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WAID’S WORLD: Despite Success, Robert Yates Remained True To Himself

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Every time I passed Robert Yates – it didn’t matter if it was the garage area, pit road or a parking lot – he always smiled at me.

But it was something of a strange smile.

Once, I turned to a friend and said, “Have you ever noticed that when Robert smiles at you, he’s smiling as if he knows something you don’t?”

“Well I have news for you,” my friend said. “He does know something you don’t.”

That could never be argued. When it came to NASCAR racing, car and engine preparation and competitive strategy, Yates knew a helluva lot more than virtually everyone.

But he never came close to saying that. Yates never promoted himself. While he worked diligently for success, he was never comfortable in the limelight. It was never his thing.

He was always polite and cooperative with the media. But he never could be lured into controversy. He brushed aside questions that could put himself, his team and even NASCAR into the thick of it.

I once worked up the nerve to ask him about it.

He smiled – yes, that same smile.

“Oh, I’ll defend myself and my team,” he said, knowing full well he never had to do so. “But otherwise, what’s the point? What’s accomplished?”

Yates came across as a humble man, which, to many, was a significant trait. Given his success in NASCAR as an engine builder and team owner, he couldn’t be blamed if he considered himself above others.

Yates started his career as an engine builder for Holman-Moody, the Ford factory team, in 1967. From then until 1973, his engines won 30 events on NASCAR’s premier series.

He worked for Junior Johnson from 1972-1975, and was the prime engine builder during the ’72 season, which highlighted Chevrolet’s return to racing as Bobby Allison won 10 races and finished second in the championship standings.

More than once Johnson said, ‘Robert was my secret weapon.”

In 1983, Yates won a championship with Allison at DiGard Racing Co. and was Richard Petty’s engine builder in 1984 when Petty won his 199th and 200th races.

At that point, Yates could have ended his career and been recognized as one of NASCAR’s greatest engine builders. I believe he could have accepted that.

But things took a turn.

In 1989 Yates had the opportunity to buy Harry Ranier’s team – which had already established its credibility with driver Bill Elliott.

Yates, however, balked.

He wasn’t sure of the logistics – the money spent, the personnel, business matters and, not at the least, which driver to acquire. Word was he didn’t feel he was up to it.

NASCAR lore says it was Davey Allison that persuaded Yates to take the leap.

Allison, an up and coming driver who was the son of Bobby Allison, told Yates he should make the move.

“Do it,” an enthusiastic Allison said. “You can make this work. I’ll drive for you. We can do great things together, Robert.”

Yates made the move. Allison was right. They did great things together.

Alison won 15 races in a five-year period. In 1992 he won five times and finished third in the final standings.

During this time Allison became one of the most popular drivers in NASCAR. And Robert Yates Racing moved into position as one of the sport’s most powerful teams.

The Allison-Yates combination seemed destined for greater things – multiple victories and championships were expected.

But it came to a tragic end in 1993 when Allison was fatally injured after a helicopter crash at Talladega.

It was a heavy blow to Yates. It had to be like a father losing a son. I’m not sure he ever fully recovered from it.

But in subsequent years, the Yates team showed no signs of backtracking.

By 2009, Yates final year of operation, his team had won 57 races and the 1999 championship with Dale Jarrett. Among the other drivers it employed were Ernie Irvan, Ricky Rudd and Elliott Sadler.

Afterward he helped create Roush Yates Engines, which builds powerplants for all five Ford teams under the direction of son Doug Yates.

His father’s true passion was preparing engines, day and night.

“He didn’t care how long he worked,” Johnson once said. “And I never had to tell him anything. As much as I had worked on engines, he showed me he knew a little more.”

And I daresay he did so with that curious smile.

He never let his success overtake who he was.

Throughout his career, and even when death from liver cancer approached, Robert Yates remained true to himself.

He smiled a lot.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW STEVE ON TWITTER: @SteveWaid

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Steve Waid

Steve Waid has been in motor sports journalism since 1972, the year he first started covering NASCAR, when he started his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. From there Waid spent time at the Roanoke Times & World as well as NASCAR Scene, where he was the executive editor for 10 years. After retiring in 2010 he became the Vice President of Unplugged Auto Group for its website, MotorsportsUnplugged.com and has now joined POPULAR SPEED as an editor and columnist. Waid has won numerous writing awards and other such accolades. In January of 2014 he was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame.