Football Head Injury Concerns Bring Back Memories Of LeeRoy Yarbrough Case

There has been a tremendous amount of talk regarding head injuries among football players, especially relating to long-term effects. One of the concerns is Organic brain syndrome (OBS) which is a general term that was used to describe decreased mental function due to a medical disease, other than a psychiatric illness. It is often used synonymously (but incorrectly) with dementia.

With the tragic deaths of football players such as Dave Duerson, Mike Webster due to neurodegenerative disease linked to concussions, football is taking steps to combat this issue. What about auto racing? Many drivers unfortunately were killed by head injuries, and improvements in headgear help tremendously in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Later SAFER barriers and the HANS device improved driver safety even more. However one driver perhaps did suffer from neurodegenerative disease similar to Webster and Duerson: LeeRoy Yarbrough.

Yarbrough was one of the hottest drivers in the U.S. in the late-1960’s. A factory Ford driver, Yarbrough had his best season in 1969 driving for the legendary Junior Johnson and renowned mechanic Herb Nab. That year he won what could be considered the triple crown of NASCAR, the Daytona 500, World 600 at Charlotte and the Southern 500 at Darlington in Johnson’s chalk white Mercury Cyclone II. Most of Yarbrough’s fourteen wins came on the circuit’s superspeedways which he seem to excel.

Like most successful drivers, Yarbrough was cocky, confident and not willing to back down, even to fellow driver Tiny Lund who at 6′ 5″ and 250 lbs was a mountain of a man. Johnson reminisced in an interview, “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.”

It was a crash in April of 1970 at the Texas World Speedway in College Station which seem to be the turning point.

The book, American Stock Car Racers by Don Hunter & Ben White (1997): Yarbrough crashed hard at Texas World Speedway in 1970 during tire tests and was rendered unconscious. A few days later, fellow driver Cale Yarborough picked him up at his Columbia, South Carolina home and flew him to Martinsville, Virginia for the NASCAR race there. Weeks later, Yarbrough couldn’t recall the flight home from Texas, the flight to Martinsville, or the race held in Martinsville.

Many in the sport began noticing subtle signs of Yarbrough’s strange behavior at the tracks. Sporadic appearances in both stock cars and Indy cars followed. He was again involved in a hard crash, this time in an Indy car owned by Dan Gurney prior to the 1971 Indy 500. Shaken but not seriously hurt, he left the track and Indy car racing for good.

From June through November 1971, Yarbrough was in and out of hospitals after supposedly contracting Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever around Easter. During one 43-day hospital stay, he was reported near death with a fever of more than 105 degrees. Other reports cite the hospitalization for alcohol abuse. Neither diagnosis has been proven conclusively.

In 1972, good finishes in poor equipment came, prompting some to think he would return to his winning ways. Such a scenario didn’t happen. His last start came on September 24, 1972, at Martinsville, but he wrecked after 109 laps. It was his last appearance in a racecar of any kind.

On February 13, 1980, Yarbrough snapped. At 6:40 PM that evening, he violently attacked his mother, nearly choking her to death. Since 1977, there had been several incidents of lapses in memory and violent behavior, resulting in numerous arrests. Doctors said too many crashes in racecars inflicted the former driver with organic brain syndrome, a nonpsychotic secondary to crania-cerebral trauma. The condition had been heightened, they believed, by alcohol abuse.

On March 7, 1980, Yarbrough was judged incompetent to stand trial for attempted murder and was committed to a Florida mental hospital. On August 27, 1980, Yarbrough was found innocent by reason of insanity and continued to remain in mental hospitals, both in Florida and North Carolina.

On December 6, 1984, Yarbrough suffered a violent seizure while in a Florida mental hospital and fell, striking his head. He was rushed to Jacksonville’s University Hospital where he died at 1:38 am on December 7 from subdural hematoma, or internal bleeding of the brain.

Yarbrough competed in three Indianapolis 500’s with a best finish of 19th in 1970. His final chance at victory may have been in the inaugural Ontario 500 USAC Indy Car race which saw LeeRoy was running with the leaders most of the race, however attrition began to take its toll. Leaders such as A.J. Foyt, Lloyd Ruby and Dan Gurney fell out due to mechanical problems. With 14-laps to go, leader, Al Unser encountered transmission issues moving Yarbrough into the lead. His blue Brabham appeared to be on the way to victory when with eight laps to go the engine blew.

Not all stories have happy endings. However with the NFL’s newly found concern with head injuries, it can slow down and perhaps stop tragic endings that happened to Duerson and Webster and Yarbrough

The Southern Motorsports Writers elected Lee Roy Yarbrough into the National Motorsports Press Association’s Hall of Fame at Darlington in 1990. Yarbrough was also voted as one of NASCAR’s 50 greatest drivers in 2008.

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