CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Robert Yates left us too early. Too early to see his NASCAR Hall of Fame ring or the blue jacket given to inductees, succumbing to cancer last October after a brave fight against the disease. His presence, though, was felt everywhere Friday night.
With an emotional reading of the acceptance speech he wrote before his passing, Robert Yates’ message of appreciation brought a reverent high point to a stirring Hall of Fame induction Friday at the Charlotte Convention Center.
Fellow Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett, one of his star drivers, narrated Yates’ essay over a video montage of his accomplishments, leaving the Crown Ballroom assembly in stone silence. They joined generations of Yates family members in a tearful remembrance of the magnificent life of the master engine builder and team owner, who died at age 74, just months after learning he was selected as the Class of 2018’s top vote-getter.
Doug Yates, his son, had been offered a preview of his father’s speech Friday morning. He chose to wait, saying he wouldn’t be able to stand the bundle of emotion for all those hours leading up to the ceremony.
“To have Dale deliver it, it was just a special, special day,” Doug Yates said. “I can’t wait to go watch it again because, to be honest, my heart was about to jump out of my chest. I was trying not to cry. I need to go watch it again because it was really just something I’m trying to get through and be strong. But I’m really proud.”
Robert Yates’ enshrinement concluded a vibrant night of recognition for one of the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s most eclectic classes, from all walks of the sport, with pioneer Red Byron, Truck Series record-breaker Ron Hornaday Jr., broadcaster extraordinaire Ken Squier and innovator Ray Evernham.
The moment was one of many memorable glimpses in a night of All-Star moments, with the sport’s current standouts intertwined with stock-car racing royalty. Dale Earnhardt Jr. exchanging after-dinner greetings with 92-year-old Glen Wood. The reigning NASCAR champion, Martin Truex Jr., introducing the first in: Byron.
Then there was the emotion. Byron’s grandson, Samual, pumping and raising his first on the stage, nearly 70 years after the World War II veteran captured the Strictly Stock title, the forerunner to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series crown.
There was Hornaday, matching that fist pump upon first donning his blue Hall of Fame jacket, then working the room at dinner to greet well-wishers. He completed the ensemble before his speech with a matching NASCAR Hall of Fame hat, getting a final sprucing up of his collar and tie by Kevin Harvick, his former protégé. Once properly primped, his excitement was barely contained by the 40,000-square-foot ballroom.
There was the soothing voice of Squier, a familiar sound broadcast into so many living rooms during a great period of growth for NASCAR. “I hope that you’ll take that message along that this sport is so special, so unique, and so beautiful in so many ways,” Squier said, telling stories until he said he was all out, leaving the crowd longing for more.
There was Evernham, making an eloquent, gracious entry into the NASCAR shrine, making a catalogue of thank-yous to all the people who influenced his career as a driver, mechanic, master crew chief and a team owner. Jeff Gordon, who drove Evernham’s cars to three championships, did the honors of introduction. Next year, the first year that Gordon becomes eligible for induction, Evernham may be able to return the favor.
In the end, there was Yates and the groundswell of support for the popular man who fielded title winners and Daytona 500 champions with his know-how of mechanics and horsepower, but who also preferred to build relationships on handshakes and his word.
Such a shade-tree contract brought Jarrett to Robert Yates Racing, and it did the job until the real thing came along. Friday night, the driver and owner were linked again through a moving final note of appreciation.
The statistics and records Yates established in his career speak to his expertise. His spirit, however, was crystalized by a solemn speech.
“It was just typical my dad,” Yates said. “He’s going to hit on every point and give other people the credit. It was just so well done and I’m so proud of him.”