Industry Memorializes Master Engine Builder Robert Yates

Tributes for Robert Yates continue to mount as the motorsports industry pays tribute to one of the greatest engine builders in the sport.

“Robert was the smartest car person I’ve ever known,” Dale Jarrett told the New York Times. “He didn’t just know engines, which is what he was best known for. But he knew aerodynamics and he knew how to build a chassis, and he knew what to look for with tires as far as making them go faster. He understood everything about cars.”

Usually associated with Ford engines, the Blue Oval community reacted with grief but also remembered all the innovations and expertise he brought to the engine shop and racetrack.

“First and foremost an engine guy, Robert will be remembered as a person who helped build the sport with dedication and hard work,” Ford director Edsel B Ford II said on a Ford website. “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.”

Yates passed away October 2 at the age of 74. He had been battling liver cancer, according to associates at Robert Yates Racing Engines. Yates only recently was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame as a member of the 2018 class. Unfortunately he won’t be able to attend the induction ceremonies in January before the season starts.

Junior Johnson was one of the first NASCAR drivers to run Yates power under the hood. (Ford archives)

A graduate of Wilson Technical College, Yates landed a job at Holman-Moody in the ‘60s, then started building engines for Junior Johnson’s team. Some of the leading drivers who won with a Robert Yates engine include Bobby Allison, Lee Roy Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip and Richard Petty—who won races #199 and #200 with a Yates powerplant under the hood.

“Our sport lost one of the most inventive minds and kindest personalities in Robert Yates,” champion driver Tony Stewart told ESPN. “I’m glad I got to know him and proud our race team was able to honor him this year at Darlington.”

Yates started his own team in 1988, winning 57 races and the Daytona 500 three times. He won the NASCAR championship in 1999 with Dale Jarrett.

Perhaps no greater tribute was ever paid than when the industry referred to the best Ford small-block cylinder head as simply the “Yates head.” Robert Yates was genius at managing airflow on the aging Windsor cylinder head required by NASCAR for Ford teams. One of the first significant design changes he made was developing an intake port in a position that didn’t interfere with the pushrod. An early practice was to run a pushrod tube through the intake port so the geometry wouldn’t be affected. But he quickly saw that the air and fuel were separating after hitting the tube.

“So I made a set of heads with straight walls and nothing in the way. I ended up putting an engine with the new heads on the dyno about 11 o’clock one night and made a pull,” he told Power and Performance News. “And just listening to it I thought something was wrong, my dyno is messed up. I’m making 700 horsepower and back then 650 or 660 was the average.”

The standard practice for modifying heads in those days was welding them up and then cutting as desired. Eventually, the Yates design was picked up by other Ford teams and approved by NASCAR.

Bobby Allison was another winning driver to use Yates power.

Yates specialized in Ford engines, and Lee Roy Yarborough, to, was one of his winning drivers. (Ford archives)

Yates and fellow Ford team owner Jack Roush were fierce competitors, sometimes getting into heated debates over which team had the best cylinder head that should be approved by NASCAR. Yates and Roush eventually teamed up to start Roush Yates Engines in 2003 and become the sole supplier to all Ford NASCAR teams. There are different scenarios quoted throughout the years as to how these two rivals became partners. Some say corporate Ford One policy urged the union. Others say the Ford camp was worried about the money Toyota was going to throw at stock car racing.

Either way, Roush Yates Engines was formed with Robert’s son, Doug, in charge. The shop not only continues development for NASCAR teams, but also works on Ford engines for IMSA and other racing disciplines.

Robert Yates, center, teamed with son Doug and Danny Lawrence to take questions at the 2013 AETC conference.

EngineLabs last talked with Yates at the 2013 AETC gathering before the PRI show. Both Robert and Doug were part of the last session, discussing a variety of engine-related issues. We asked about potential rule changes, and the answers can be found in this story. Yates eventually started another engine shop that we worked with on a dirt-track spec engine.

Yates’ achievements are most remarkable, given his childhood medical issues that included rheumatic fever, a concussion and a hole in his heart. However, one of the common threads running through all the tributes paid to Yates was his devotion to hard work.

“Though he was a master at his craft, it was Robert’s passion and character that endeared him to every single person he encountered and will ensure that his memory will live on for generations,” NASCAR chairman Brian France summed up in a statement. “Robert Yates excelled in multiple NASCAR disciplines, earning the respect of an entire industry and an everlasting place in the hearts and minds of the NASCAR fanbase.

Yates is survived by wife Carolyn, son Doug, daughter Amy and eight grandchildren.

About the author

Mike Magda

Mike Magda is a veteran automotive writer with credits in publications such as Racecar Engineering, Hot Rod, Engine Technology International, Motor Trend, Automobile, Automotive Testing Technology and Professional Motorsport World. He was the editor of four national automotive magazines, including Chevy High Performance, and has authored hundreds of automotive technical briefings. In covering nearly every type of motorsport, Mike has collaborated with many of racing's top engine builders and factory engineers.
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