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Robert Yates, 1943-2017

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Robert Yates in 2010. Photo by Ted Van Pelt.

Legendary engine builder and successful NASCAR team owner Robert Yates passed away on Monday, October 2, succumbing to liver cancer first diagnosed in 2016.

The word “legend” gets tossed around plenty in sports. It’s certainly not a tag earned in a day or with one incredible feat. With Yates’ time in the sport going back to the heyday of Holman-Moody in the Sixties, his impact has been experienced by many winning racers over the course of 50 years. We’d call that legendary.

Along with his twin brother Richard, Yates was the youngest of nine children born to a Baptist minister and his wife in 1943. A Charlotte native, Yates suffered a series of health problems as a child that may have pushed him towards motorsports. Contracting rheumatic fever as an infant kept him from learning to walk until he was five. A severe head injury at eight left him with dizzy spells the rest of his life. Though his siblings excelled, school came hard for Yates, so he turned to sports, which he was good at. But when doctors discovered a heart murmur—related to the rheumatic fever, his parents wouldn’t sign off on allowing him to play baseball or football. So, he turned to motorsports.

Yates spoke of the strong work ethic instilled by his parents, and with money saved from doing the sort of work kids did in the Fifties—cutting grass and delivering newspapers—Robert and Richard bought a ’57 Chevy. The mechanically talented Robert would work on others’ cars to help keep the Chevy running strong. And Robert Yates tested his handiwork by drag racing on the streets of Charlotte, including against the likes of Buddy Baker.

That head injury had affected Yates’ schoolwork, and failing grades saw him sent off to a sister’s house near Raleigh. He found that he excelled at math and even managed straight A’s for his senior year. When college did not work out for Yates, he pursued work as a mechanic. And that gift paid off when he went to work for Holman-Moody as an engine builder in 1967. A voracious learner, Yates rapidly built a reputation as being one of the best wrenches in the business. Ford pulled out of racing not long after he started at Holman-Moody, and Yates eventually ended up as Junior Johnson’s engine chief.

With long hours and away from his hometown, Yates returned in 1976 to Charlotte, where he joined the DiGard Racing team. Though successful—the team won a Winston Cup title with Bobby Allison in 1983, DiGard had plenty of financial issues, which often led to publicly contentious relationships with its drivers. In 1986, as the team’s fortunes were again on the wane, Yates left and did some other work, including synthetic fuel testing, along with building engines for other teams, including Rick Hendrick’s.

In the late 1980s, Yates signed on as a team manager for Ranier-Lundy Racing. Though successful on the track, that team, too, faced financial difficulties. Yates put together everything he had and leveraged himself to the hilt to buy the team, and in 1989 Robert Yates Racing was born.

While success did not come right away, it was not far off. Fielding a car for Davey Allison, the team saw the second-generation driver’s rise to the top of the field, only to see Allison’s’ life cut tragically short when he crashed his helicopter at Talladega. His replacement in the #28 car was Ernie Irvan, who returned the team to victory lane before a life-threatening crash kept him out of the car for more than a year. Ultimately, Robert Yates won a Winston Cup championship with Dale Jarrett behind the wheel of the #88 car in 1999. Between 1989 and 2009, when Robert Yates Racing ceased to exist as a full-time Cup team, the organization won 57 races, including three Daytona 500s, and that championship for Jarrett. The team fielded the #28, #38, #88, and #98 cars at different times during that era, with well-recognized paint schemes stemming from sponsorship deals with the likes of Texaco, M&Ms, and UPS.

Yates’ specialty was always building engines, and he liked to comment that his innovations, plenty of which were subsequently banned by NASCAR, were responsible for a lot of the racing body’s rules. Robert Yates’ son Doug currently runs Roush Yates Engines, a company set up in 2003 to be Ford’s exclusive Engine partner in NASCAR, as well as other series. In its inaugural race as engine supplier, Roush Yates Engines powered the front row at the Daytona 500 in 2004. The company has supplied not only the Roush and Yates teams, but also Wood Brothers, Penske, Richard Petty Motorsports, and Front Row Motorsports. The Yates name remains competitive as the company’s engines powered wins in the Daytona 500 and the 24 Hours of Daytona in 2017. Robert Yates Race Engine, another entity, is the sole provider of spec-engine power for NASCAR feeder series, like the Camping World Truck Series, the Canadian Tire Series, and the Whelen Modified Tours.

Since his death on Monday, the racing community has responded with an outpouring of condolences for the long-time engine maestro, despite the fierce competition on the track. Robert Yates’ legacy includes some incredible statistics: 77 wins as an engine builder between 1967 and 1988; 57 wins as a team owner; 48 poles as a team owner; five Dayton 500 wins as an engine builder (including three as team owner) and one Winston Cup Championship. Robert Yates was 73.