DEARBORN – Robert Yates made a living out of going fast.
So when word came that he passed away this week after a year-long battle with cancer, it was only natural for those in the sport to link him with the place where speed is king – Daytona International Speedway.
Although some teams would likely be somewhat nervous about what might transpire during SpeedWeeks, anyone who had an association with Yates usually could rest easy. From his decorated career as an engine builder to his years as a Cup team owner, Yates made the Daytona 500 a special target every year, and his cars usually rolled out of their transporters in the Daytona garage as the prime target for everyone else.
Yates had a long relationship with Ford Motor Co. and his special skills in relation to Daytona made for a series of highlights.
“It was about the trophies for Robert at Daytona,” said Hall of Fame driver Dale Jarrett, who drove for Yates from 1995 to 2006, winning two Daytona 500s and the Cup championship in 1999. “He wanted to go to Daytona and lead the practices and sit on the pole and show he had the fastest car. His team did everything and anything they could do to be ahead of the competition.
“Those races put dollars in the bank account, but the big thing was the pride they took away from knowing they took the fastest car to Daytona.”
Jarrett said he experienced the devotion Yates and his team put into Daytona in his first drive there in 1995.
“When I went there with them in ’95, I knew it was going to be my chance to do some big things,” Jarrett said. “They worked tirelessly in getting prepared for the Daytona 500. We had some engine problems in testing there. They literally rebuilt an engine sitting in the floor of the garage stall there. Then we ran a couple of 10ths faster than we had run. I knew from that point on at Daytona that I had a shot.”
Yates began his NASCAR career in a low-level job at the giant Holman-Moody team, where he learned the ins and outs of engine-building quickly and showed a knack for innovation. He would move on to build winning engines for the Junior Johnson and DiGard Racing teams before moving into team ownership, scoring his first successes in that role with young driver Davey Allison.
Ernie Irvan, Lake Speed, Robby Gordon, Kenny Wallace, Jarrett and Elliott Sadler drove Robert Yates Racing cars. Yates made the transition from ace engine-builder to winning team owner with relative ease.
“He could do anything,” said Wood Brothers Racing co-owner Len Wood. “He was probably best known as an engine builder who always had the most horsepower. He drove the truck. He jacked the car. He gassed the car. He built the engines. He was very sharp on aerodynamics. He was an all-around guy.
“He accomplished more than a lot of people in this garage – from championships to wins.”
Yates’ engine-building abilities are the stuff of legend. Even with his successes as a team owner, his engine expertise probably will be the big thing associated with his legacy. Among the engines he built is the one that powered Richard Petty’s car to his 200th – and final – victory at Daytona in the summer of 1984.
“There are so many engineers in the sport now,” Jarrett said. “Robert wasn’t an engineer, but he’s smarter than 90 percent of the engineers you’ll ever run across. He has such a great mind in so many areas. He was always thinking of what he could do that would put us a step ahead, or, when the competition caught him, he was thinking on what would get us a step ahead again.
“He was always working to give us an advantage, especially under the hood.”
And that focus continues today in the Roush Yates Engines operation, where Yates’ influence will continue to be a key element in the organization’s success.