NASCAR Has Lost Engine Builder Extraordinaire

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, October 4 2017

Robert Yates and driver Davey Allison celebrate a victory in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway. (Archives via Getty Images)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer

In the 1960s, a Mars Hill College professor saw Robert Yates working on a farmer’s tractor one Sunday afternoon instead of in his dorm room studying. The professor told Yates he would never amount to anything because of his actions.

Time-and-time again Yates proved that professor wrong, establishing a NASCAR career in which he built some of the most powerful and successful engines in the sport.  It was a stellar 40-year profession that earned Yates admittance into the NASCAR Hall of Fame; an honor he learned of in May, a little more than four months before succumbing to liver cancer.

Yates’ racing accomplishments are well documented. He began his career at Holman-Moody Racing in 1968, but didn’t enjoy his first championship as an engine builder until 1983 with DiGard Racing and Bobby Allison. The following year, his company contracted with team owner Mike Curb to provide engines for his driver, Richard Petty. It was a contract that led to Yates providing Petty with the engine that powered him to his historic 200th career victory at Daytona in July 1984.

Yates focused solely on constructing powerful engines until 1989 when he purchased Harry Rainer’s race team. The Charlotte, N.C., native then proceeded to become one of the sport’s most successful team owners, claiming 57 victories, 48 poles and a championship in 1999 with Dale Jarrett as his driver.

Yates’ life, however, was so much more than statistics. The son of a Southern Baptist minister, a twin and the youngest of nine children, Yates was a devout family man who adored his wife, Carolyn. For many years, Valentine’s Day occurred in the middle of Speedweeks. Those with loved ones involved in the sport knew it was a holiday that was relegated to the backburner until after the Daytona 500. Not with Yates. One year he treated his wife to a Valentine’s Day dinner at a fine French restaurant in Ormond Beach, Fla.

A quite, modest and sincere man, Yates was proud of his children and delighted in the fact that his son, Doug, elected to follow in his engine-building footsteps. Yates was sensitive to people’s feelings and often worried more than one might expect for someone in racing. Perhaps that’s because he was complex and always considered all of the answers that could exist to a single question.

His decision to become a team owner was a gut-wrenching one, but it was Ranier’s young driver – 27-year-old Davey Allison – who convinced the organization’s engine builder he could do it.

In his first season as a team owner, the Yates-Allison duo emerged with two victories. Two more victories came in 1990. Then the team broke out as one of the sport’s powerhouses, capturing five victories in each of the next two seasons. Those victories included the Daytona 500, the Coca-Cola 600 and the All-Star race. There was an intense battle for the 1992 championship before Allison’s title run ended with a multi-car crash in the season finale at Atlanta.

With the 1993 season came several years of heartache for Yates. Allison died July 13 from injuries sustained in a helicopter crash a day earlier at Talladega. Yates’ team skipped the next race; then returned with three different drivers for the rest of the season. Ernie Irvan eventually became his full-time driver and in 1994 the team once again found itself in a championship battle. But everything changed on a foggy morning in Michigan during the first practice. A crash left Irvan in a coma with a severe head injury. Not yet recovered from Allison’s death, Yates, again, found himself in emotional turmoil and with a substitute driver for the season’s remainder.

Yates rebounded in 1995 when Jarrett joined his operation and Irvan made a miraculous return late that season. The stage was now set for Yates to become a two-car team, which it remained for several years.

Throughout the years as an engine builder and team owner, Yates remained an innovator. He could fit the power curve of an engine to a competitor’s driving style and a car’s handling characteristics. Former crew chief Gary Nelson once said Yates understood the importance of that in an engine “better than anybody I’ve ever seen.”

Yates was admired and respected by everyone involved in the sport as well as the fans and the media. He was a man who cherished his family and possessed a passion for engines and racing; a person who made a difference in many people’s lives. And a man who will be missed, but never forgotten.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, October 4 2017


  • LARRY BROOKS says:

    Human being extraordinaire as well.

    Back in 1992, my 12 year-old son and I toured some of the race shops in the Charlotte/Mooresville area. When we arrived at Robert Yates Racing, I told the receptionist we would like to take a tour of their shop.

    She said she wasn’t sure there was anyone who could do that at that time but she would check. She made a call and I heard her tell what we wanted. I heard her say, OK, OK and she hung up. There was a short pause and she informed me that someone would be out there to take us on a tour in a few minutes.

    So, we waited in the lobby and all of a sudden, the door opened and out stepped Robert Yates himself! What???? My son and I both were shocked! He said, “So, you guys want a tour, huh? I can do that for you.”

    And sure enough he took us all over the shop taking time to explain everything to us. He never tried to rush us up, let us ask plenty of questions and take lots of pictures. Even in the engine shop!! And I know Robert Yates must have had plenty of secrets in the engine shop that made his cars the rocket ships they were. But it still was no problem taking pictures in there.

    At the end, he thanked us for stopping by and said he enjoyed taking us on the tour. I replied that WE were the ones who enjoyed having him take us on that tour and how much we appreciated it.

    You know, that one incident made a huge impression on my 12 year-old son. And he still remembers it to this day. He texted me the day the news broke about Yates and asked me if I heard it and I told him that sadly I had. He said again how much he remembered what Robert Yates did for us and always will.

    It’s a real shame there aren’t more people like Robert Yates in this world. You will make heaven a better place, sir.

  • Jer says:

    Robert Yates as well as Maurice Petty, Ray Fox, Leonard Wood, and Cotton Owens among others were known as “Engine Builders” but something has been lost. Today its “TRD” or “Hendrick Powet” is son Doug Yates, the last of a dying breed?