“You see that street over there? I used to drag race over there. I got into a little trouble on that street.”
That was Robert Yates’ assessment of a flat, straight industrial frontage road not far from the area of Charlotte known as The Plaza, where he grew up in the 1950s. He rubbed his trademark mustache and spoke in his low, slow, voice that, more often than not would get to rambling. He explained that he was a was a preacher’s kid, born as half of the set of twins found at the tail-end of Yates household’s nine-deep roster of children. It was summer 2000 and we were riding around his old neighborhood. Street after street brought a point, a smile and a familiar refrain.
“We raced there on that street, too … and that one … and you see that intersection there? That was the finish line for a race we had one night. That one almost ended bad. Like, real bad. We won, though.”
Yates won so many races he eventually lost count, graduating from those late-night quarter-mile dashes to stand in Victory Lane at Daytona, the Winner’s Circle at Indianapolis and the champion’s table at the end of the NASCAR Cup Series season.
On Monday, Yates died after a year-long battle with liver cancer. He was 74 and less than five months removed from his election to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Yates was not merely a part of that magical generation of 1960s-to-2000s racers who connected stock car racing’s red dirt past to its high-dollar present. He was the type of man that’s long been one of NASCAR’s most vital cornerstones, a shade-tree mechanic who turned out to be a bona fide engineering genius.
“When Robert approached me about driving for him in 1995, I went to my father and asked him what he thought,” fellow NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett recalled earlier this year, speaking of a conversation with father Ned, also a member of the Hall. “Dad said to me, Robert Yates is such an incredible engine man, he could take a lawn mower motor and win the Daytona 500 with it.”
In fact, that’s where the Yates obsession with engines started, teaming with twin brother Richard, to buy up and take apart lawn mower powerplants, converting them into go-kart engines. They weren’t quite ready for Daytona. But he was on his way.
Jarrett took the job, becoming one of the five drivers who share the 57 Cup Series victories earned in cars fielded by Robert Yates Racing over his 21 seasons of team ownership. Jarrett drove his RYR Fords to a pair of Daytona 500 wins and the 1999 Cup Series championship. But the number of racers who have benefited from Yates’s horsepower handiwork reaches far beyond those who were officially on his payroll. No one was more aware of that fact than the drivers themselves.
“In 1982 I had a chance to go drive for DiGard Racing,” recalls another Hall of Famer, Bobby Allison. “But the team owner was from Connecticut and my brother (Donnie) had kind of bad experience with them years earlier, so I was kind of like, I dunno. Then Robert called me. He said, ‘Bobby, I’m building DiGard’s engines. Well, as soon as I heard that I said, where do I sign? We won the Daytona 500 the first race out, just dominated it, and the Winston Cup championship later that year.”
Allison had driven Yates-powered cars before and won in them all. He won races driving for Junior Johnson when Yates was building engines for the moonshiner-turned-racing hero in the 1970s. Prior that that, in the late 1960s, Allison was one of an army of future legends who raced for Charlotte-based Holman-Moody Racing, a roster that included Fred Lorenzen, David Pearson, and even A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and Jimmy Clark.
Working in that shop was a youngster who’d grown up just across town. He built the big-league engines out of Holman-Moody during the day and sold short-track engines out of his home at night. Robert Yates, after having his driver’s license taken away by his father, Rev. Jim Yates, for racing and failing grades, moved away to live with an older sister in Wake Forest, North Carolina. There he learned to love math because he found that it opened his mind to new ways of squeezing more power out of engines. He’d come to love engines because a childhood punctuated with illness, from rheumatic fever to multiple head injuries, prevented him from playing sports. “I found a place where I could play all day and that was in a garage,” he said in 2000. “And there weren’t a lot of guys who could beat me there.”
He earned a two-year mechanical engineering degree and ran a gantlet of jobs that including fixing tractors at a Jolly Green Giant corporate farm in Oregon and doing the same for a heavy machinery company back home in Charlotte. His speed in breaking down and reassembling massive engines created so much buzz that it reached the folks at Holman-Moody, who hired him on the spot.
“Holman-Moody, they were basically the Ford engine factory and everyone there just did whatever the Ford people told them to do,” Pearson recalled last year. “But there were a couple of guys who also did a little more than that and you knew you had one of their motors under the hood as soon as you jumped into the throttle. Robert was one of those guys.”
By the mid-1980s Yates had become general manager of Ranier-Lundy Racing, but the team was teetering on financial ruin. At the urging of Bobby Allison’s son, Davey, Yates bought the operation and renamed it Robert Yates Racing. The younger Allison became his driver and they won immediately, earning 15 victories over four and a half seasons. In 1992, with crew chief Larry McReynolds, they won five races, the first NASCAR All-Star event held at night, and lost the Cup title via the craziest season finale in stock car racing history.
“There are team owners who you never see. They just pay for everything and get out of the way,” McReynolds says. “Not Robert. I’ve never seen a team owner so up in the middle of everything. He can do that because he’s done all of the jobs there is to do. And even when the sport was becoming overrun with computers and aerospace engineers and all of that, Robert could still go in that engine shop, look over those glasses of his, scribble down some notes … and the next weekend he’d have found five more horsepower in there somewhere.”
The following summer, with an early-season win already logged and ranked fifth in the standings, Davey Allison died in a helicopter crash at Talladega Superspeedway.
“That’s my house right there,” Yates explained during that 2000 tour around the Charlotte area. “The day we buried Davey we all met there in this house, all the guys with the team and our families. The crew, we all went down in my basement and we cried and we laughed and we wondered if we should just shut the team down. We didn’t. What we decided was that our new careers would start that Monday.”
From that moment Allison died, Yate’s career became an incredible, impossible twisting of two parallel paths, triumph and tragedy. Ernie Irvan, Allison’s replacement in the famous No. 28 Thunderbird, won five races but then nearly lost his life at Michigan Speedway in 1994. That’s when Jarrett joined the team, which expanded to two cars when Irvan returned in late ’95.
As the sport’s costs escalated and sponsorship dollars were vacuumed up by a crashing economy, Yates got out of the team ownership business at the end of 2009. He stayed involved in the sport through, naturally, engine construction, and a partnership with an old rival-turned-Ford friend Jack Roush. Today his son, Doug, oversees Roush Yates Engines. Earlier this year the organization logged its 250th race win, a case that includes trophies from nearly every NASCAR facility, and sports car venues from Sebring to Le Mans.
“As you get older you realize that, man, this sport, it will take off and go right on without you,” Robert Yates explained earlier this year, shortly before his NASCAR Hall of Fame election. “I think about being so little, delivering the newspaper, saving my money just to buy some springs or a spark plug to put on a little lawn motor engine. To think about my name being in the Hall of Fame, that’s, that’s like a dream.”
This weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, his home track, every Ford in the field will bear the Yates name.
“That’s what I really can’t believe, is that my engines are still out there. All these years later, you know, I’m old. But whenever I’m gone, to know that Doug is still at it. To know that Yates name is still out there racing, and winning races, that’s more than a dream. That’s all I ever wanted. Just be fast, man.”