Thompson In Turn 5 · Tommy Thompson · Tuesday August 1, 2006
Listening to the recent news concerning Robert Yates Racing, (RYR) one could justifiably reach the conclusion that the race team had taken the form of a damaged ship ruptured beyond repair, and that the crew, to save themselves, are fleeing the sinking vessel before it’s too late.
In recent weeks, both drivers Dale Jarrett and Elliott Sadler have announced that they will not be returning to the organization for the 2007 Nextel Cup season. During the same time period, the two-car team was also informed that the highly coveted and lucrative primary sponsor for the No. 88 car, United Parcel Service (UPS), was boarding the same life raft that its driver Jarrett would be taking to safety, planting its final destination at newly formed Michael Waltrip Racing. That news was followed up this week by the release of both No. 38 crew chief Tommy Baldwin and No. 88 crew chief Slugger Labbe, which followed the demise of General Manager Eddie D’Hondt from the team back in May. The loss of so many could, in some people's opinions, mean that team owner Robert Yates will not have the needed manpower to shore up the vessel and save her from being scuttled.
Heck, even NASCAR great Darrell Waltrip seems to have reached the same conclusion after watching the SS Robert Yates run aground and start to flounder. DW recentlycommented on RYR's likelihood of righting its ship, proclaiming that, "the program is beyond repair." Now, Waltrip knows Robert Yates and Robert Yates knows Darrell Waltrip, both of them having teamed up to account for at least 35 of Waltrip's wins during his illustrious career. Yates' response to DW's bold prognosis of doom: “He can say I suck. He can report the facts. But he can bite my ass when he says I'll never get it fixed.”
Robert Yates has, in fact, been talking a lot the past few weeks concerning the chain of events that have befallen him; and the more Yates talks, the more apparent it becomes that he is beginning to understand what has led to these current trials and tribulations. The son of a preacher, Yates has been brutally honest concerning his responsibility in allowing his organization to drift off course and into dangerous waters. The once champion engine builder has publicly acknowledged that, as owner, he had become too preoccupied with the day-to-day business side of the sport, drifting away from what he knows best, building fast motors and well handling racecars. To fix the problem, the car owner has let it be known that he will return to the shop, where he can be most effective, and relinquish more of the traditional owner responsibilities to his son Doug.
As for the desertions of his two Nextel Cup wheelmen, Yates believes that the departures of Jarrett and Sadler were a result of nothing more than money…and a lot of money, to boot! Presently, the market is a “driver’s market” with a shortage of experienced and accomplished drivers to compete at NASCAR's Cup level. Coupled with the ability of wealthy megateam owners such as Rick Hendrick and Jack Roush willing to pay disproportionate salaries, recent retirements of quality drivers, and the deep pockets of Toyota, contracts for proven drivers have quickly inflated to levels that would understandably have owners such as Robert Yates balking, knowing that these numbers are unrealistic and certain to level off in the long run.
Still, despite those public admissions there have been other, unacknowledged mistakes that deserve to be questioned. One can argue that Robert Yates has not been far thinking in his driver development program, and as a result, present rumors have two drivers with little experience headed for RYR in 2007: Steven Leicht, currently driving a limited schedule for Yates in the Busch Series with finance industry giant Citifinancial as his sponsor, and true "Cinderella Story" candidate David Gilliland, who was also driving a limited schedule in Busch for a team who has recently shut down. Although both drivers seem to have the potential to race at NASCAR’s highest level, the two combined have a total of three NEXTEL Cup starts.
Of course, Yates supporters might argue that the team was the process of developing Kasey Kahne before Kahne bolted to the Ray Evernham stable after some fancy, highfalutin’ legal maneuvering robbed RYR of one of NASCAR's stars of the future. While there is no denying that had Kahne continued his mentoring program with Yates in the Busch Series, the driver situation now might be different, it is also fair to point out that RYR has had three years to find and develop someone else. Even with the decline and eventual retirement of Jarrett staring them in the face, the team hadn’t begun to do that until this year.
Yates has also found himself reluctant to welcome the era of NASCAR megateam expansion. While Ford counterpart Jack Yates has grown to a five car operation, Yates has not shown the willingness to keep pace and grow in a similar fashion. Recently, that opinion has shifted, as Yates has publicly expressed his desire to become a three or possibly four car team. One can either look at this change in Yates’ philosophy as desperation, as he watches the rats fleeing for firmer ground, or as an earnest realization that to be successful moving forward, his views must change.
Despite the mistakes, those who criticize the team and predict a dismal future for RYR seem to be disrespectful to this man and his character. Robert Yates has known hard times. He has faced more devastating events than the departure of an aging veteran that had previously announced that he was closing in on retirement, and he has certainly suffered more heartbreak than the loss of a journeyman driver that has only RYR to credit for the majority of what success in his NASCAR career he has to date. Before those men were even a part of the team, Yates both suffered and grieved the death of Davey Allison, the very person responsible for convincing him to be not only an engine builder, but his car owner. Then, just one year later, Yates agonized and prayed for Ernie Irvan's recovery after being critically injured in one of his cars. In each instance, the feeling of hopelessness and despair surely had to be greater than what Yates is experiencing in replacing drivers who he'll no longer have in his race cars simply because he’s been outbid.
The overall level of performance at RYR has steadily decreased over the last several years. Changes were inevitable, whether the present drivers remained or not. In today's NASCAR, teams that consistently perform poorly will fall by the wayside. Patience is no longer a word often used; sponsors will leave quickly in the face of failure and without hesitation, further contributing to the downward spiral. When those finances are weakened, more successful and better financed owners will then rob competent drivers from the weaker teams, and the organization completely falls apart. RYR has slowly become such a team after reaching the highest pinnacle of the sport in 1999, when Jarrett won the then-Winston Cup Championship. With both Jarrett and Sadler languishing at midpack in points this season, the handwriting for change was already written in bold print on the wall before it got any worse. Rest assured, Robert Yates knew that changes were needed.
One last point many have failed to factor into their predictions of continued failure at RYR is that unlike other owners that have had to concede defeat and jump ship, Robert Yates has good reason to not abandon his. Robert Yates builds fast engines; as evidence of that, one only needs to look as far as Roush Racing and how competitive they are with the Jack Roush/Robert Yates power plants under the hood. Additionally, Yates has commented publicly, "I'm not broke. So it's not bad." Fast engines and money! Those are two very important components to being competitive in the world of stock car racing!
Robert Yates returning to the shop next season is a good decision. Certainly, there is no one more qualified to oversee the continued success and future development of the engines that bear his name and have become synonymous with excellence in racing performance. Yates' presence in the shop, along with Jack Roush's expressed commitment to assist the fellow Ford Motor Company NASCAR competitor with body and suspension information, should result in more competitive cars being put on the track in short order.
We have witnessed a positive turnaround in this type of situation before. A year ago, similar negative predictions were being offered for Richard Childress Racing that team owner, holding onto three teams threatening to spiral down into permanent mediocrity. Today, Childress has two cars inside the Top 10 in points, and is in an excellent position to have both of his cars in the Chase for the Championship. Childress has shown that with some hard work and the placement of competent people in key jobs, dramatic improvement can quickly be achieved. Though the circumstances that led to Richard Childress Racing and Robert Yates Racing are not identical, there are similarities in their stories. Both are proud, longtime owners that have known great success in the past, but seemed to not keep up with the fast paced changes in the sport. Childress, like Yates, does not consider abandoning his ship an option. Instead, both owners know that they only need to gather their crews, map out a strategy, and then execute that plan.
Floundering ships sometimes can be saved. To do so, you need a crew and a captain with the knowledge and wherewithal to make it happen. Robert Yates, as the captain of the vessel, has made the decision to not abandon ship, nor stand by helplessly as it meets certain demise. He is in the process of gathering a competent crew that is likewise interested in seeing the SS Robert Yates free itself from its precarious and unstable position, be built back into “shipshape” condition, and once again sail a steadfast course among the elite teams of NASCAR.
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