MOORESVILLE, N.C. — As time sped into a new year, two of racing’s greatest drivers died during the closing hours of 2023.
Two-time CART champion and 2003 Indianapolis 500 winner Gil de Ferran died from a massive heart attack on Dec. 29 at the age of 56.
Two days later, on Dec. 31, one of the true legends of NASCAR stock car racing, Cale Yarborough, died. He was 84.
A three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion and four-time Daytona 500 winner, Yarborough was also a four-time starter in the Indianapolis 500. His 83 NASCAR Cup Series victories are tied for sixth on the all-time list.
De Ferran suffered cardiac arrest while driving a car at the Concours Club, a private track located in Opa-locka, Fla., 25 minutes from downtown Miami.
De Ferran was one of the most competitive — and classiest — drivers of his era. The Brazilian led a very interesting life. He was born in Paris, France, but moved to Brazil when he was 4. As a youth, he was a foreign exchange student in Wisconsin, where his daily chores included milking cows on a dairy farm while in high school.
His racing career began in karting as a teenager. He competed in Europe and won the 1992 English Formula 3 title.
By 1995, de Ferran had made it to CART, driving for the legendary Jim Hall in the famed yellow Pennzoil car. He drove for Hall from 1995-’96, before moving to Walker Racing in 1997.
He remained with Walker Racing until team owner Roger Penske and Team Penske President Tim Cindric tabbed de Ferran to help revitalize their struggling racing operation at the end of the 1999 season.
De Ferran was set to be teammates with Greg Moore on a powerful two-car Team Penske effort beginning in 2000, but Moore was killed in a crash at California Speedway on Oct. 31, 1999.
Moore’s ride went to Helio Castroneves.
De Ferran and Castroneves were a dynamic duo. De Ferran won the CART championship in 2000 and ’01. Castroneves won the Indianapolis 500 in 2001 and ’02 — the first two of his record-tying four Indy 500 victories.
In 2000 at California Speedway, de Ferran set the closed-course land speed record during CART qualifying with a lap of 241.428 mph — a mark that stands today.
In 2002, Team Penske left CART to join the Indy Racing League.
A year later, de Ferran drove to victory in the Indianapolis 500, narrowly defeating Castroneves, who was attempting to become the first driver to win three straight Indy 500s. De Ferran had finished second to Castroneves at Indy in 2001 — the first time in Team Penske history that it had finished 1-2 in The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
De Ferran’s victory at Nazareth Speedway in 2003 was the 100th Indy car win for Team Penske.
De Ferran retired from IndyCar racing at the end of that season with seven wins in CART and five in the Indy Racing League.
For as good as he was on the race track, de Ferran was even better out of the race car. He was polite, articulate and well-versed.
Behind the wheel of a race car, however, de Ferran was as fierce as they came.
To Castroneves, de Ferran was more than his teammate for four seasons with Team Penske.
“In motorsport, it’s like a big family, we have everything and all kinds of situations,” Castroneves told SPEED SPORT. “The drivers in this case are fierce competitors, pushing each other to the limit. But in the end, everyone shares this passion for motorsport, and you end up making friends and acquaintances in this environment. In my case with Gil, I not only became friends on the track but gained a brother off it as well. I learned a lot from him and his family about finding balance in this profession.
“It’s very difficult to talk about him not being here with us anymore, but my faith tells me that it was his final moment, his last acceleration, his last brake, and ultimately his last lap of life. And now the most important thing is for us to embrace each other and enjoy every second of our lives as if it were the last lap.”
Yarborough was the epitome of what a stock car racer was all about. There may not have been a tougher man in the history of NASCAR than the South Carolina native.
He was the oldest of three sons of Julian Yarborough, a tobacco farmer, and his wife, Annie.
Pound for pound and inch-for-inch, Yarborough was a giant behind the wheel of a stock car. He could manhandle a race car around some of the most difficult tracks, seemingly able to carry the car on his shoulders.
In 1968, Yarborough won the pole for the Daytona 500 driving for Wood Brothers Racing. He led 76 laps for the first of his four Daytona 500 wins. He also won the Daytona 500 in 1977 for team owner Junior Johnson, and in ’83 and ’84 for team owner Harry Ranier.
Richard Petty, Yarborough and Sterling Marlin are the only drivers who won the Daytona 500 in back-to-back years. Yarborough had nine wins at Daytona Int’l Speedway.
He also won the Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway five times.
He was the first driver to win three consecutive Cup Series championships from 1976-’78, driving the No. 11 Chevrolet for Junior Johnson.
Yarborough was more than one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers. He competed in four Indianapolis 500s and ran the entire USAC Champ Car Series Trail in 1971 with Gene White’s Firestone team. He produced a best finish of fifth and ended up 16th in the standings in his only full open-wheel season.
Yarborough retired as a driver after the 1988 NASCAR Cup Series season and focused on team ownership and other businesses. His Cale Yarborough Motorsports raced in the Cup Series through the 1999 season, with John Andretti delivering the team its sole victory in 1997.
Yarborough won the first Cup Series race this reporter covered — the 1982 Southern 500, forging a personal connection that continues even after his death.
This story appeared in the Jan 17, 2024 edition of the SPEED SPORT Insider.