Robert Yates: ‘I don’t know if I’ll sleep tonight’ after emotional Hall of Fame news

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The suspense ended early for Robert Yates on Wednesday. Surrounded by his family and well-wishers, the 74-year-old master engine builder and team owner’s name was the first called for induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s 2018 class.

And for a moment as the adulation poured in, the hardships in Yates’ ongoing fight against liver cancer — currently in its third round of immunotherapy — subsided. For that moment and the ones that followed, he was floating.

“Right now? I feel like I could take a jack and jump over the wall and clear the whole … I’d be on the right side, like I used to,” Yates said, his voice breaking at times during his media rounds in the stock-car racing shrine’s Great Hall. “They’d look back at the film that says your feet were not on the ground, but you were on the other side of the car.”

Yates led the NASCAR Hall of Fame voting for the five new inductees, named on 94 percent of the ballots cast Wednesday. His vote total was the highest for a nominee since 2011, when David Pearson received an equal percentage in voting for the Hall’s second class.

Yates’ ingenuity as an engine builder powered the cars driven by several NASCAR Hall of Famers that came before him. As a mechanic and a team owner, he was privileged to play major roles in winning multiple championships and Daytona 500s. His influence on the sport continues, with many Ford teams enjoying the mighty horsepower that comes from the Roush Yates Engines shops.

But Yates’ competitive spirit is now focused not as much on racing as it is on his health. The long road of treatment began last October, and his son, Doug, admitted that the last couple of weeks had been particularly challenging. The ravages of the disease have made him less of the barrel-chested figure that once carried an imposing prominence in the garage, but he stood tall Wednesday, smiling and signing autographs for fans attending the ceremony.

“I asked him early on when he found out he was diagnosed with liver cancer, well, what do you want to do? How do you want to handle this thing?” Doug Yates recalled. “He said, ‘well, I can’t hide from it. I can’t run from it. We don’t need to publicize this, but if people ask, let’s just tell them where I’m at. If I can use it as a platform for people to get checked and to do something better to extend their lives and have a better quality of life, then I want to make sure that I’m that.’

“It’s been tough and he never complains. I can’t imagine a tougher group of people than a racer, and going to battle with what he’s fighting now is like trying to win the Daytona 500, but probably tougher.”

For a day at least, Yates’ battle was overshadowed by his many stories about coming of age in the sport, his love of all things mechanical, his abbreviated driving career, his work ethic and the Mars Hill college professor who said he’d never amount to anything because he was turning wrenches on a tractor instead of studying.

On NASCAR Hall of Fame Voting Day, Yates amounted to everything.

“I don’t even know if I’ll sleep tonight,” Yates said. “I’m so honored and I love this sport, and I want this sport to do the same thing it did for me, again and again and again.”