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Although the list of triumphs under the name Robert Yates in the world of stock car racing is long, one of the most memorable in a life well lived is associated with grace after tragedy.
Davey Allison, who drove fast No. 28 Fords for Yates’ NASCAR team, was killed as the result of injuries suffered in a helicopter crash at Talladega Superspeedway in July 1993.
The racing world was shocked, and the pain hit heavily at Yates’ racing shop in Charlotte. Son of NASCAR champion Bobby Allison, Davey was a smart, fast and relentless driver and seemingly had found the perfect partner in Yates, an engine builder who had developed into a winning team owner.
The Cup Series was scheduled to race the following weekend at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania. Asked about his team’s plans, Yates said the No. 28 would not be in the field at Pocono, and he offered this exquisite explanation: “We can’t race with tears in our eyes.”
Yates, 74, died Monday after a long battle with cancer. He was elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame in May and is scheduled to be inducted in January. That he didn’t survive to enjoy that unique honor adds to the cloak of sadness that covers NASCAR and its associated teams and families today.
Yates, the son of a preacher, was a natural mechanic. He tried college but soon returned to working on cars, eventually finding his way into stock car racing, where he perfected his craft building engines for the giant Holman-Moody Ford team and later for Junior Johnson’s team.
Yates moved into team ownership in 1989, and he totaled 57 Cup victories, winning the 1999 championship with driver Dale Jarrett. He co-founded Roush Yates Engines, Ford’s engine-building operation, with team owner Jack Roush.
Performance-wise, Yates perhaps will be best remembered for the strong runs his engines produced virtually every year in the season-opening Daytona 500. Yates worked all winter elbow-deep in engines, squeezing out the last bits of horsepower for the cars the team would haul to Daytona Beach in February.
They were at or near the front practically every time.
“He wanted to go to Daytona and lead the practices and sit on the pole and show he had the fastest car,” said Jarrett. “His team did everything and anything they could do to be ahead of the competition. Those races put dollars in the bank account, but the big thing was the pride they took away from knowing they took the fastest car to Daytona.”
Although engines were his specialty, Yates was proficient in all aspects of racing, including pit crew work, aerodynamics and the often difficult process of putting together a winning team.
He was respected across all levels of the sport, and perhaps no more so than when he chose not to race in the aftermath of sudden and horrific loss.