CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Robert Yates showed up at the NASCAR Hall of Fame that late afternoon last May genuinely not knowing if this would be the year – if that would be the day – he heard his name called as part of the official unveiling of the five-person 2017 Hall of Fame induction class.
Already months into his valiant fight against liver cancer, Yates walked into the Grand Hall and was immediately surrounded by longtime friends and greeted fondly by supporters and race fans, all who had gathered for the historical announcement.
Three times previously the NASCAR champion engine builder and team owner had been nominated for induction. So when his name was announced as part of the 2017 group of honorees, the room erupted in joy and tears.
“I believe that was the fourth year he was on the ballot so we weren’t sure how it would go, just praying he would get voted in to the Hall of Fame,’’ Yates’ son Doug recalled. “He was so happy. He gave up his life for this sport. That was his choice but that was what it takes to be great at something and he did that. And he wouldn’t tell you that, but I will.
“It was the most gratifying moment of his whole career.”
And that is saying a lot.
The man who had built so many strong engines, may have been weaker of body but the same spirit and contagious positive energy he brought to the race track permeated through the crowd that day – it was easy to see the special extra something that makes Yates a stock car legend.
Sadly, Yates died five months later on Oct. 2 at the age of 74. His family will take part in next Friday’s NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremony in honor of this very honorable man.
Yates contributions to NASCAR are diverse and significant. And lasting.
He started his career as an engine builder in the late 1960s under the tutelage of Waddell Wilson and ultimately fellow NASCAR Hall of Famer Junior Johnson.
He was the chief engine builder for Hall of Famer Bobby Allison’s 1983 Cup championship team and built the engines that Hall of Famer Richard Petty drove to his final two victories – record 199th and 200th wins.
Following his time under the hood, Yates moved into a team ownership role and fielded the iconic No. 28 Texaco/Havoline car driven by the late Davey Allison and also the No. 88 Ford that Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett drove to the 1999 Cup championship. Allison produced Yates’ first win as an owner in 1989 at Talladega Superspeedway and Jarrett secured the beloved owner his last Cup trophy in 2005, also at Talladega.
Ernie Irvan, Hall of Famer Ricky Rudd and Elliott Sadler also won premier series races driving for Yates, who collected 57 Cup trophies as an owner including three Daytona 500 wins earned by Davey Allison (1992) and Jarrett (1996 and 2000).
His inclusion in the Hall of Fame seems a proper and fitting way to wrap up and recognize decades of hard work and high expectation. What a career Robert Yates made.
“I’d say my dad felt very blessed to be involved in the sport of NASCAR and the time he was involved really left itself to opportunities,’’ Doug Yates reflected. “When he started at Holman-Moody in the late 1960s that was the best school for an engine builder — to be there working alongside Waddell Wilson and all the other greats, building engines for the Wood Brothers and Junior Johnson and the famed Ford drivers of the time.
“Then to go and work for Junior Johnson who was one of his heroes.”
Doug Yates, 50, who carried on the family’s engine business with high regard – he was named NASCAR’s 2011 Engine Builder of the Year — recalled those early days recognizing his dad’s work ethic was comprised of equal parts high expectation and devotion.
“Back then you just worked 24-7, you didn’t have a lot of resources,’’ Doug said. “During the day, my dad would do the machine work on the engines to get them ready to assemble at night, and he said one night he was in there working, and he was about out of energy, and Junior [Johnson] came through there, patted him on the back and gave him a pep talk and said, ‘We’re going to win this race this weekend.’
“And dad said it just felt like it gave him so much motivation to keep going. One of the great influences in his life was how Junior Johnson was a leader and a hero. That was a great experience for him.”
And Yates soon would be regarded a leader and hero to others — as it turned out not only for his work on race cars but for his strength away from the garage fighting cancer.
Those who worked closely with Yates recognized and fully appreciated his mechanical talent and that led to more opportunity for the Charlotte native.
“I’m a great believer that things happen for a reason and he was as well,’’ Doug Yates said. “That ultimately lent itself to the owners Harry [Rainier] and J.T. [Lundy] saying, ‘Robert, we’re done racing. We’d like for you to buy the race team and the No. 28 Davey Allison Ford.’
“My dad was really hesitant. He never got into the sport to be a car owner, he just really focused on doing his best job every day whatever the task was. That was how he operated.
“So he told Davey [Allison] about this opportunity and Davey said, ‘Robert, if you’ll do this I will never leave you. You’ve got my word.’ They shook on it and Davey instilled the confidence in my dad to buy Robert Yates Racing.”
The Robert Yates Racing team began officially in 1989, quickly establishing itself of championship caliber with Allison winning 15 times in the next five years and finishing third in the Cup championship twice (1991 and ’92).
But Allison died in a helicopter accident two weeks after winning at Richmond, Va. in 1993 and understandably, the tragedy had a profound effect on Yates.
“That was probably the hardest thing for him. … It was really a moment of do we carry on or not?’’ Doug Yates said. “I think he carried on for Davey and also the people that it put so much into getting him there. You don’t want to let them down. “Then what happened to Ernie [suffered life-threatening injuries in an accident during a race at Michigan International Speedway in 1994] and ultimately winning the championship with Dale Jarrett.
“It was not an easy road by any means but it was his platform.”
“NASCAR gets the credit, the France family, for giving us this platform to do that. Dad was such a humble person. Being a car owner was not his dream. Doing a great job at whatever he did was what he did.
“And just timing and the way things evolved and being good at what he did and being at the right place at the right time gave him a platform.’’
And Yates used that platform to its full historical potential – enjoying decades of hard-earned success in a life well-lived and much respected. He was one of those rare, rare people who could rest well, knowing he made a positive difference and that not a soul had a disparaging word or thought.
That he was adored by so many was never more evident than last spring at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
A big smile never left Yates’ face as received the congratulatory hugs and handshakes.
“I don’t even know if I’ll sleep tonight,” Yates said in the moments after finding out he was a new inductee.
“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.”