Remembering Cale Yarborough

June 19, 2024
Tom Poland

By Tom Poland


The breaking news alert held just 29 words.

“Cale Yarborough, a NASCAR great, dies at 84. Known for his fierce toughness and grit, Mr. Yarborough won the Daytona 500 four times and the Southern 500 five times.”

His death brought back memories from two of this writing cat’s nine lives. In the 1960s, before NASCAR races were routine TV broadcasts, you listened on the radio. Many a Sunday afternoon, Dad and I sat by the radio pulling for King Richard. Among Petty’s competitors was one William Caleb Yarborough. I would meet Cale many years later.

Photo from Wiki Commons

Back when I had dark hair, I worked at the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources as a scriptwriter and cinematographer. Cale Yarborough, a friend of the boss-man, agreed to do a TV spot—public service announcement—on the importance of responsible outdoor recreation: not littering, not shooting holes in road signs, observing game limits, those kinds of things.

And so, one blistering hot summer day, my partner and I packed up our gear and drove off to a backroad near Timmonsville, South Carolina, a place in the country not that far from Darlington Raceway, “the lady in black, the track too tough to tame.” We filmed Cale leaning on a cedar-post fence near his driveway. No cue cards needed. He memorized his lines.

After many takes, we wrapped things up. Yarborough invited us inside to his trophy room, a long rectangular space of glass cases filled with glittering trophies. Three Winston Cup Championships and 83 career victories had made him a legend but he was just a friendly man of the South that day. His wife served us iced tea.

Back in Columbia, we placed the film magazine in a changing bag—a portable darkroom—to unload it. There was no film. We’d been shooting on an empty magazine. All those takes wasted. A week later we called Cale and scheduled another shoot, telling him the lab had gotten air bubbles on the film, a problem that sometimes ruins prints. (We had to save face somehow.)

Back we went. Again, it was brutally hot. Again, we put Cale through all the takes. Again, he and his gracious wife served us iced tea, and again we headed back to Columbia confident we had what we needed.

A week later, the film returned from the film lab with the aforementioned air bubbles, which show up as “craters” on processed film. The print was useless. Again we called Cale and rescheduled a third shoot. As soon as we set foot on his property, he walked up.

“You fellows sure you know what you are doing?”

The public service spot with Cale Yarborough was a simple assignment, though we and bad luck botched the shoots. The third time, however, was the charm. We dubbed in the sounds of wild birds, and soon TV stations across South Carolina and along the Georgia border were televising the NASCAR legend touting responsible outdoor recreation, complete with birdcalls.

It’s been 44 years since I met Cale. As of December 31, 2023 he went to that racetrack in the sky. I no longer make films. Dad left us in 2003, and I no longer follow NASCAR.

I’m sure NASCAR drivers still make public service spots, but I don’t see any. Maybe Cale told them TV spots were a lot of trouble. Maybe he told them they fake the birdcalls. I’ll never know, but I remember a legend from the days when Dad and I glued our ears to the radio most Sundays.

They named a highway after Cale. Whenever I drive it, I remember three afternoons with a legend, a man who helped put NASCAR on the map.


Georgia native Tom Poland writes a weekly column about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and culture and speaks frequently to groups in the South. Governor Henry McMaster conferred the Order of the Palmetto upon Tom, South Carolina’s highest civilian honor, stating, “His work is exceptional to the state.” Poland’s work appears in books, magazines, journals, and newspapers throughout the South.

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