Essay: How Cale Yarborough and the 1979 Daytona 500 made a fan for life

Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough chat before the Daytona 500 in 1979, a fateful race and year for both.
NASCAR Research & Archives Center
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I remember the crying, maybe most of all. The finish to the Daytona 500 in 1979 left a lasting impression on my 6-year-old self, not just because of the dramatic nature of the final lap but because Cale Yarborough was my driver.

That, gentle reader, was my agonizing introduction to how sports can break your heart. The scoffers who say, “it’s just a game” or in this case, “just a race,” may not fully comprehend just how hard the sports world can tug on those inner-most emotions, but watching Yarborough’s blue-and-white No. 11 Oldsmobile clang alongside Donnie Allison’s deep-red No. 1 Olds before crashing and sliding helplessly out of the race turned on a faucet of tears. A replay of the wreck on the 6 o’clock news the next day reopened the wound.

Nearly 45 years later, that finish still holds up, and Cale Yarborough is still my driver.

Yarborough’s death on the last day of last year brought those sorts of emotional connections back for many in the NASCAR industry. His legacy as one of stock-car racing’s most tenacious drivers was remembered with reverence, and his mark on the sport will be forever enshrined in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which will induct the Class of 2024 – including his ’79 foil in Allison — in gala ceremonies this Friday.

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Becoming a Yarborough fan came easy, thanks to his enduring speed and no-prisoners driving style, but his dominance as a Cup Series champion through the mid- to late-1970s put his name in plenty of headlines as I started to read the sports pages. Yarborough’s familiar No. 11 was also a fixture in the pages of my dad’s hand-me-down Stock Car Racing and Circle Track magazines, usually up front.

But at least in part, the fandom was owed to that broadcast, Yarborough’s name, and how Ken Squier said it. Squier – a Hall of Famer himself who preceded Yarborough in death by just six weeks – had a knack for making race-car drivers seem like larger-than-life figures who wrestled heavy machines at great risk around palaces built for breakneck speed. But Squier also stretched every syllable of Yarborough’s name just so, including an emphatic “Caaaaaaallle!” whenever his car entered the picture.

Like much of the East Coast that fateful February day, the piedmont and foothills of North Carolina were blanketed by the near-record snowfall that kept a wide swath of the U.S. population indoors and around their TV sets. Our home wore a rare 10-inch coat of white, but no matter if the weather had been a sunny 75 degrees, our family would have been a captive television audience. With just four channels back then and broadcast media rights nothing like the wall-to-wall blockbuster deals of today, any televised auto racing coverage was a novelty. A 500-mile race shown live, from green to checkered flag? Unheard of.

Yarborough’s rally into contention after an earlier tangle with the Allison brothers only stoked false hopes as Squier boomed, “It’s all come down to this!” The block, the slide and the crash all meant anguish. The jubilation of the winning No. 43 team after Richard Petty had snapped his longest losing streak to date was barely a ripple from my beanbag-chair point of view.

NASCAR Classics: 1979 Daytona 500 full replay

Donnie Allison became a villain who tied fair damsels to railroad tracks. Each driver blamed the other for their final-lap collision, but my allegiance to Yarborough helped shape those opinions into facts about who was in the right. If you’d asked 6-year-old me to name the most evil thing there is, I’d have probably still ranked the devil over Donnie Allison, but I would have had to think about it.

That same last-lap slingshot tactic provided reason to cheer Yarborough’s Daytona 500 wins in 1983 and ’84, and I softened my stance on Allison after both drivers sunsetted their careers. When Yarborough stopped by our office before his Hall of Fame induction, I saw them both having a cordial conversation, with Allison promising to stop by Yarborough’s farm in the coming days. There was a handshake, smiles and a hearty pat on the back – all unimaginable for kindergarten me.

Also unthinkable was an assignment I received roughly 10 years ago for a 1-on-1 interview with Yarborough in the Hall’s Legends Room. His wife, Betty Jo, was seated beside him for the introduction and the question-and-answer session, which went well despite the nerves. At the end, I thanked him for his time and shared in some small talk before he departed.

I briefly considered telling him about my rooting interest and how much the 1979 race had cemented that. I didn’t, ultimately deciding against putting him on the spot and having a professional conversation turn into a personal one.

But Cale Yarborough is still my driver.

Zack Albert, age 7 or 8, with Cale Yarborough's No. 11 show car at an auto parts store in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Albert family photo