Christmas Comes Early in 1983
My Tribute to Cale Yarborough
Since my childhood I have been a Cale Yarborough fan. My dad and I were driving home from Scranton, Pa listening to a race on the radio. My dad asked me, “Who’s your man?” Being nine years old and having no idea of the sport I had not an answer. Hearing the name “Cale Yarborough” and “Chevrolet Monte Carlo”, right then, I made my choice. “It’s Cale Yarborough!”; And he has remained “The Man” ever since. In the years that followed, I saw Cale become a dominant driver. The pride and satisfaction a boy has when his team wins their respective championship I experienced three years in a row. One of my fondest memories of Cale is the turbulent week leading up to the 1983 Daytona 500. This is my story, my tribute to Cale for winning the 83 Daytona 500.
I had just finished watching Cale win the 1982 Southern 500, (a knock down, dragged out fight to the finish between Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty and Cale, when I learned the news.
“Cale would not be driving for the MC Anderson team in 1983.”
This was not quite as upsetting to me as it was two years prior when I learned Cale would be leaving Junior Johnson’s team. If I learned anything these last two years it was that Cale could adapt. The only questions were: Whom would he be driving for, and what type of car? Several weeks after, I learned he would be driving Harry Ranier’s #28 Chevy Monte Carlo with crew chief Waddell Wilson. I couldn’t have been more excited!
Harry Ranier had owned race cars on the circuit since the late 1960’s. In 1978, Ranier hired Waddell Wilson aka “The Prince of Propulsion”, and this team instantly became a threat on the speedways and superspeedways. Horsepower was the byword and the 28 car lead the assault. With drivers such as Lennie Pond, Buddy Baker, Bobby Allison and Benny Parsons the 28 was a consistent front row (usually pole winner) at Talladega, Daytona and Michigan.
With Waddell’s keen ability to make horsepower and such a vast array of talented drivers, the 28 team had reasonable success. From 1978 to 1982 it collected 11 wins including the Daytona 500 in 1980 with Buddy Baker. In the same time period Cale amassed 25 wins. The 28 car was fast but not a consistent contender. The key element needed was a driver who could utilize that superior horsepower to reach new heights. Enter Cale Yarborough.
Cale, known for his toughness and aggressive style, had natural athletic ability and lightning reflexes that remain unmatched in the sport to this day. No other driver has been as intense and as determined as he was. Cale was known for his ability to “make” a car handle. “Get it close and I’ll do the rest”, was his motto. He could manhandle a car better than anyone and had the results to prove it (He won a race at Dover in a car that had no right rear shock absorbers). Cale also had a proven track record at Daytona (where the 28 excelled), being second only to Richard Petty in points paying wins and scoring four Daytona 500 poles (three of which were record setting).
Back then, winning the Daytona 500 meant one of three things: The car was kickass. The driver was kickass. Both the driver and car were kickass. It was not the restrictor plate, escape the carnage race that it is today. In 1983, the cars exceeded their mechanical and physical limits and the drivers had to rein them in for 500 miles. Waddell Wilson was known for making the 28 push the envelope further. There was no bigger daredevil in racing than Cale. So the pairing of Waddell and Cale could not have been a better match.
This is PERFECT! I recall thinking to myself. Driving the 28 car, Cale would no doubt win the 1983 Daytona 500. For me, Christmas would be in February. However, it would not be that easy.
The Busch Clash was the prelude to the Daytona 500. Normally run the Sunday before the 500 and immediately after 500 pole qualifying. However, in 1983 rain postponed both events till Monday (Valentine’s Day). I stayed home with my best friend Dino to watch the Clash. Usually they would announce the winner of the 500 pole and I eagerly anticipated Ken Squire’s announcement that Cale had won. However, this is what I hear Ken Squire Say;
“Hours ago, attempting qualifying, Cale Yarborough turned an astounding lap over 200mph; 200.503 miles per hour to be exact. Then on his second lap, trying to escalate it, going into turn 3, the east banking, the car gets out of control sailing upside down, into the retaining wall and the car was destroyed.”
I was in utter dismay as I watched the 28 (in mid-air) crash head on into the 4th turn wall. The same spot where we would lose the great Dale Earnhardt 18 years later. Shock and concern overcame me but disappointment quickly took their place when they mentioned Cale was uninjured.
Ricky Rudd, driving Richard Childress’ #3 Chevy was awarded the pole at a speed of 198.800 mph, over 1.5mph slower than Cale’s.
In spite of Cale’s misfortune, no finer testament to Cale’s driving skill could have been given as the great AJ Foyt then immediately offering his 500 car for Cale to race in the Busch Clash. What a testimonial!
Back then there were no spotters and no communication between driver and crew chief during qualifying. Cale had no idea he had broken the 200mph barrier, and he poured on the steam for the second lap. However Waddell knew, and all he could do was watch and hope Cale would make it back around. Interestingly, it was later learned on that before the run Cale beat down the rear spoiler with his fists in an effort to get more speed out of the car. Imagine a driver wanting down force taken away!
But the 28 Monte Carlo was destroyed, and so was my certainty of Cale’s chances. Without a backup car on hand the team was resorting to an older show car, a Pontiac Lemans. I’d have to wait until Sunday to see what would unfold.
Sunday arrived and I was glued in front of the TV as the Daytona 500 was about to start. Cale’s third place finish in the second 125 qualifier earned him the 8th qualifying position for the 500. Cale had an in-car camera riding with him, and as field made pace laps he discussed, with confidence, his chances of winning. His tone was soothing and I began to feel he had a good chance of winning. “I am in for a treat”, I thought. Once the green flag dropped several drivers started contending for the lead at a record pace, but Cale had settled in the top ten, not really making a bid for the lead. This was unexpected. I watched and began to worry, wondering what was happening. What is wrong with the car? Can they fix it? It just seemed like something was amiss.
Through a few pit stops, Waddell made some adjustments to the car, and Cale remained firmly on the heels of the leaders. Seeing Cale back there had my tension mounting as this was not how I was used to seeing him race, leading only one lap. That was about to change.
Just as the race passed the halfway mark, Cale started making bids for the lead. Passing the leaders at various spots on the track, then backing off. This on and off demonstration of strength had me on an emotional rollercoaster. Slowly, my confidence was starting to rise as the race reached the stage where (historically) if Cale was in contention, it was his race to lose. Then, in a now historic event Cale, during a caution, called his shot to Ken Squire saying he would be leading after the green flies. He was running fourth at the time, but as promised he shot into the lead. “Wow!” I thought.
As the race ran down to the final ten laps Cale had positioned himself firmly in second place drafting Buddy Baker, the strongest of his challengers, for a last lap slingshot pass.
“He has this race”, I said to my dad. “He certainly does”, my dad replied. Suddenly, I was right back to the place I was when I first learned he was driving the 28 car, confidence high! I inched up closer to the TV and my dad sat up in his chair as the white flag flew. The rest of the world disappeared; it was now only Cale and this race. As the cars started down the backstretch we began shouting.
“Do it up! Do it up! Make her run! Go for it! Yeah!, Go Go Go Go Go Go! Yes! Yes! YEAH, ALL RIGHT!!!!! He did it! WooHoo”. (My mother came running in from the kitchen to watch, curious to all our commotion)
Cale had won the Daytona 500, and my dad and I could not have been more thrilled if we won the race ourselves!
It was the most calculated, methodological and deliberate races I had seen Cale, or anyone, race ever. Pacing himself and instinctively placing his car in the best position throughout the race, Cale would later refer to as to playing a game of “checkers”. It was the first Daytona 500 win for Pontiac since Fireball Roberts’ 1962 win.
As the celebration unfolded for Cale on TV, I was briefly sent back 10 years to the day I was riding with my dad and he asked…
“Who’s your man?”… “It’s Cale Yarborough!”
It felt like Christmas!
Cale would go on to win three more races in 1983. Waddell and the 28 team would resurrect their Monte Carlo, and together they would become a dominate force on the super speedways for next two years, winning 25% of the races they entered.
It was a great time for me and one I appreciate fully to this day. I was just coming of age and started racing my own 63 Impala SS. Whenever I could, I tried to model my driving style after Cale’s and soon began winning at the local track (among other places). Some people even nicknamed me “Cale”.
So Cale, please accept this belated, “Thank You” for giving me an early Christmas in 1983.
Thank You Cale!