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Robert Yates was a soft-spoken man whose looks were naturally imposing. He taught me an important lesson. The worst kind of sportswriter is the kind who thinks he knows more about driving a race car than Dale Earnhardt and more about building an engine than Robert Yates.

I’ve learned that, while experience has taught me a lot, I don’t work in the shop. I don’t hang the bodies. I don’t make the calls. The people who do know more than I.

Yates used to utterly beguile me. I called him the NASCAR Confucius because he often seemed to be talking with a symbolism that eluded me. I wish I could remember a few of the parables. I could have sworn one was in my collection of NASCAR humor, Haul A** and Turn Left (2006). Apparently, since my time at the Gaston (N.C.) Gazette expired in 2013, my stories in its archives did, too.

I knew, though, that I had written about Yates in one of my books. I raced through several – thank goodness non-fiction books have indices – and finally found some vintage Robert in Postcards from Pit Road (2003).

First, there’s the visionary. During the 2002 season, Yates said this at Chicagoland Speedway: “I think they need to build tracks with graduated banking. That way the bottom of the track would be pretty flat, then the middle groove would be a little more banked, and the high groove would be higher still.”

Someone listened, oh, half a decade later. By then, others could take credit. The first person I heard it from was Yates. His mind wasn’t a closed course.

Then there was the inscrutable, mystical Yates. In the midst of something of a salary dispute with Ricky Rudd later that year, Yates opined, “I’m not trying to paint Ricky as a greedy money guy, but that’s the way life is. When the first guy moved out of the cave, just about everybody else wanted to follow. I’m the same deal.”


He was just getting started.

“I’m trying to run a business, and it’s got to be financially sound as well as, how much can you trade for trophies? Racing is fun, and certainly, there are days more stressful than others, but as long as you’re healthy, you really like to race against people that you know … better than the ones you don’t know. Brothers always race harder than others. You think they’re mad at each other, but they actually know each other, so they can deal with it better. I like to know people I race against, and, saying that, I may be racing against Ricky Rudd next year. My goal, 10 years from now is, when we look back on this deal, that we look back on it as a fun deal, instead of looking back on two and a half years, and botching the whole thing up, and remembering the bad times.”

A writer walked away from Yates scratching his head and trying to figure out something cosmic.

Now he’s gone, his brilliance carried forward by his son, Doug, who is much easier to understand in laymen’s terms.

NASCAR never had a more fascinating man, but it often wasn’t recognized because, literally, it wasn’t recognized.