Lee Roy Yarbrough decided when he was a small boy in Jacksonville, Florida, that one day he would race cars. At fourteen in 1952 he lied about his age to obtain a licence and left school to race self-built machines on dirt tracks. It was obvious from his successes there that he would graduate to become one of the United States' top motor sportsmen.
The Atlanta 500
Such was his fame and total domination that race promoters offered $500 to anyone that could beat him and he also ran in challenge events at night. In 1960 he took part in his first NASCAR Grand National race, finishing a lowly 33rd in the Atlanta 500. Two seasons later he raced exclusively in NASCAR-sanctioned races, running in the Sportsman class as well as the premier Grand National category.
One of his first major victories was at Daytona International Speedway where he won the Permatex 250. Successes began in Grand National contests in 1964 when he gained two victories and won $15,155; in thirteen other races he placed in the top ten. But he was lucky to be alive. Earlier in the season he had crashed in the Permatex 250 and was trapped in the fiery wreck of his machine. Quick action by fellow drivers Fred Lorcnzcn, Larry Frank; and G. C. Spencer saved his life.
Top entrant Ray Fox invited Yarbrough to drive for him in 1965. He was always in contention, but either his machinery failed or he became involved in rivals' accidents. He did, however, lap Daytona at 181.818 mph in a specially-prepared Dodge on a dull day when a 20 mph crosswind affected the car's stability. Next year Yarbrough attacked the Indianapolis 500. He had passed his 'rookie' test in 1965, and for 1966 was armed with a Gerhardt-Offenhauser. His ambition was shattered when Greg Weld destroyed it during a test run.
As some small consolation he won his first Super Speedway NASCAR Grand National race, the National 500 at Charlotte. In 1968 Yarbrough had Ford factory support for a ride in Junior Johnson-prepared Fords and Mercuries. After the enormous promise shown in previous years, victories should have come by the dozen. But it didn't work out quite like that. Somehow misfortune overtook him time and again. In the classic of Super Speedway races, the Daytona 500, he led until the closing seconds when Cale Yarborough
beat him. In the Atlanta 500 he was black-flagged for allegedly overtaking under a yellow caution flag and in the Rebel 500 he was a poor fifth after tire problems.
A Record-Breaking Season
The only bright spot of the season was victory in the Dixie 500 at Atlanta. Most of his successes came at the wheel of Ford cars. He also participated in single-seater USAC races from time to time but without much success - And then came 1969 and Yarbrough's record-breaking season. He scored a superb victory in the Daytona 500, overtaking Charlie Glotzbach within seconds of the chequered flag. He won the Rebel 400 and the World 600 and, despite making one more pit stop than his rivals, put the Firecracker 400 under his belt as well. He had equalled NASCAR's all-time record of four Super Speedway victories in a season, and there was more to come.
Despite wrecking his car during midweek testing, it was back in one piece to win the Dixie 500 and then came a car-length victory over David Pearson in the Southern 500. His car was wrecked again during trials prior to the American 500, but his spare machine was taken hurriedly from an exhibition in time for the second day of qualifying and Yarbrough won again. Seven Super Speedway victories plus fourteen other places in the top ten from the thirty starts gave Lee Roy a record prize total of $188,605 for the year. He had also competed in the Indianapolis 500 in an Eagle-Ford, qualified on the third row of the grid and despite an accident still won $12,508.
Ford ended his winning streak by withdrawing from racing at the end of the year, leaving Yarbrough without a sponsor. He found some backing from Jim Robbins, but the budget did not permit a full season of Super Speedway racing to be contemplated for 1970. He won the National 400 at Charlotte and in the World 600 at the same track took over Donnie Allison's car after his own machine had broken down. Yarbrough was now a rich man, living in luxury with his wife Gloria in White Rock, South Carolina, but his successes were becoming fewer. He tried USAC racing once more, qualifying for the fifth row of the grid for the 1970 Indiana polis 500 but retiring in the actual race. Driving a works Brabham BT32-0ffy, he also led the inaugural California 500 at the Ontario Motor Speedway until the engine gave out eight laps from the end.
The 1971 season was spoilt by illness and in 1972 it was back to NASCAR, although no victories were chalked up to his credit. In 1972, he accepted a ride in a Ford owned by independent campaigner Bill Seifert. He registered nine top 10 finishes in 18 starts. Yarbrough showed up for Daytona's 1973 Speedweeks, but failed to earn a starting berth for the Daytona 500. He virtually dropped out of sight after that, never again showing up at a NASCAR event.