In today’s age of safety innovations, it’s easy to take for granted how dangerous racing can be. The 60s and 70s were a particularly bloody era for motorsports as safety couldn’t keep up with increasing speeds.
Today, Mustang Jackie brings us the story of one of NASCAR’s forgotten legends. Like the story of many of the sport’s early stars, the tale of Lee Roy Yarbrough- named as one of NASCAR’s “50 Greatest Drivers”– is a combination of triumph and sorrow.
Dark Side Of NASCAR
Every driver, young and old has a story behind their careers. And some, like “King Richard” Petty, Junior Johnson and Donnie Allison are remembered by even the most casual NASCAR fan. But behind those big names in every race were drivers that memories of them exists only in record books. Their accomplishments that made the sport what it is today are forgotten except for a few.
In the late 1960’s, there was a man that was considered by many to be one of the best drivers to ever get behind the wheel of a race car. He had over 80 victories in NASCAR modified events and 10 wins in the Grand Nationals (now known as the Sprint Cup Series) and raced in the Indy 500. In 1998, as part of NASCAR’s 50th anniversary celebration, he was voted as one of NASCAR’s 50 greatest drivers. But off the track, his life took a tragic and dark turn.
Lee Roy Yarbrough was born on September 17, 1938 in Jacksonville, Florida. At the early age of 12, he built his first car, a ‘33 Ford deuce coupe with a Chrysler engine. A few years later at the age of 16, in 1957 he entered a race at the local dirt track, Jacksonville Speedway and won.
A local race promoter, Julian Klein took the young driver under his wing and in the following 3 years, Lee Roy won more than a 100 Sportsman class races. But with a easy to enflame temper and harsh attitude, Klein grew tired of Lee Roy and they parted ways. Lee Roy disappeared off the radar for a few years, but just as sudden, in 1962 he showed up at Daytona and won the Modified-Sportsman 250 ran every year as a prelim to the Daytona 500. He went on to win 37 more races that year in the Late Model Sportsman class that year and continued to win a total of 83 more races in the next 3 years.
Lee Roy hooked up with car owner Louie Weathersby in 1964 and won two races at two short tracks, Savannah and Greensville in the Grand National Series. Two years later in 1966, Lee Roy got his first “big” win at Charlotte in the National 500. Driving a Dodge Charger owned by Jon Thorne, Lee Roy lead 450 of the 500 mile race.
In 1967, Lee Roy entered the Indy 500 but got into crash with Cale Yarborough and finished 27th. In 1968, he teamed with car owner Junior Johnson’s Ford team with little success. But in 1969, Lee Roy’s career shined, winning the Daytona 500, Darlington Rebel 400, The Firecracker 400 at Daytona, Atlanta’s Dixie 500 and the Southern 500 at Darlington for a sweep. He had a total of 7 wins that year and was voted American Driver Of The Year.
Then in 1970, Lee Roy’s star begin to fade. While doing tire tests at Texas World Speedway, He hit the wall in a severe crash. In fact, it was so hard that Lee Roy couldn’t remember flying home with Cale Yarborough or even driving in the race at Martinsville the following weekend. Following that crash, Lee Roy won his last race at Charlotte.
Three trips to Indy and losses in 1969, 1970 and 1971 and Lee Roy’s star dimmed even more. On May 8th, 1971, he was driving a car at Indianapolis for Dan Gurney and crashed into the wall. For the next several months, Lee Roy was in and out of the hospital with memory lapses and severe depression.
In 1972, Lee Roy drove a Ford for Bill Seifert and got nine top 10 finishes in 18 starts. And in 1973, he attempted a spot in the Daytona 500 but failed to qualify and was a “go homer”. After that, he never again attended a NASCAR event.
Then in February of 1980, Lee Roy was at home watching TV with his 65 year old mother. He quietly got up, walked over to her and put his hands around her neck and tried to strangle her. A nephew in another room heard the scuffle and had to grab a full jelly jar from the kitchen and hit Lee Roy on the head. And when a police officer arrived shortly after, Lee Roy scuffled with him and attempted to grab the officer’s gun.
That night, Lee Roy became the first and only Daytona 500 winner to be charged with attempted murder and assault on a police officer, both felonies. Later, he was judged incompetent to stand trial and committed to a mental hospital.
From then on, Lee Roy spent more time in mental institutions than out. Most insiders believe it all started with that crash in Texas combined with alcohol abuse through the years. Then on December 7th, 1984, Lee Roy died from yet another head injury caused by falling during a violent seizure.
Most racing fans today have never heard of Lee Roy Yarbrough, although a few might see his name in a trivia contest ocassionally. And a some think he was a “black sheep” relative of Cale Yarborough even though their names are spelled different. And each year during the festivities at the Daytona 500, chances are you won’t hear his name mentioned as one of the winners. Richard Petty once said “Lee Roy just had one speed….wide open. He didn’t figure nothin’, he didn’t plan nothin’, he just ran flat out lap after lap. He put everything into that strategy….full speed ahead.”
Today, safety innovations such as the HANS device, safer barriers and the COT provide drivers with state of the art defenses against injuries and death during races. It is a shame that Lee Roy, among so many others paid such a high price to give today’s drivers that extra safety.