NASCAR Weekly Q & A · Mike Neff · Thursday September 6, 2012
Doug Yates has been around racing his entire life. He’s the son of a legendary engine builder and has made a career out of making horsepower. He now heads up the operations at Roush Yates, a collaborative effort established in 2004 between two former engine building rivals who decided to team up and share their expertise.
The result was an instant success, as Kurt Busch claimed the Cup Series title in the first year of the collaboration. The company has been expanding their reach beyond the upper levels of NASCAR and is now serving a broad variety of racing endeavors around the globe. Frontstretch sat down with Yates before the ADVOCARE 500 in Atlanta to talk about growing up in the sport, learning about business from a legendary father, and hopes for the future.
Mike Neff, Frontstretch.com: We’re here to talk about racing. The Yates name has been around the sport for a very long time and you’re the next generation to carry on that legacy. I don’t want to ask when did you start in racing because you were born into it, but when did you start taking an active role in the racing business?
Doug Yates: It goes way back. I’ve been really fortunate that my dad was a part of the sport in the early days. My first memories are when he worked for Junior Johnson. We lived in North Wilkesboro, right down the street from Junior’s shop. My dad would come home for dinner and then head back to the race shop. He’d take me back to work with him. I think I was in second or third grade at the time. What he liked to do was machine all of his parts during the daytime and then assemble everything at night. I would help him do that and then spend the night on a cot there in the shop. It was just a really neat time.
I remember throwing the football around in the infield at Charlotte Motor Speedway when it was a landfill. Today we’re fortunate enough to have motorhomes and bring our families to the track every week. Back then it was the back of a station wagon with a bucket of chicken and then hanging on the fence watching our dads working on the cars. Occasionally we’d get to go to victory lane with them. I tell people all of the time that I am really glad to have gotten to see the sport change and evolve. It is important to let us know how we got here. It makes you appreciate what you have today more than ever.
You hear a lot of guys complain about something going on today and if they only knew what things used to be like. We drove to a lot of races and got to spend a lot of time with each other. We were joking with one of the new EFI guys and told him that he needs to ride in the tractor with one of the guys to the race track. That was something that, as a kid, dad would drive the truck sometimes and he’d pull the rig up and park it in front of the house and to me that was the coolest thing ever. Just experiences like that help you appreciate the experience and the upbringing and the history and where we are today.
Neff: You talk about spending nights at the shop on the cot. How much did your dad have to argue with your mom about you going to the shop and doing things there instead of doing homework or other things that you might have been doing?
Doug Yates: There was a good balance there. At the end of the day moms rule the roost and run the house. Every now and then my dad or I will start thinking we’re the head of the household but we’ll be put in our place pretty quickly. They always encouraged me to do well in school and to work hard. My mom is super special to me and my dad wasn’t around a lot. People even today, the guys who travel every week and the crew chiefs, this is something you don’t select just to collect a check. This is a career choice. The wives and women behind the people who are here are very special and that is the way my mom was. My mom and dad are celebrating their 46th anniversary on September 7th, and they stuck through a lot. I tell people all of the time that the best decision I ever made was to choose doing this for a living because if I hadn’t I never would have gotten to know my dad. That is something that is nice, having a job and a career, but family is really important to the Yates family.
That was a good time, but he was hard on me.
In our industry, on the engine side, you start out tearing down engines and cleaning parts. I had a speech with our guys the other day about that. I’ll never forget, I started cutting grass and then going there to work and I tore down engines and washed parts for a long time. It was probably for 10 years. My dad always said, when you do that job right I’ll give you the next one to do. If I ask you to clean the bathrooms and you do a bad job there, I’m not going to give you the next one. If you can’t tear down engines and clean parts well why should I let you put engines together? It felt like forever but it was a good life lesson. You have to pay your dues.
Neff: Your dad was a team owner and crew chief and several other things. Was it always engines that were the main focus or did it start out with the whole car and end up focused on engines?
Doug Yates: In my dad’s life he just worked hard and always got that next opportunity. It kind of goes back to Hulman-Moody, where he first started. He was one of the only guys who could read, write, add and subtract. He got a chance to work in the air gauge department fitting bearings because he knew how to do the math. Then he became an engine builder and did really well at that and, since he did a good job there, he got the chance to be a team manager for Harry Ranier and JT Lundy and Ford Motor Company asked him to come work for them.
We were talking about this the other day, the biggest career choice of his life was Rick Hendrick had offered him a job in about 1986 while JT Lundy and Harry Ranier and Ford Motor Company offered him a job. Arguably it was a much more challenging choice, but he took the opportunity with Ranier and Ford, which was the path less traveled rather than the easy route and ended up at Ford. He managed the team, built the engines and then one day Lundy and Ranier decided they were done doing the racing ownership thing and asked my dad if he knew of anyone who was interested in buying the team.
With the encouragement of Davey Allison, and that was the biggest reason he made the leap, he sold his house, moved into an apartment, and put everything he had on the line and bought the team. At that point it became more than a job. He’d always worked around cars and at DiGard he’d worked with Gary Nelson really closely and they won a championship with Bobby Allison, but at that point it was all on him. At that point it became cars and engines and people and the whole nine yards. It was obviously, looking back, a great decision, but not an easy one. And many times throughout that whole time from ’87 to when he decided to retire, it was tough, and owning your own business is tough, especially in a business as competitive as this one.
It is a business, but it is challenging and rewarding as well.
He was mainly an engine guy and we often get accused of being more engine guys than car guys. People often think that we feel like the cars are just engine stands for our engines. But y’know, that is probably why we like Daytona and Talladega so much, because it is less about handling and more about aerodynamics and friction and straight speed. That is the love of Daytona and Talladega for us.
Neff: On the team ownership side, have you ever dabbled in the idea of being a team owner and if so, what would or wouldn’t promote you to do that?
Doug Yates: Absolutely, that is a goal that I have for myself and I would love to achieve that, but I want to do it the right way. I consider myself one of the luckiest guys in the world to be around Robert Yates and Jack Roush and all of the guys in this sport. You look at what Richard Childress has done and everyone has done it a little bit differently. I’d like to have that opportunity, but there are a lot of things that have to come together, and one of those is that I have to a strong business that is not dependent on racing, at least at the national level. I need to have a stronger, more diverse business going forward. That is really the push that we’ve been making at Roush Yates, diversifying the business and getting into the grass roots racing and performance products, and all of those things. Hopefully we can build a strong enough business around it that it will give us the opportunity to go own a team again someday.
Neff: I’m curious about the spec engine that they’re pushing toward the modified series. In speaking with Corey LaJoie, who ran very well with it before they sold it out of his car, he said it is a Yates engine and not a Roush Yates engine. It is actually your dad who is spearheading that deal. I didn’t even realize he played around with building engines anymore. How did it come about that he ended up leading that effort and it didn’t run through you guys?
Doug Yates: That is a great question and I’m glad you’re putting it out there because it is Robert Yates Racing Engines and my dad and my brother-in-law own that business. NASCAR wanted someone who was independent from a team. All of the engine builders in the garage had inquired about it to NASCAR because it is an incremental piece of business, but NASCAR wanted someone who was independent and separate. Someone who didn’t have an agenda that was driven by what happened on Sunday and someone who was honest and loyal they felt could do a good job and also supply the parts for them.
My dad was standing there and obviously everyone knows him for engines and he’s really proud of that program and what they’ve accomplished. The goal is to make racing more affordable. It is somewhat controversial, especially with the modified guys, but I don’t think NASCAR is trying to put any engine builders out of business. However, at the same time there is the balance between having good racing and racers that can afford to get to the track and having that competitiveness. NASCAR has a tough job and I think that the engine that my dad’s company is doing is offering racers that opportunity.
Yates has taken the baton from his father when it comes to being the face of engine building in the garage. Earnhardt Childress Racing Engines, Hendrick Motorsports, Toyota Racing Development, and Penske Racing all build engines, but there isn’t a single name at the forefront for their organizations. With Roush Yates engines and performance parts, Doug Yates the front and center as the face and spokesperson for their business.
In the current environment of huge race teams, there are only a handful of people who have their name on the front door. Yates is the only one whose name is on the moniker of the engine shop. Yates is on the pit lane every weekend at the race track and is very hands on when it comes to making horsepower in the engines that bear his name.
We’ll soon take a look at the “motor” side of things and talk about making more horsepower with Doug in the second half of our Beyond The Cockpit interview next week.
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