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Legendary NASCAR Champion Robert Yates Passes Away at 74

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Robert Yates embodied the very definition of what it meant to be a racer, someone who loved to compete, loved to create and someone worked tirelessly and relentlessly to find horsepower under the hood of his race cars.

Yates, who passed away Monday at the age of 74 after a lengthy battle with liver cancer, was a NASCAR champion, first as an engine builder and then as a team owner and co-founder of Roush Yates Engines.

“Robert put his heart and soul into every engine that he ever built,” said Kyle Petty. “…He changed the way engines were built and how engine-building was perceived.”

The youngest of nine children born to a family of a Baptist minister in Charlotte, Yates overcame rheumatic fever and a debilitating concussion that left him with headaches and dizziness for most of his life to forge an amazing career that earned him a spot in the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2018.

Yates went to work for Holman-Moody Racing, Ford’s factory team, in 1967, building the race-winning engine for the 1969 Daytona 500, which saw LeeRoy Yarbrough win in a Junior Johnson-owned Ford. From 1969 to 1975, Yates-built engines won 30 NASCAR premier series races.

From 1972 to 1975, Yates worked for Johnson, then in 1976, he moved to, DiGard Racing. In 1983, Yates was the championship engine builder for Bobby Allison, and the following season he built the engines that powered Richard Petty to his 199th and 200th career victories.

Then after acquiring Harry Ranier’s team and becoming a team owner in 1989, Yates won 57 NASCAR premier series races, including three Daytona 500s, 48 poles and the 1999 championship with driver Dale Jarrett.

“We knew we had the best engines in the business from Robert and (son) Doug Yates,” said Jarrett. “It was incredible to work around such hard-working and dedicated people who only wanted one thing: to win. That’s what I wanted.”

Yates’ true joy as a mechanic was building engines, a process that frequently ran into the early morning hours. Yates would often go home for dinner and then return to the shop to assemble engines all night long.

Friday night, Saturday night, 11 o’clock at night. Our engines run better sometimes at night,” Yates said. “We worked to win. We worked until we felt like we were finished. We didn’t look at the clock. They still pull all-nighters. That’s sort of the way we did it. It wasn’t about how much you got paid. If we won, everybody was going to be happy.”

And they were very happy. Yates forged a championship team in Robert Yates Racing and went on to co-found the company that today builds the engines for all of Ford’s NASCAR teams.

“First and foremost an engine guy, Robert will be remembered as a person who helped build the sport with dedication and hard work,” said Ford Motor Co. board member Edsel Ford II.  “His legacy at NASCAR will be defined by his roles as an engine builder, championship team owner, co-founder of Roush Yates Engines and ultimately by the innovation that he brought to all of these endeavors and more.
“Much like my great grandfather, Henry Ford, Robert was a tinkerer.  They both leave behind a legion of admirers and friends who benefited from their mentorship and their passion.”

“Not only was Robert a legendary engine builder and championship car owner, but he was a husband, father, grandfather and loyal Ford man who left an unmeasurable impact on those who knew him,” said Dave Pericak, global director, Ford Performance.

At Darlington earlier this year, Stewart-Haas Racing paid tribute to Yates with a throwback paint scheme from Jarrett’s championship season that Danica Patrick carried on her car.

““Our sport lost one of the most inventive minds and kindest personalities in Robert Yates,” said SHR co-owner Tony Stewart. “I’m glad I got to know him and proud our race team was able to honor him this year at Darlington. He leaves a strong legacy that is carried on by his son, Doug, and all of their employees at Roush Yates Engines. While Robert will certainly be missed, he will always be remembered.”

Tom Jensen

Tom Jensen is a veteran motorsports journalist. He spent 13 years with, where he was Digital Content Manager. Previously, he was executive editor of NASCAR Scene and managing editor of National Speed Sport News. Jensen served as the president of the National Motorsports Press Association and is the group’s former Writer of the Year.