Wednesday, February 12, 2003
Yates builds winning engine in ´69, then gets 3 500s as a team owner
By KEN WILLIS
DAYTONA BEACH — As much as anyone in auto racing, Robert Yates has become synonymous with horsepower. He built a name in racing as a master engine builder. He powered winners for the race teams of Holman-Moody, Junior Johnson, DiGard and Harry Ranier, and eventually took over Ranier´s team in the late 1980s.
In the years since, Yates racing has become a NASCAR kingmaker, winning races with Davey Allison, Ernie Irvan and Ricky Rudd, and a championship with Dale Jarrett. Along the way, Yates has fielded three Daytona 500 winners.
“My dad was a preacher, and when I was 7, 8, 10 years old, my dad would preach about the Bluebird and this guy -- Sir Malcolm Campbell or somebody -- who made this land-speed record on the beach in Daytona.
He´d be preaching about God´s way of coming in and smoothing the sand so a man could do something like that. I remembered that, about this guy racing on the beach. He told that story again and again, talking about God´s way with nature.
I sure perked up when I heard that, because I loved cars. I couldn´t wait to get on the beach with a car.
I´d probably never been out of North Carolina when I was a kid. I was probably 12 years old before I ever got out of the state.
But I started hearing about Daytona, about the Speedway. I was thinking about this place way off in the distance. I had a picture in my mind about what the place looked like.
I finally came here in 1963. Some friends of mine from East Carolina College called me. I was at Mars Hill College, right above Asheville.
There wasn´t no I-95 then. We met and drove down, came down Highway 301. Man, I´m going to Florida. I´ve never seen Florida -- this is a whole big experience.
Going to see the ´63 Chevrolet that Junior Johnson is running, you know. Got down here, of course it was the first time I ever experienced going from where it was cold to where it was warm. Got down here and rolled the windows down -- thought that was a big deal.
Got down here but didn´t have a place to stay. We didn´t think about it. didn´t really have money to rent a place anyway. we´d just stay in the car.
Got down here on Friday. We walked in and got a grandstand ticket. The Friday sportsman race was going on. I walked straight to the fence, and all of a sudden, just as I got there, they had this 11-car pileup. A windshield comes out of one guy´s car. A friend of mine was standing beside me at the fence, and here comes this windshield out of a ´63 Dodge or something, right up in the air and over the fence, and splattered right between us.
I thought that was the coolest thing that ever happened -- ‘Man this is exciting.’
I just couldn´t believe I was here. It was quite an experience.
I drove on the beach the next year, driving a new ´64 Dodge. Then in ´65, I got a ´65 Chevrolet up to about 110 miles an hour on the beach. It was early morning; there was not a soul out there. I don´t know why they didn´t put me in jail. It was like 6 o´clock in the morning. I wanted to go down that beach wide open, and I did.
Just a few years later, I built the engine that won the 1969 Daytona 500 with LeeRoy Yarbrough, while I was working for Holman-Moody.
It was a last-minute panic deal that happened. Our engines had been breaking bolts, and we couldn´t figure out why. My job at Holman-Moody was to fit all the engine bearings. The engineers were convinced it was bolt stretch. Junior called me and said, ‘I think these bolts are bad.’ That was his wisdom -- if they´re breaking, they´re bad.
He wanted to know if we had any of the black bolts we used to run. I looked in my cabinet and I had about 20 bolts. This was real late. The race was in just a few days.
Junior thought we needed to change the bolts, but the engineers wouldn´t allow it. They didn´t think that was the problem. Junior says, ‘Well, they won´t let us change any. But if you´ve got an engine with them in it, I´ll run it.’
So Junior, sorta not going in the front door, says, ‘I want an engine with the black bolts.’
I worked all night. Put the engine together in record time. Is´s usually a three-day deal, but I did it that day and that night, had it on the dyno at 7 o´clock in the morning.
Junior or somebody picked it up and ran it in the Daytona 500. I didn´t get to come down for the race. LeeRoy won the race, and I didn´t know if they´d run the engine or not, because back then there wasn´t much communication.
So on Monday morning at the shop, Junior comes by the shop that day. He comes up to me and slips me a $100 bill. It was like, ‘Yes!’ That was my claim to fame. That engine is still in Darlington at the Hall of Fame there.
I came down here in ´76 to work for DiGard (race team). DiGard was trying to get me to go to work for ´em. They had everybody working for ´em. They had Smokey on the payroll -- had everybody and their son on the payroll.
They said, come down and just help us out. I loaded my toolbox on my wife´s car and drove to Daytona. I pulled in the shop, David Ifft came out and said, ‘Glad you´re here, we just laid off all our engine guys.’
They fired everybody but two of ´em. I said, ‘I´m only here for two weeks.’ Well, I was here for a year.
Stayed at the Scottish Inn, and at the Copacabana some. They sent me Christmas cards for years after that. I´d go to McDonald´s for a Coke and an Egg McMuffin, and show up at work there on Fentress every morning at 7 o´clock.
I bought a condo here, over near the Chart House, a few years back -- back when you had the fires.
I like Daytona. What I always really enjoyed about Daytona is November. There´s almost nobody here, and Is´s just beautiful. You can go out on the beach, and Is´s quiet. Really good.
Trying to do more of that every year.” -- Robert Yates