might say, respect for fear at all. He just didn't. Nothing out-nerved him and that's basically the way he won some of them races we were in. He'd just keep going deeper and deeper. Whatever it took to beat somebody, that's what he did."
The first time Johnson noticed Yarbrough behind the wheel he was driving a Modified at Daytona. Johnson also saw Yarbrough drive in the Grand National division. "He won a race or two with different people before he came with me," said Johnson. "You could tell he had unbelievable nerve by just watching him drive. I felt like if I could kind of tame him down a little bit, he'd make a great race driver." One part of Johnson's idea didn't work. "He was just as wide open when we separated as he was when we started. Even as wild as he was, he still made a great race driver."
Starting his racing career on the dirt tracks near Jacksonville, Yarbrough made 198 Grand National and Winston Cup starts from 1960 to 1972. He won a total of 14 events and had 64 top-five finishes and 92 top-10s. He also captured 11 Winston Cup poles, two of them in 1966 (Firecracker 400 at Daytona and Southern 500 at Darlington) driving the same slope-backed Dodge Charger he later used to win the National 500.
Yarbrough was also a key participant in one of the more interesting footnotes in NASCAR history. On February 26, 1965, Yarbrough teamed up with Dodge and legendary engine builder and car owner Ray Fox to set a new record at Daytona International Speedway. Driving a No. 3 Dodge Coronet with a supercharged and fuel-injected 426-cubic-inch Hemi engine, Yarbrough circled the fabled track at 181.818 mph. The pole winner for the Daytona 500 two weeks earlier had lapped the track 10 miles an hour slower at 171.151 mph.
Fox says Yarbrough could have set a faster time but track officials black-flagged him when they thought he blew the engine. Yarbrough shut it off between the third and fourth turn and coasted through the timing lights when he said the record. What the officials actually saw, says Fox, was tire smoke.
"It (the Hemi engine) had so much horsepower that he spun the wheels going down the backstretch," said Fox. "Of course, the tires had treads on 'em then and they weren't really very wide, and when they spun down the backstretch they smoked. They thought he blew an engine, so they put the red lights on him and he had to get off it. He ended up really getting off of it part way through the 3rd and 4th turns, so he threw the clutch in and coasted it all the way to the start/finish line and still run almost 182 mph."
It turned out to be a lucky break that track officials turned the red lights on before Yarbrough went hard into the fourth turn at Daytona. When Yarbrough returned to the pits, the crew found a 5/16-inch bolt in the left front tire.
Fox says Yarbrough had a tremendous amount of talent. "He reminds me of (the late) Tim Richmond," said Fox. "LeeRoy and him were cut out of the same orange, or whatever. They just drove the same. They were fantastic and knew what it took for the car to handle, and they told myself and Harry Hyde what to do to the car to make it better." Fox says Yarbrough was comfortable in a loose-handling race car, which was the fastest way to get around the race track and through the turns.
Regrettably, Yarbrough's racing career was cut short by a number of problems including several hard crashes, a near-fatal case of Rocky Mountain spotted fever and, friends noted, heavy drinking. Two of the most severe crashes took place at Texas International Speedway - while testing tires in April 1970 - and Indianapolis Motor Speedway -practicing for the Indianapolis 500 in 1971. The fever came later and by 1972, Yarbrough quit stock car racing and returned to Jacksonville.
His health continued to deteriorate throughout the 1970s but the public was unaware of his physical and mental problems until he was arrested on Feb. 13, 1980. The police report said he tried to strangle his 65-year-old mother Minnie. A judge declared Yarbrough mentally incompetent and he spent the next few years in and out of hospitals. He died Dec. 7, 1984, from internal bleeding after hitting his head in a fall. He was 46.
Nearly 30 years after he left stock car racing, family, friends and fans still fondly remember Yarbrough. Several Web sites today recall the glory days, including his final NASCAR Grand National victory at Lowe's Motor Speedway in 1970 when he won the National 500 for the second time. One Web site shows the white No. 3 Dodge Coronet he drove to a new speed record at Daytona. Another site shows the purple No. 12 Dodge Charger he used to shock the racing establishment by wining a superspeedway race in an independent, unsponsored race car.
"LeeRoy was capable of winning any race," said Johnson. "A lot of people have an opportunity to win four or five times a year, but he was one driver that I know had the capability of winning every race he went to. He was just a great race driver. I enjoyed working with him, and I was sorry his career was cut short."
"Nice person," said Fox of Yarbrough. "Very nice person."
This week in Dodge history:
* 10/4/70 - Bobby Isaac and the K&K Insurance Dodge won the Wilkes 400 at North Wilkesboro Speedway in North Carolina. Starting from the pole, Isaac led seven times for 179 laps in a classic battle with Richard Petty, who led five times for 214 laps. It was the 11th and final win of the season for Isaac, the 1970 NASCAR Grand National Champion. The win also helped Dodge win its first NASCAR Manufacturer's Championship.
* 10/5/75 - Richard Petty led the final 111 laps and won the National 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina. The victory, Petty's 12th that year, was the most any driver had attained in a single season in the so-called modern era. Petty won again in 1975 for a total of 13 wins, a record tied by Jeff Gordon in 1998. Petty went on to win his sixth of seven Winston Cup Series titles that year, and Dodge won its second NASCAR Manufacturer's Championship.
* 10/7/99 - From its headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich., Dodge announced the beginning of a 500-day countdown for its return to the NASCAR Winston Cup Series after an absence of more than 15 years. Follow-up news conferences were held that month in New York City and Talladega, Ala.