Robert Yates Rounded Up Horses

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, October 6 2017

Robert Yates knew his way around an engine bay. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

It was 2002 or something like that during a planning meeting for an upcoming NASCAR weekend at Kansas Speedway when a colleague at the Kansas City Star was told to advance the event by doing a story on Robert Yates.

The colleague who knew/cared nothing at all about racing shot back: Why?

Because, it was explained, Yates is the personification of the art making horsepower in push-rod NASCAR engines, that’s why. The explanation was met with rolled his eyes and a so-the-hell-what expression.

Therein lies an important line of demarcation in NASCAR’s rise and fall in the 21st Century. To old-school racers and race fans – those of us who grew up immersed in the American car culture of the 1950s and ’60s and knew the meanings of code words like “Isky”, “Thrush”, “baby moons” and “dual quads” – horsepower was not a batch of numbers. It was everything.

There were magazines, like Hot Rod and Motor Trend, that could be counted on to feature articles in every issue devoted to HP; who had it and how to increase it.

Speculating about which team and car had the most was a cultural pastime. Discussion of horsepower numbers could devolve into shouting and pushing.

When car-guy A would approach car-guy B, the first question would be, “How much horsepower ya got?” When a race fan would talk about a favorite car/driver, the first pronouncement would be about how many horses they were running.

Car guys bragged about horses, racers kept exact numbers a secret.

Now in most sports departments, there are the culturally naive and the auto racing dabblers who can’t understand it, don’t care about it and wonder why they would be asked to report and write about it.

To the faithful, that trend robs racing of a major part of the allure that made the sport so important and so special in the 20th Century.

See, horsepower once was as important to car guys/racing guys of all forms of the sport as were home runs to baseball guys and quarterback arm strength to football guys.

And in NASCAR in the Golden Era, Robert Yates was Hank Aaron and John Elway.

Though he became a Cup championship-winning team owner, it was his engine-building prowess which some will remember the most.

For racing beat writers who knew the importance of listening, Yates and his son Doug, could be wonderful resources. They were approachable and communicative. They wouldn’t give away secrets but they would help those who cared to understand their art.

When word got out a while back that Robert was in tough shape, current RacinToday colleague and life-long car guy John Sturbin and I exchanged Yates stories. I believe we both came away happily aware that we had rubbed elbows with something special, something historic.

Yates began his career at legendary Holman-Moody Racing. He built horsepower for Hall of Famer Junior Johnson’s cars. He powered up racing icons like Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough.

In 2015, my final year on the NASCAR Hall of Fame voting panel, Yates’ name popped up on the ballot. Though Robert would not earn enshrinement for two more years, casting a vote for him that year was easy. Necessary.

Yes. Robert Yates. Horsepower guru in the Hall? Had to happen. Had to as a grin and a finger pointed at a generation of racers and fans who would work themselves into a lather arguing about how many horses Big Daddy’s rails, Brian Redman’s 917s, Alain Prost’s Renault RE40s and Davey Allison’s Fords were making.

Yates died this week. Bummer.

Geez I hope nobody is out there in Racing Nation rolling their eyes with a so-the-hell-what expression on their face.

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, October 6 2017
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