He wanted to play football. As a youngster growing up in Charlotte, Yates had the size and athletic ability to be a good player. What he lacked was permission. Robert's father, a Baptist minister, wouldn't allow his son to participate in the sport. So instead of scoring touchdowns or intercepting passes, Robert developed a different pastime - working on cars. As it turns out, he was pretty good at that too.
As he works his way through his 33rd Winston Cup season, Robert Yates has mixed emotions. He's the owner of the reigning Winston Cup Series Championship racing team andat the pinnacle of his profession. He's already won the Daytona 500 this year, and both his #28 and #88 cars are in the top 10 for Winston Cup points this season. And yet, something is missing. Racing has changed, and while NASCAR's success has been good to Yates, the distinguished, soft-spoken master engine builder oversees a far different operation from the one he first joined back in 1967.
"I don't feel like I'm contributing as much to the team anymore," he says wistfully. The desk in his office, which he once rented out for a time, is bare except for a few family photographs and models of his two racing cars.
Yates explains, "About the only time I'm in here is to hire somebody or fire somebody. I'd much rather be out in the shop."
Yates' challenges have changed as his organization and the sport have grown dramatically. One thing is certain, though. He has worked hard his entire life, and he's not about to stop now.
Born in 1943 as the youngest of nine children, including twin brother Richard, Yates grew up in the shadow of the Allen Street Baptist Church his father pastored.
Yates credits his upbringing for giving him the proper perspective on life. "The family I was so lucky to be a part of gave me a good understanding of why we're here, what this life's about, and how to get through it."
Yates watched how his father worked with people and saw firsthand the poverty that surrounded them. He developed a strong work ethic and an understanding that nothing in life is free. "We would never go to my dad for Coke money," he says. "But if I needed a schoolbook, he would get it." Robert and Richard delivered the old Charlotte News and later took on several Charlotte Observer routes. They cut the grass of their father's parishioners' yards and saved money to buy their own bicycles.
Yates was a big and strong kid in his early teens. He wanted to play football, but a heart murmur from a childhood bout with rheumatic fever precluded it. His parents wouldn't sign the release form. Because he couldn't play football, Yates pursued what would become a lifelong love affair with that gleaming symbol of post-war America: the automobile.
With the help of a trade-in from their father, Robert and Richard bought their first car, a '57 Chevy, with the money they had earned. The church had in the meantime bought a home for the Yates which had an unusual feature for the time: a two-car garage. After school the boys would come home and spend hours in the garage working on their car.
"We came along at the time when automobiles were popular," says Richard. "People needed to have work done on their cars and Robert and I both liked tinkering with cars and enjoyed the mechanical side of it."
Robert was especially adept and would work on wealthier kids' cars, then use the money to buy the parts to fix his and Richard's. He was a natural mechanic and was "busier than I can tell you, because I could do anything on a car."
They didn't fix their car just to keep it running. Working on it became a passion. As Robert remembers, "We had more backup engines than we do now for Winston Cup racing!" On occasion, Robert would ride on the front bumper while Richard drove with the hood open, so Robert could listen to the engine and adjust the timing.
Robert also had a taste for speed and channeled the competitive impulses he couldn't use in football into drag racing instead.
"I also spun my wheels around the church a lot. Probably interrupted a few prayer meetings," he admits. "But when I raced, I loved hurting people's pride when I beat them."
Yates saw the first NASCAR event at the Charlotte Motor Speedway when it opened in Concord in 1960. He was 17. At the time neither of the boys could imagine where their lives would lead them. "Oh, we never thought we would end up in Winston Cup racing, because when we were teenagers, our idols were guys like Ned Jarrett, Junior Johnson and Ray Fox," exclaims Richard. "We never knew that we would end up knowing them and competing against them. It's mind-boggling."
Robert's goal was to get an engineering degree from N.C. State. But, as it would do many times, his life took a different turn. "Along the way I met this girl who convinced me that she loved me the way I was," he says. "I was a mechanic and she accepted that. We got married, and after that, I had to earn a living!"
Robert and Carolyn were married in 1965. He still had plans to work during the day and go to school in the evening, but found he couldn't do both. At the age of 24, he went to work building engines at the famed Holman-Moody racing operation. "We worked from eight in the morning till ten at night," he recalls. "And they expected you to work on Saturdays and Sundays."
The very next year, though, Ford quit racing. His hours cut drastically, Yates looked for other work. By now, he had gained a reputation as a highly accomplished engine builder. He was eventually hired by Junior Johnson to lead his engine development program. Yates moved his family to Wilkesboro and helped propel stars such as Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough. After five years of 18-hour days, his family convinced him to move back to Charlotte.
For the next ten years, Yates worked for and became a partner in the DiGard team and helped power the fortunes of such drivers as Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison, Ricky Rudd and Greg Sacks.
By now he had firmly established himself as one of the best engine builders in racing history. When the DiGard operation failed in 1983, Robert took some time off from racing. He tested synthetic fuels and even worked with the Pentagon on the project for awhile. But racing was in his blood. In 1986, he bought a former mill site just off Rozelle's Ferry Road and began building engines for seven different race teams. Among them was Rick Hendrick's. "I almost went to work for Rick," says Yates. "And I'm sure I would have done well there." Then he got a phone call to meet a man at the airport.
from builder to team owner
It was August of 1986 and the man was Harry Ranier. He and his partner, who had enjoyed success on the circuit with drivers like Buddy Baker, wanted Yates to become their team manager. Yates signed on, but once again the fickle nature of the racing business changed Yates' course. In the fall of 1988, Ranier had financial problems and was forced to get out of racing. Yates wanted to buy the team. All he had to do was come up with the money.
"I sold every thread I had," he recalls. Yates and his wife had made an offer on a house just before. Yates says, "If they had taken our offer, I'm sure I wouldn't be sitting here today."
He sold his house, got a bank loan, and applied some money he had already invested in the business and bought the operation for $1.7 million.
"It probably had a liquidation value of about $700,000," says Yates. "But we had Texaco as a sponsor with a 3-year contract." Things did not go well for Robert Yates Racing at the start, though. His first race as team owner was rained out. In the second race, the car wrecked and in the third, it burned to the ground.
"We got to the last race of the season in Atlanta thinking, 'we'll never make it. We haven't earned a dime.' " They ran second, and Yates calls it the turning point for the team.
The lowest points in Yates' career occurred only a few years later. In 1993, beloved driver Davey Allison was killed in a helicopter crash at Talladega. His replacement, Ernie Irvan, suffered a near-fatal crash the next season at Michigan.
"After both of those, I didn't know how I was going to go on," Yates says quietly. "We have had some real sad times."
It took a while for the current driver, Dale Jarrett, to settle in, but with Jarrett driving the #88 Ford Quality Care Ford Credit Taurus, Yates now has his first Winston Cup Series championship.
Yates is well known in racing circles for his relentless commitment to excellence. He's had his share of run-ins with NASCAR officials, who have disallowed many of his engine improvements.
"I've created a few rules," he laughs.
In the midst of NASCAR's recent success and the influx of corporate sponsorship and flashy megabuck owners, Yates is a throwback to earlier days.
"Robert is reminiscent of the original people who started this whole sport," says H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, president of Lowe's Motor Speedway.
Mike Hargrave, director of sponsorships for Texaco, which still sponsors Yates' #28 car, agrees. "Robert's unique. He is involved every day and he works very hard so that his team is given all the resources it needs to be successful."
Unlike most race teams, Yates has never had to participate in what's known as the "silly season" trying to line up sponsors.
"I've known Robert in this sport for 20 years, and always had a lot of respect for him," says Ricky Rudd, who is now the driver of Yates' #28 Texaco/Havoline Ford Taurus. "The strongest suit of the Yates racing team is their motor program. There is no one on the circuit that makes more horsepower than the Robert Yates race organization."
It's a sentiment echoed by Humpy Wheeler. "Robert's real forté through the years has been his engines. He's right there with the great engine builders of the past like Smokey Yunick, Ray Fox and Junior Johnson," says Wheeler. "Robert learned a lot under John Holman and Ralph Moody and he's one of the few guys left who worked for them. He's always been able to get that extra horsepower out of a car."
Adds Hargrave, "The Robert Yates name is synonymous with performance. The engines he builds are known throughout the world for their power and reliability. Havoline Oil is used in all of Robert's engines, so when you think about the #28 car as a NASCAR fan, and when you think about Robert Yates Racing, you immediately think about Texaco. It has really built a positive bank of equity for us."
Everyone who has been associated with Robert Yates has the utmost respect for him and for his commitment to the sport. "I couldn't be more fortunate than to have the situation I have now to be able to join Robert Yates' organization," says Rudd, "Robert knows the sport and the business side of it inside out. The bottom line for me is, as a driver, he's got winning race cars."
a family affair
For Yates, racing is a family affair. "The key to this business is who has the most honest guy counting the money," says Robert. In Yates' case, it's his brother Richard. "Growing up he was the most honest person I knew and he still is."
Yates' wife Carolyn, who encouraged Richard during the difficult early years, successfully headed up the team's merchandise operation for a few years before retiring. He has a daughter, Amy, and his son Doug, who got the engineering degree from N.C. State his father sacrificed, is responsible for the team's engine program.
For a few years, Robert and Doug worked side by side building engines. Robert, who spent so much time working when Doug was a boy, relishes the time he now has to spend with him.
Of course, racing isn't the same as it was when Robert started. The days of having 10 employees, driving the race truck to the track and changing tires at pit stops for Yates are long gone. They have been replaced by 143 employees, including tire changing specialists and in-house experts who in some cases come to Yates from MIT and NASA.
Yates grins wryly as he looks over the vast array of high-tech computer testing equipment his racing team now uses. "Some of the things these computers reveal are what I could tell you just from listening to the engine," he says. But as the costs to run a team grow, specialization increases and Doug takes on more responsibilities, Robert realizes his contributions to his team are changing. He's still very much actively involved, but he's definitely not a small operation anymore. Yates does own a boat in Florida, but all things being equal, he'd much rather be at the garage working on an engine.
Mike Hargrave of Texaco recalls what happened after a spectacular crash that involved one of Yates' cars at the Bud Shootout earlier this year.
"When they brought the car back into the garage area, everybody was gathered around taking photos.
"Robert was looking at the crew working on the car, and the mechanic in him just wouldn't let go. He finally grabbed a saw from one of the guys and started sawing off the front fender of the car. He loves what he does."
And he's not about to stop now.