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Time Machine: The Yates Head Bows Out – Finally

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, December 28 2009
Robert Yates' cylinder heads may be out-dated – finally. (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

Robert Yates' cylinder heads to bow out after almost 20 years of faithful service. (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

(Editor’s note: Time Machine is a semi-regular feature from RacinToday which looks back at important moments in auto racing history.)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

When Speed Weeks begin in Daytona Beach next February, it will mark the beginning of the first full season for the Ford FR9 engine. It will also mark the end of the Robert Yates-designed cylinder heads era that began in 1991.

Part of  NASCAR’s “engine of tomorrow” initiative, the FR9 is the last among the participating manufacturers’ new engines to arrive, in part because its predecessor was able to match all the new technology and horsepower introduced over the past three seasons by GM, Toyota and Dodge.

“The new engine’s biggest challenge is that the current engine is so very, very good,” said Brian Wolfe, the director of Ford North America Motorsports, during the introduction of the FR9 earlier this year.

Much of that was down to the Yates cylinder head design, which became the standard for Fords in 1992, along with the company’s approved intake manifold and engine block. All three were universally available as well as mandatory in NASCAR’s premier series for Ford participants. Pontiac and Chevy, meanwhile, had their own standard equipment.

“The first part of my career, and most NASCAR engine builders, we were given a block and heads and manifold and we’d take that and develop it and improve on it,” said Doug Yates, who eventually succeeded his father Robert as a team owner and engine builder. “From the time I started in 1990 until now, these engines have gained about 250 horsepower in the format they’re in.”

There are other signs that underscore the effectiveness of the cylinder head introduced by Yates in 1991. The Roush Yates Racing Engines company is an extension of Robert Yates’ profound understanding of how to produce power from a pushrod V-8. After years of trying to beat the horsepower of rival engine builder and team owner Yates, Jack Roush decided to join him in a partnership formed by Roush’s investment.

When Yates first introduced his cylinder head in 1991, it created a sudden jump in horsepower for his Fords and soon, the other Ford engine builders who gained access to it through the Special Vehicle Operations. Yates himself reluctantly shared his concept, but had little choice because NASCAR mandated for 1992 an “out of the box” cylinder head for each manufacturer to help cut costs by not allowing any modifications.

If Yates wanted to continue using his own head, he would have to share it as the cylinder head designated for use by all Ford teams. Preston Miller, the chief field engineer for SVO at the time, nominated the Yates head for NASCAR’s new “out of the box” rule versus those of Roush, Junior Johnson or Ernie Elliott.

The Yates cylinder head was radically different. It had smaller valves and a smaller cylinder chamber which used flat pistons versus the domed versions. The key concept was getting the air and fuel mixture to combine and ignite more efficiently.

“Jack and Ernie and Junior Johnson at that time were absolutely convinced that the heads they wanted to get had the biggest valves, they wanted canted valves and I was just watching all this going on,” said Miller.

It was the simplicity as well as the effectiveness of the Yates head that so impressed Miller. “Robert was making life simpler,” said Miller. “He was making small chambers so that he didn’t have a piston dome to make compression, it was a flat top, and the flame travel had no obstruction.”

The Yates head eventually helped the increase of horsepower in the NASCAR Ford V-8’s because it could sustain higher compression. A new Ford cylinder head was introduced in 2004, but it picked up right where the Yates head left off. The key change was NASCAR allowed the movement of the intake valves from the production location, which was forbidden in the early 1990’s. But the original Yates concept remained mostly intact while newer material technology and manufacturing techniques were introduced.

Key developments powered by the Yates head included the championship season by Thunderbird driver Alan Kulwicki in 1992. The first full year it was nominated as the standard Ford cylinder head for the Sprint Cup, that same season, Ford won the manufacturer’s championship for the first time since 1969.

In general, the Yates head design and its horsepower helped give the Ford team owners who were born and bred in NASCAR’s premier series a new lease on life versus the onslaught of team owners who were successful businessmen outside of racing. That was part of the design of NASCAR president Bill France Jr., who mandated the rule.

With NASCAR’s “out of the box” cylinder heads, the wealthy team owners could not simply outspend their brethren on new metalurgy and designs in the cylinder heads to find more horsepower. Each team had to start with the same equipment designated by the manufacturer without modifications to the ports, which often necessitated new material technology.

The rule applied to Pontiac, Chevy and Ford teams, the three competing manufacturers at the time. The successful launch of the Yates head was aided in part by the decision of Chevrolet’s racing division to choose a cylinder head favored by drag racers with an 18-degree high port design. The Chevy teams in NASCAR rebelled against that choice and it was soon replaced.

The group of Ford legacy team owners who benefited from what would be a longterm run of excellent horsepower from the Yates head included Yates himself, the Wood Brothers, Johnson and Kulwicki, later succeeded by Geoff Bodine.

Perhaps the new FR9 will help breathe more life into the dwindling legacy teams, which now includes the recent merger between the Yates Racing team, co-owned by Doug Yates and Max Jones, with Richard Petty Motorsports.

In any event, the FR9 means the end of an era as well as the beginning of a new one.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, December 28 2009
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