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Lonnie Lee Roy Yarbrough

Lee Roy Yarbrough
After a vicious stock-car crash in 1970, Lee Roy Yarbrough's story spun downward into one of the saddest tales ever told.

On a Thursday evening in February 1980, Minnie Yarbrough and her son, Lee Roy, were watching television in the little house on Plymouth Road in Jacksonville, Florida, when Lee Roy said, “Mother, I hate to do this to you.” “What do you mean?” Minnie said to her son. And Lee Roy showed her what he meant. He reached around her neck, and with both hands, he began to strangle her. A nephew heard his aunt’s screams, rushed into the room, and tried to pull Lee Roy away but couldn’t. So he grabbed a full jelly jar from the kitchen and clocked Lee Roy over the head. Even so, Lee Roy had enough left in him to fight the first police officer who arrived a few minutes later.

That night, Lee Roy Yarbrough, at 41, became the first and thus far only Daytona 500 winner to be charged with first-degree attempted murder for trying to kill his 65-year-old mother, plus assault on a police officer, both felonies. Many thought it was the beginning of the end for the only racer to be unanimously voted Driver of the Year, bracketed between Mark Donohue and Al Unser. But Lee Roy Yarbrough had been slipping into a dark place for nearly a decade, though few outside NASCAR knew it.

In February, Daytona International Speedway held a big celebration for the 50th anniversary of the Daytona 500, with all 24 living winners of the race showing up. Very little was said about Lee Roy Yarbrough, who had positively dominated the track, and the sport, in 1969. Next February, when the anniversary of his win arrives—not only at the Daytona 500 but in the Sportsman race there the day before and later that July in the Firecracker 400—fans who remember Yarbrough shouldn’t expect much of a formal mention of him then, either.

No one at NASCAR likes sad stories, and they don’t come much sadder than this one. But when he was on top, no driver was considered more fearless or more focused. “Lee Roy had just one speed—wide open,” says Richard Petty. “He didn’t figure nothin’, didn’t plan nothin’, just ran flat-out lap after lap. And if he could get by with it, he was up front. If he didn’t, he was in the pits. He put everything into that one strategy—full speed ahead.”

Broad-shouldered and handsome, slicked-back hair, a dimpled chin, big sideburns, and improbably white teeth, Lee Roy was loved by the camera. No one looked better in the victory photos with the inevitable blond trophy girl beside him. Self-confident to the point of being cocky, Lee Roy was guarded and professional with the media, but outside the spotlight, he was a hard-partying friend to those he liked, including his crew. One recalls that following a NASCAR win in South Carolina, “Lee Roy bought a Lincoln Town Car—one of those huge ones, like the funeral homes have.” He piled his crew into the Lincoln, and they visited every whorehouse in town. “It’s all on me, fellas,” Yarbrough said.

And he was good enough for other series to request his presence. He drove a Ford G7A in the first Can-Am race at Road Atlanta, competing against sports-car superstars Denny Hulme, Bob Bondurant, and Vic Elford. He raced in the Trans-Am Series, with drivers Mark Donohue, Peter Revson, and Parnelli Jones. Yarbrough was an unlikely presence in the pits for sports-car races. Judy Stropus, the lead scorer for Bud Moore’s Mercury Cougar Trans-Am team that Yarbrough drove for, suspects he “thought of us as prim, proper, and prissy. And I suspect we may have considered him a country bumpkin. But he certainly could drive.”

Three times he raced in the Indianapolis 500, and he was going for a fourth when during practice he crashed one of Dan Gurney’s Eagles, damaging the car too severely to continue. Gurney raced against Yarbrough several times in Indy cars and stock cars before hiring him to drive in the 1971 Indianapolis 500. “Lee Roy came to race,” Gurney says. “Back then—and I a bunch of race-car drivers in the same room, they try hard to establish a sort of unspoken pecking order. It was meant to intimidate. You wanted to give the impression that if you and I were going into the same corner side by side, that you should probably be the one to back off. “And Lee Roy was very good at that. Very good.”

Lonnie Lee Roy Yarbrough was born in Jacksonville on September 17, 1938. One of six children, he grew up in the part of town called Westside, a blue-collar neighborhood where, on Saturday night, the sound of the local dirt track just up the road beckoned. Even before he was old enough to drive, Lee Roy began working on a 1934 Ford, dropping a Chrysler engine into it, and was soon terrorizing the local police on public roads. Finally, at 19, he entered a race at Jacksonville Speedway Park and won it. From then on, there was no doubt what Lee Roy, who had dropped out of public school years before, would do with the rest of his life.

Cars were a passion. When he wasn’t hanging around Tommy Moon’s neighborhood garage, he was working on his cars in the front yard, where helpers included neighborhood kids who watched through the fence as he raced at the Jacksonville track. One of those neighbor kids intended to follow Lee Roy’s footsteps into auto racing and would tell his friends that he would someday be as famous as Yarbrough. He was correct, but it was to be in a different field: Ronnie Van Zant was the founder and lead singer for the band Lynyrd Skynyrd. He was just 29 when he and two members of the band died in a plane crash in 1977. “There was always racing around the house,” recalls Yarbrough’s younger sister, Evelyn Motel. Once Lee Roy began working his way up the racing ladder, drivers such as Richard Petty and Ned Jarrett would stop by the house for Minnie Yarbrough’s chicken dinners when they were in town racing.

Yarbrough broke into NASCAR in the modified class, winning 83 races in three years before finally getting his first Grand National start—that’s what the Sprint Cup series is now—in Atlanta in October of 1960, when he was 22. He qualified 18th, but after blowing a tire and crashing, he finished 33rd, one spot ahead of Glenn “Fireball” Roberts. It wasn’t until 1964 that he began to get some competitive rides, winning his first race at Savannah, Georgia—only 11 other cars showed up—and another on a dirt track in Greenville, South Carolina. He managed to enter 34 races in 1964, but NASCAR ran 62 Grand National races that year, so even a couple of wins at smaller dirt tracks still did not raise Lee Roy’s stock. But he nonetheless finished 15th in the points, one spot behind Junior Johnson; several years later those two would pair for the best season in either man’s career.

In fact, Johnson helped get Yarbrough one of his earliest competitive rides, driving for Ray Fox, who built Johnson’s Daytona 500-winning Chevrolet in 1960. “We went up to Hickory Speedway in North Carolina,” says Olin Hopes, later a crewman for Fox on Yarbrough’s car, “and we took a car for Junior and one for Ray,” who was still driving then. Lee Roy was there, and he put on a show. “Afterwards, Junior came up to Ray and said, ‘Hire that boy. He’s a driver.’ ”

Fox and Yarbrough had moderate success, but the pair is, perhaps, best known for a publicity stunt that took place in February 1965 at Daytona International Speedway. Dodge, in one of many manufacturer disputes with NASCAR, had pulled out of racing but supplied Fox with a 1965 Coronet and told him and Lee Roy to take it to Daytona and set a closed-course speed record. Fox supercharged the Hemi V-8 and added fuel injection and a bag of drag-racing tricks, including a big air scoop and a hunkered-down body. With close to 1000 horsepower, Lee Roy spun the rear tires practically all the way around the dusty track, then went on to reportedly clock 240 mph on a straightaway. They settled for an official speed of 181.81 mph, a record. They could have gone faster, but Lee Roy heard a sound he didn’t like from the front end of the car—a click-click-click—and he pitted. It was a big bolt imbedded in the tread of the right-front Firestone: The front-page photo of the Daytona Beach Evening News the next day showed the dimpled, smiling Lee Roy, pointing at the bolt still lodged in the tire.

Lee Roy began to get offers to drive better and better cars, and finally the call came in late 1967: Car owner Junior Johnson, by then retired from driving, thought he could do better than his current driver, Darel Dieringer, and gave Yarbrough a shot. Things did not go particularly well that year. The team missed the important National 500 at Charlotte when, during practice, the onboard fire extinguisher went off, blinding Lee Roy, who crashed the car, totaling it. The 1968 season wasn’t much better: They ran 26 of the 49 races that season, with two victories, though Lee Roy finished second at both Daytona races.

Then came 1969, and everything clicked. Lee Roy, then 30, had experience and maturity, and more than a year to come to an understanding with his equally mercurial, opinionated crew chief, Herb Nab. The team entered 30 of the 54 races, won seven, with 21 top-10 finishes. Lee Roy was the first driver to win NASCAR’s “Triple Crown”—the Daytona 500, the Firecracker 400, and the Southern 500 at Darlington. In 1985, Bill Elliott won that year’s version of the Triple Crown and earned a record $1 million for it. Yarbrough’s total purse for 1969: $193,211.

Then in 1970, the wheels started to come off the Johnson/Yarbrough juggernaut, in part because sponsorship and factory support was waning. Yarbrough ran just 19 races, with one lone win at Charlotte, and only then because most of the top cars had crashed. In 1971, Lee Roy ran only six races, none after that May practice crash at Indianapolis in Dan Gurney’s Eagle. In 1972, Lee Roy attempted a comeback, driving mostly for journeyman privateer Bill Seifert, but something was wrong. He entered 18 races and managed five top-five finishes, but four times Yarbrough needed a relief driver to complete the race. He was periodically late for races, or just didn’t show up at all. At the Nashville 400 in Tennessee on August 27, he qualified 13th, then on the pace lap fell to the back, pulled into pit lane, drove to the garage, and walked away. He finished 28th of 28 cars, completed zero laps, and the official reason for retiring from the race: “Quit.” By then, no one bothered to ask why—it was just Lee Roy. A month later, Lee Roy qualified 16th in Seifert’s Ford at the Old Dominion 500 at Martinsville, Virginia, and crashed on lap 108. It was his last race. Four races remained in the season, and Seifert used four different drivers.

Lee Roy showed up at Daytona for Speed Week in 1973, a ghost. No one would take a chance on him. It was, as far as anyone knows, the last time Lee Roy Yarbrough was at a NASCAR track. At 34, his career was over. Exactly what went wrong is a matter of substantial speculation. Undeniably, his problems started in April 1970, when he crashed hard during a tire test at the old Texas World Speedway. When close friend and fellow driver Cale Yarborough visited Lee Roy in the hospital, he could tell something wasn’t right. Several weeks later, Cale, a pilot like Yarbrough—who was one of the first NASCAR drivers to pilot his own plane—offered to fly Lee Roy to the race in Rockingham because he knew Yarbrough had no business in any cockpit. While Lee Roy looked fine, he was different: distant, unresponsive, and on the racetrack, less aggressive. The following week, Lee Roy could not remember flying home.

Those close to Lee Roy knew something was wrong, but he denied it and continued trying to find rides. Then came the hard crash at Indianapolis, and things just got worse. Jim Hunter, director of public relations for NASCAR, knew Yarbrough since the beginning. During one of Lee Roy’s last trips to Daytona, Hunter volunteered to pick him up at the airport curb. Hunter circled the lot three times before he even recognized his old friend: The black hair had turned gray; his always trim physique had gone to seed. And then Yarbrough failed to recognize Hunter. Toward the end, “He didn’t know where he was,” Hunter said. “I felt so sorry for him.”

Junior Johnson, who considers Lee Roy probably the best driver he ever had, was determined to find out what was wrong. “He could remember everything from 1970 back, nothing forward,” Johnson says. “And it seemed like it just happened all at once. You’d go to dinner with him, and they’d put a plate of food in front of him, and he’d just sit and look at it until you said, ‘Lee Roy, eat.’ Then he’d pick up his knife and fork.”

There was no question Lee Roy was drinking more than he should, but Evelyn, his sister, insists that “I never saw him drunk. Not once.” There were painkillers, and maybe they contributed to Lee Roy’s gradually increasing dementia. There was also the question of the tick bite. During a camping trip in 1971, Yarbrough was reportedly bitten by a tick and developed Rocky Mountain spotted fever. That’s the story that many NASCAR old-timers have chosen to believe, though Johnson is not convinced. “He claimed he got bit by a spider or a tick. I don’t know. All I know, he wasn’t never the same again.”

James Hylton, at 73, one of a handful of still-active drivers who raced against Lee Roy, blames “that doggone tick. The Rocky Mountain spotted fever—if it goes untreated, it’s a mental thing, and it’ll drive you insane. They gave Lee Roy so much medication when they finally did treat it that it eventually caused his death. He just deteriorated to the point where he was unmanageable. The man did not deserve that. Lee Roy was one of the good ones.”

Ray Fox, one of Lee Roy’s first car owners, is 92. And he thinks he knows what happened to him. “Racing happened to Lee Roy. Just too many crashes. And they sent him off the deep end.” After 1973, Lee Roy’s decline continued. It cost him his marriage to his wife, Gloria, and later in his life, he couldn’t remember his two children, Lee Roy Glenn and Nicole. “Sometimes,” says his sister, Evelyn, “he’d just break down and start crying. It was so sad.” Lee Roy often wandered the Westside streets, having long since lost his driver’s license, and periodically the NASCAR community would get reports of Lee Roy getting into brawls, living with one relative, then another, as he became harder and harder to handle. But mostly, they forgot about Lee Roy.

Then came February 13, 1980, when Lee Roy tried to kill Minnie, his mother. It was the eve of the qualifying races for the Daytona 500, and while that adds some irony, there’s no evidence Lee Roy had any idea. By then, he had been in and out of mental hospitals: Junior Johnson figures he spent $250,000 sending Lee Roy to hospitals, but he continued to slip away. Doctors diagnosed his problem as “chronic brain syndrome,” a generic term that meant they didn’t know what was wrong, either.

A month after the incident with his mother, Lee Roy was committed to a mental hospital after the judge heard testimony that Yarbrough had “demonstrated violent tendencies, memory lapses, and irrational conduct since 1977.” Five months later, Lee Roy was found not guilty of attempted murder by reason of insanity. He left the courtroom, arm in arm with Minnie, and told reporters: “I love my mother. I love my mother just as much as you love yours.” He was released to the custody of Evelyn, his sister, to be shipped off to a mental hospital in North Carolina for evaluation. But there was nothing they could do. Bill Baird, NASCAR chaplain, told United Press International in September 1980, “Even in their wildest hopes, the doctors said there was not even a one-in-a-million shot of helping him. He’s helpless in the most acute sense of the word.”

He tried to go back home to Jacksonville to live with Evelyn and her family, but by November, it was too much for everyone concerned, and Lee Roy was committed to nearby Macclenny Hospital. And that is where he died on December 7, 1984. Lee Roy had suffered a seizure, and fell and hit his head. He was 46. He was buried at Peoria Cemetery, next to his mother, Minnie, who died a year earlier, and his father, Lonnie. His gravestone has a big urn next to it that says NASCAR, and it is usually filled with flowers. There are visitors but not many. His sister, Evelyn, prefers to remember her big brother’s sense of humor and his love for his family. “I wish he had been able to die with some dignity,” she said. “But I guess we wish that for everyone we love.”

Steven Cole Smith. Something Just Wasn't Right. Car and Driver. Oct 2008.

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