With two victories in 1968 Junior and Yarbrough fared well for a first-year team. Junior thought better things could happen in 1969. To say they did might be an understatement.
Junior and Yarbrough had one of the greatest seasons in NASCAR history. Not only did they win seven races, they also, for the first time ever, captured NASCAR’s “Triple Crown” with victories at Daytona, Charlotte and Darlington.
But what was a great beginning evolved into a sad ending.
Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.
I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of success as a team owner and I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge so many of the men who drove for me.
One of them was LeeRoy Yarbrough. Together, he and I experienced quite a season in 1969. It’s often been described as historical.
I think some background is needed. Darel Dieringer was my driver in 1967. He did win the Gwyn Staley 400 at North Wilkesboro – my “home” track – and I had never seen him so excited.
But after that we just couldn’t get the job done. We had a lot of bad luck and it continued through the summer. Darel crashed at Martinsville in September and, as far as Ford was concerned, a change had to be made. So I had to let Darel go.
There were a lot of good young drivers coming along in 1967 and ’68 and, to me, LeeRoy was the best of them. He was very aggressive and I always liked that in a driver.
And he was fearless. At the time cars were getting so much faster on the big tracks. So you had to have someone with strong nerves to drive them.
LeeRoy had already won a race, the 1966 National 400 at Charlotte, and in 1968, he won twice for me, at Trenton and Atlanta.
We didn’t win again in ’68 but we had a good season for a first-year team. We saw enough to know that we could figure on a great year in 1969.
I had no idea how great it would be.
In the Daytona 500, LeeRoy handled the draft expertly. He pulled a slingshot pass on Charlie Glotzbach on the last lap to win the race.
Actually, LeeRoy had a little help. On his last pit stop we put on right-side tires with a very soft compound. They were called “gumballs,” and because they were softer, they had more track adhesion and were faster. However, they weren’t very durable.
Glotzbach used regular tires. So he was a sitting duck.
To win the Daytona 500 was a great start to the ’69 season. I couldn’t have imagined how much greater things were going to be.
We won the Rebel 400 at Darlington and then the World 600 at Charlotte. Then we made it a sweep at Daytona when we took the Firecracker 400 on July 4. In August we added win No. 5 at Atlanta.
By this time, as you might expect, there was a lot of talk about the “Triple Crown” of NASCAR, which consisted of victories in the Daytona 500, the World 600 at the Southern 500 at Darlington.
Since we had already won the Daytona 500 and the World 600 with LeeRoy, everyone was wondering if we could pull off the “Triple Crown” at Darlington.
We sort of downplayed all the talk but, as you might think, we really wanted to do it.
The Southern 500 started out as a mess. There were plenty of blown engines, wrecks and a thunderstorm brought out the red flag for a long period of time.
By the time the race restarted we all knew we would never finish 500 miles by nightfall. NASCAR knew it, too, and said the race would end after 230 laps, or 316 miles.
With about 30 laps to go, most of us pitted. David Pearson was driving for Holman-Moody at the time. On his stop, the team put on the “gumballs,” just as we did in Daytona.
Sure enough David, the leader, began losing traction in the turns. LeeRoy had just enough time to overtake him in the third turn on the last lap. We won the race.
We achieved the first Daytona 500, World 600 and Southern 500 sweep. I’m very proud of winning those three races, even today.
In all, we won seven races in 1969. LeeRoy was named Ford’s Man of the Year.
I wish I could tell you there was a happy ending to this, but, sadly, there wasn’t.
LeeRoy ran only 17 races with us in 1970 and just seven in 1971. In April of ’70 we were at a tire test in Texas. LeeRoy crashed hard in the third turn. He was knocked out for about an hour. I was certain he sustained a concussion.
In 1971 he was knocked out again while driving one of Dan Gurney’s cars at Indianapolis. He was hurt badly this time.
A bit after that, LeeRoy came down with what we were told was Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. His health deteriorated very quickly.
In early 1980, many years after he last drove for me, LeeRoy was charged in Jacksonville, Fla., with trying to strangle his mother, with whom he lived. He was ruled incompetent to stand trial and was later acquitted by reason of insanity.
I was very upset by LeeRoy’s condition and paid to have him examined at two different psychiatric hospitals in North Carolina. They came up with the same diagnosis. There was no hope.
People should always have respect for LeeRoy, and, I believe, the NASCAR community has. He would have become one of the greatest drivers ever if he hadn’t hit the wall a time or two too many.