Natural Born Mechanic

Robert Yates, who once did not know what he was going to do with hislife, is now thankful he stuck with racing. In 1983, he was the headengine builder for the Winston Cup championship team of DiGard anddriver Bobby Allison.

Yates, a Southern Baptist preacher's son, was born in Charlotte. He camefrom a large family, eight brothers and sisters. He grew up mowing lawnsto help support the family. One day he ripped the engine off his lawnmower and built his first racing machine, a 3hp go-kart.

By the time he was about 15 or 16, word spread through the neighborhoodthat he was a pretty good mechanic. Cars began lining up in thepreacher's driveway, waiting for Robert to work on them.

Cars were not what the Baptist family had in mind for young Robert, astraight-A student. Young Robert attended Wake Forest University, wherehe excelled in his studies while working as a heavy-equipment mechanic.

Yates' career was headed toward racing. He was a math whiz kid and likedthe challenge of putting together powerful engines. Holman & Moodyoffered him $9 per hour. Yates had not been married long, so he acceptedthe salary. Later, he worked for Junior Johnson and then for DiGard.

Before long, DiGard was out of racing and Yates was out of a job. In1986, he became associated with Harry Ranier. He made their cars gofast, but it wasn't long before Ranier pulled out of the sport. Yateswas tired of moving from one team to another, so he sold his house,borrowed $300,000, and bought Ranier's interest in the race team.

It was now Robert Yates Racing, and Yates hired Davey Allison to twistthe steering wheel. Texaco signed on as sponsor. Money was coming backin while the team won 19 races. Then Allison was killed in a helicoptercrash at Talladega Superspeedway.

Ernie Irvan became the team's driver. He won five races before a badwreck at Michigan sidelined him. He finally returned to Yates Racing andwon three more races.

Dale Jarrett was hired to drive while Irvan was getting well. Jarrettand the team clicked and, in 1999, Jarrett and Yates earned the Cupchampionship.

Yates is another person who came out of the blue to make his mark onracing. Robert Yates Racing is considered one of the very top teams inthe sport.

There are so many in so many different walks of life, all associatedwith racing, who have done so well. Some blindly walked into racing andmade a career of it while others planned and prepared.

A Good Match

Then there is Junior Johnson. He was plowing with a mule when hisbrother came after him and talked him into driving a race car. The sportdid a lot for him. To this day, he still plows his garden with a mule,but it is because he wants to. He loves mules and land dogs, so he makessure some of both are close to home.

Johnson raced as hard as fire would burn gasoline. In 1960, he drove anunderpowered '59 Chevy to victory in the Daytona 500, drafting his wayto the surprise win. If it didn't blow, he was there at the end.

But Johnson gave up driving to become a team owner early in his career.He had enough lieutenants at his Ingle Hollow shop at one time to fighta war. Those were the days Darrell Waltrip and Neil Bonnett drove forJohnson.

Tim Brewer, Jeff Hammond, Doug Richert, Mike Hill, Bill Auman, EricDickerson, Abbie Garwood, Wes Wilkenson, Jeff Wilson, J.V. Reins, andSteve Triplett are among those who made Waltrip and Bonnett fly.

"I got a lot of good people," Johnson said, "and most of the time theyall do a good job.

"I got some good coon dogs down here in the kennel, too. Most of thetime, they all do a good job."

Junior's philosophy was that when somebody new comes to work, the otherguys will weed him out if he isn't getting the job done.

"It works just about every time," Johnson said.

The sport is better off because of Junior Johnson, and most certainlyJohnson is better off as a result of being involved with racing.

Then there are the Wood brothers. Had it not been for racing, they mayhave followed a career in saw milling. Glen was an excellent driver onthe short tracks, and when the superspeedways came along he turned hisoperation toward team management and was very successful.

And finally, there is Bud Moore, who grew up on a farm and then went offto war to serve as a mechanic. Home from the war, he found a future inracing.

Costly Sport

There is, of course, another side. There is a high cost of being a BobbyAllison, an Alan Kulwicki, a part of the Alabama gang, and others whohave seen the dark side of speed.

"I've had to lean on my faith pretty hard over the years," Allison said.

He lost two sons, his father, and friend Neil Bonnett.

"As long as I've known Bobby, he has been a faith-filled person. Youcan't survive the things he has survived without being able to find areason for them, an explanation, and he has always been able to findthat in his faith," said Father Dale Grubba, priest at St. John theBaptist Catholic Church in Princeton, Wisconsin.

If given a second chance, despite all that has happened, Bobby Allisonmight just choose racing again as his career.

So, we're celebrating our 40th birthday. We've all had a good run,haven't we? I realize we're probably forgetting somebody. The Francefamily and all its staff, most certainly, and we shouldn't overlook R.J.Reynolds, which carried the sport on its shoulders with its Winstonbrand smokes for so many years.

Also, we need to just stand up and shout for the sport itself.Attendance has tripled in 10 years, speedways are sprouting everywhere,and sponsors are spending millions to get their names on anything to dowith racing. The people in this story, and so many more involved withthe sport, are driving the growth. There seems to be no end.

That Championship Feeling

It may have been fleeting, and it might not have mattered in the finalrundown for the Daytona 500. But during qualifying runs for the sport'sbiggest race, Richard Petty's No. 43 Dodge was again atop the leaderboard at Daytona International Speedway.

It wasn't a victory for a team with a stock car heritage like no other,but it was a giant step in the right direction. The No. 43 and driverBobby Labonte ended up eighth fastest for the 500 and finishedThirty-Fifth, while teammate Kyle Petty started Twelfth and finishedThirty-Ninth. Both were caught up in accidents started by others.

The qualifying runs, nonetheless, were an indication of the depth oftalent the Pettys have assembled over the past year.

Robbie Loomis returned to Petty Enterprises last fall after leavingHendrick Motorsports, where he earned the Cup title in 2001 as JeffGordon's crewchief. He's now the executive vice president of raceoperations for the Pettys.

Todd Parrott, who made his name as a member of Robert Yates Racing, iscrewchief for Labonte. Parrott was Dale Jarrett's crewchief when theteam earned the Cup title in 1999, one year before Labonte became Cupchampion as driver for Joe Gibbs Racing, where he has spent the previous11 seasons. Meanwhile, Paul Andrews, a member of Alan Kulwicki's 1992Cup championship team, is crewchief for Kyle Petty.

That's four team leaders who each have won the Cup title at some pointover the past 14 years, not counting the seven won by Richard between1964 and 1979.

"That means a lot," says Labonte of the level of experience at PettyEnterprises. "We've got a lot of confidence in ourselves and in eachother. When you talk to somebody who's been there and done that, you'vegot the goods. You've got the 'feel-good' about it and you've got theexperience. Even though we've all got experience, we're not all tired.We're all hungry-still hungry to do well."

The Pettys have been in rebuild mode for several seasons and haven'tvisited Victory Lane in a Cup race since John Andretti prevailed atMartinsville in 1999. While the team has yet to return to glory, Labontesays the depth of the team-boosted significantly by the core groupthat's been with the team for several years-will serve Petty Enterpriseswell as it moves forward.

"We know," says Labonte, "we're going to come out of a track on a Sundayand say, 'Man, that wasn't what we expected. We didn't go as fast as weshould have.' But I think we'll be able to bounce back on days likethat." -Larry Cothren