Born: September 17, 1938, Jacksonville, Florida
Died: December 7, 1984
Cause of death: Internal head injuries caused by fall.
Notable because: Spectacularly successful race car driver who succumbed to delusional mental decline which might have its origin in a crash trauma to the head. Became a tragic figure who died young.
Lonnie Yarbrough was a NASCAR racer. His best season was 1969 when he won seven races, tallied 21 Top Ten finishes and earned $193,211. During his entire career from 1960-1972, he competed in 198 races, scoring 14 wins, 65 top fives, 92 top tens, and 10 poles. His racing number was 98.
Yarbrough was admitted to a mental institution in the mid-1970s, and died in 1984 after a fall while suffering from a traumatic brain injury. In 1990, he was inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association's Hall of Fame at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina. LeeRoy Yarbrough is not related to NASCAR champion Cale Yarborough. Their surnames have different spelling.
"Lee Roy was one of the best racers I ever ran against," said former NASCAR driver Sam McQuagg. "There are lots of good drivers, but he had natural driving talent that most of them don't have."
"If you were ahead of him, you better watch out. If you blinked too many times he would pass you. And one of the best things about him is he was not a dirty driver."
Lee Roy Yarbrough was born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1938. His rise to fame was like a moth flying around a candle. He remained in the limelight only a few years before his NASCAR career burned out.
His first NASCAR race was in 1960. That year he only ran a single event. The following year he ran 12 races and finished 36th in points. In 1963, he ran 14 events with no wins.
His big opportunity came in 1967. Junior Johnson, who had retired from racing by this time, was not having much success with Darel Dieringer.
When 1969 rolled around Lee Roy and Junior were ready. With a year to adjust, the team entered 30 of the 54 races and won seven. His record included 21 top-10 finishes, and was the first driver to win NASCAR's version of the Triple Crown-the Daytona 500, the Firecracker 400, and the Southern 500.
Lee Roy Yarbrough prior to a 1968 race. Lee Roy Yarbrough prior to a 1968 race. His best season came in 1969, and even though he only had 30 starts that year, he won seven times and finished in the top 10 a total of 21 times.
"It was a great year," recalled Johnson. "We won half the races we ran. I'm not taking anything away from my car, but you just have to give it to him (Yarbrough). He was beyond any other driver there was at that particular time with taking chances and just going beyond what anybody thought anybody would do.
"He just out-nerved most of the drivers that he ran against that year. It was unbelievable to see the chances he'd take. Lee Roy had no, you might say, respect for fear at all. He just didn't. Nothing out-nerved him and that's basically the way he won some of them races we were in. He'd just keep going deeper and deeper. Whatever it took to beat somebody, that's what he did."
Lee Roy drove for Junior Johnson from late 1967 through 1970. During his tenure with Johnson, he won 10 races, including the 1969 Daytona 500.
He was a supremely confident driver throughout his stock car racing career. In his early years, he was as cocky as they came, often bragging that he could do things with a fast car that others couldn't. And much of the time, he was correct.
But his problems began in 1970, after winning only one race. His life was problematic and filled with mysteries, but he also had many demons inside.
He was a brawler, who got the reputation as the only man tough enough to take on the gigantic Tiny Lund. The two drivers weren't exactly enemies, just friends who didn't see eye to eye, and wouldn't take time to talk things out.
"Lee Roy and Tiny started fighting before the race," said car owner Bud Moore, "And they fought some more after the race. Then we took off. We got up in the air and Lee Roy and Tiny started fighting all over again. I thought they were going to tear the sides out of the thing. It's a wonder we didn't crash with them two boys fighting like that."
He was one of the first to lavish praise on his crewmembers during post-race interviews, and he was often heard thanking the Lord for his driving talents.
And then as suddenly as he rose upwards, the downward spiral set in. He was gone in a short time.
Friends remembered bizarre violence. One afternoon after returning from the track to his motel room, he was raging mad. He snatched his wife up by the hair of the head and dragged her out of the room, kicking her as he dragged her along the hallway.
He had a bad crash during a test session while driving for Junior in April 1970. After that he started drinking pretty bad, and using painkillers. He spent days sitting, or out on a lake in a boat, drinking.
"I don't really know what happened to him, but I know he started drinking pretty bad," continued McQuagg. "Some folks thought it might have been caused by Rocky Mountain spotted fever, but I don't think he was ever the same after that hard crash."
In 1972, he drove in 18 NASCAR races with nine top-10 finishes.
That was his last year of competition. His racing career ended at the age of 33.
Over the next few years, he was picked up several times by Jacksonville police.
Sometimes it was for fighting, at other times it might be drunkenness.
He wandered the streets aimlessly.
On the morning of Feb. 13, 1980, he was at his mother's house in Jacksonville. It was the day of the twin 125-mile qualifying races at Daytona. Lee Roy was destitute and his mind was playing tricks on him.
He put his hands around his mother's neck and said, "Mama, I hate to do this, but I've got to kill you." One of his nephews that was in the house heard the commotion and came in. Looking around, he grabbed a quart jar of preserves off the kitchen table and busted it on Lee Roy's head.
The police came and took him to a psychiatric ward. Eventually he was judged incompetent to stand trial. It was at that time doctors discovered the lesions in his brain. Was it the demons inside his head, or was it the hard crashes he had taken?
Prior to 1980, Junior Johnson had spent thousands of dollars on Lee Roy, taking him to the best psychiatrists and hospitals available.
"Lee Roy was capable of winning any race," said Johnson. "A lot of people have an opportunity to win four or five times a year, but he was one driver that I know that had the capability of winning every race he went to. He was just a great race driver. I enjoyed working with him, and I was sorry his career was cut short."
His death came on Dec. 7, 1984 from internal head injuries after a seizure-related fall.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has again won the NASCAR Most Popular Driver Award. The award is Earnhardt Jr.'s sixth consecutive and moves him to third all-time behind Bill Elliott (16) and Richard Petty (nine).
"I've been fortunate enough to win this award now for the sixth time, and I can tell you it never gets old." Earnhardt Jr. said. "I've said it many times before that this award is special because it's the voice of the fans."
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