LeeRoy Yarbrough was often called one of the best drivers ever. He certainly had some great races, but unfortunately he also had some significant personal problems that also limited his racing career.
At the 1969 Daytona 500, Yarbrough was trailing Charlie Glotzbach by 11 seconds with ten laps to go. On the last lap, Yarbrough dived to the low side to make the pass, but a lapped car prevented the pass. Next, he successfully went to the low side in turn 3 and cleared the lapped car. He took the lead and took the checkered flag by a car length to win the Daytona 500. He followed up by winning the Darlington Rebel 400 in the last four laps. Next, he won the Charlotte World 600, lapping the entire field at least twice. He also won the summer 400-miler at Daytona with a late-race battle with Buddy Baker. By doing so, he was just the third driver in NASCAR history to sweep both Daytona races. Despite having a 102 degree temperature, LeeRoy won the summer race at Atlanta International Raceway. He took the Southern 500 by passing David Pearson on the last lap. He hit the wall when a tire went flat, went a lap down but persevered to come back and win at Rockingham in October. By season’s end, Yarbrough had seven wins to his credit.
After his very successful 1969 season, Yarbrough’s 1970 performance suffered significantly. Ford factory racing program was canceled late in 1969 he had a hard time locating rides in NASCAR Grand National events. He won only once in 1970 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. LeeRoy could only enter six races in 1971. He was able to get a ride in 1972 in a Ford owned by independent campaigner Bill Seifert. That year he attained nine top 10 finishes out of 18 starts. Yarbrough showed up for Daytona’s 1973 Speedweeks, but failed to earn a starting spot for the Daytona 500. After that he virtually dropped out of site never to race in NASCAR again.
What caused such a significant change in performance? It may have been the loss of a factory race car and/or it could result from a hard test crash in April 1970 at the old Texas World Speedway in College Station, Texas. That crash left him disoriented and affected him in many ways. He could not remember fellow driver Cale Yarborough picking him up in Texas a few days later and flying him home. He also could not remember flying on to Martinsville, or even remember taking part in the race at Martinsville.
Junior Johnson considered LeeRoy to be the best driver he ever had, Junior was determined to find out what was wrong. Johnson said, “He could remember everything from 1970 back, nothing forward, 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”
Yarbrough was not limited to NASCAR, he also drove in Indy Car. He did well in a few Indy Car starts. He lead the inaugural 1970 California Indy Car 500 at Ontario Motor Speedway before dropping out. He finished 3rd at Trenton Speedway in 1971. LeeRoy competed in 3 Indianapolis 500s, 1967, 1969 and 1970. Yarbrough was driving a Dan Gurney Eagle in practice for the 1971 Indy 500 when he spun and crashed hard in turn one. He spent the next six months in and out of the hospital suffering from many different ailments and memory problems. It was rumoured that a tick had bitten him and contracted Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. LeeRoy also drank alcohol heavily. It is believed he likely suffered brain trauma from the crashes in Texas and Indianapolis.
LeeRoy was committed to the Florida State Hospital at Chattahoochee on March 7, 1980, after being arrested and tried for attempted first-degree murder of his mother and battery to a law-enforcement officer. His mother, Minnie Yarbrough, testified that he had walked up to her and started strangling her for no reason. Judge Oliff ruled that Mr. Yarbrough was not guilty of attempted murder because he could not distinguish right from wrong at the time of the incident.
Today, as it should be, we remember his talent and wins and wonder what could have been.