After years of scrapping, Robert Yates is at the top of the Winston Cup heap. Following his acquisition of the former Ranier Racing team in 1987, he seemed to be on a path to the championship with young driver Davey Allison. Tragically, the quest for a championship was diverted with the untimely death of Allison.
Through several difficulties during the intervening years, Yates teams were always a threat, but the final link to the championship came with the hiring of Dale Jarrett. The chemistry was completed with the addition of Todd Parrott as crew chief, and the rest, as they say, is history. Today, Robert Yates racing reigns as the king of NASCAR and will represent Winston Cup as its champion for the year 2000.
Circle Track: In 11 years marked by pain, glory, tragedy, and death as a Winston Cup car owner, how do you feel about Robert Yates Racing finally winning the coveted championship?Robert Yates: It's hard to believe. I've had to pinch myself. I'm truly excited and happy for the guys and for myself.
CT: Did you think a championship, pulled off convincingly by Dale Jarrett and your #88 Ford Quality Care-backed team, led by Todd Parrott, would ever happen?Yates: Yes, the #88 team has shown champion-ship style from the first day the car was unloaded at Daytona in 1996 and won the (then) Busch Clash and the Daytona 500. We just had to get all the little things fixed.
CT: What was one of the first thoughts that raced through your mind when your dream became reality?Yates: That I had made it as a car owner and businessman in racing.
CT: What's been most gratifying to you about the achievement?Yates: Being able to share my wisdom, knowledge, and 30 years experience with a lot younger guys, and be able to win.
CT: The #88 title team has amazed with 18 wins and a first, second, and two thirds in points in just four seasons. Why has the team been so good from the beginning?Yates: When we cherry-picked people to make up this team, we got the best cherries.
CT: Has the #88 team far exceeded your expectations?Yates: Double my expectations.
CT: Do you see any reason why #88 can't repeat in 2000?Yates: With the good leadership we have, and if we keep moving ahead, I think we can.
CT: Did you have any reservations about keeping Jarrett after his one-win season in your #28 Ford in 1995?Yates: Yes, I did. I wasn't sure whether the team would accept him with enthusiasm.
CT: How do you measure Jarrett as a driver now?Yates: He's a winner, a champion, a heads-up driver, and a good guy. The way he used his ability and his equipment to win the title was awesome. And he's proved that good guys can win races and championships.
CT: How about Todd Parrott, a rookie crew chief four years ago?Yates: He learned a lot from his dad (Buddy Parrott of Roush Racing), exudes confidence, and does an exceptional job.
CT: Why did you hire five members of Jeff Gordon's over-the-wall pit crew to service Jarrett's car in 2000?Yates: Because we've learned the past three years what we need to do to win a championship. We can't sit still. We have to keep moving ahead. We need more specialized teams to handle the lengthy schedule.
CT: Did any of the #88 crewmen get mad?Yates: Yes, probably as hurt as I was when I was a pit crewman and was told I couldn't jack the car anymore. They're very competitive. But they understand why I did it.
CT: Big-buck owners can afford specialized pit crews for hire, but is the practice fair and ethical?Yates: That's a good question. At first, I resisted this practice, but I've accepted it as a way of life. The pit crew came to us, not vice versa. Sometimes I'd think we shouldn't be driving up the cost of the sport and should keep it affordable. But if you don't do it, you get passed by quickly by those who do.
CT: At one time, members of specialized, or professional, crews were commanding up to $1,000 per race per man. What's the ante now?Yates: We don't put our pay stubs on the bulletin board, but numbers do get out in the garage. I think $500-600, certainly $1,000, is way out of proportion to what a full-time member of a team is paid. I am happy with the financial arrangement with the new pit crewmen.
CT: What do you think of NASCAR talking about breaking up specialized pit crews by limiting the number of crewmen a team can have at the track, but taking no action?Yates: At first, I lobbied for limiting the number of people. Then I found out that (NASCAR president) Bill France didn't care ... I don't think NASCAR will ever attempt to regulate specialized pit crews because they add a new dimension to the sport.
CT: Your original #28 Texaco Havoline team hasn't been a title contender since Ernie Irvan was near-fatally injured in 1994. Has #88 detracted from #28 or what?Yates: No. The #88 has capitalized and built on experience and has shown me that we have the necessary technology within our walls. That hasn't been the case with the #28. When we get the right players, we're going to have two cars running up front. We're looking forward to the new season because we're concentrating heavily on improving the #28 car with Ricky Rudd.
CT: Why did you opt for a rookie, Kenny Irwin, to drive #28 the past two seasons, then release him?Yates: I felt that the sport had been good enough to me that I should give a young driver an opportunity. It didn't work. We didn't perform. Kenny may be as talented as Tony Stewart, but we didn't give him the chance to show it.
CT: Considering that most blue-chip rookies don't win for three years or more, did Irwin get a fair chance?Yates: Yes, he did. There are some things that happened, which Kenny and I know about, that got us off on the wrong foot. We couldn't get coordinated and back in the right step. But down the road, I think he will appreciate us bringing him into the sport and the experience he got.
CT: Why did you hire Rudd, a 22-year veteran, to replace Irwin in 2000?Yates: Because this team urgently needed an experienced driver. Ricky's a proven winner. After he became available, there was no one else on the list.
CT: You said this is not the first time Rudd has driven for you.Yates: I was team manager and engine specialist at DiGard Racing and take a lot of credit for hiring Ricky in 1981. Bill Gardner was the first owner to sign his drivers and his team leaders to a contract. I think Ricky signed for eight years at 25 percent of the race earnings. To watch Ricky mature over the years and come back to work with us excites me.
CT: What do you expect from Rudd and the #28 team, led by relatively unknown crew chief Michael McSwain, the first season?Yates: We've hired six members from Ricky's former team and added three or four more from within the sport for the #28 team. This team has talent and can draw on the racing experience of the #88 team. Give Ricky zero failures, and I think he'll he knocking on the championship door, if not winning. Michael was Ricky's crew chief, and they get along well.
CT: Who are the teams to beat in 2000?Yates: Joe Gibbs has put together two awesome teams (with Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart) and a great program. They're major threats to the championship. Also on the threat list are Roush Racing's Mark Martin and Jeff Burton ... And I wouldn't count out the Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress teams. It's going to be very interesting.
CT: Is the new 2000 Taurus going to be as good as the '99?Yates: There should be some improvement. We sure hope it measures up to the Pontiacs and the new Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Time will tell.
CT: What's the difference between the two Fords?Yates: The new street Taurus has more room in the trunk, so the decklid is higher than the '99. The rear window is rectangular, not oval. And there are front- and rear-end changes. The car should have more downforce and less drag.
CT: What's your reaction to the beef, largely from Chevrolet teams, that the Pontiac has an advantage on the flat tracks?Yates: I don't want to whine about it, but I think it's evident the Grand Prix has a definite advantage. We know from wind tunnel tests and physical dimensions that the Pontiac creates more positive traction (than the other two brands). You can drive it deeper into the corners and get back on the gas quicker. That really shows up on flat tracks, such as Phoenix and Homestead. Also, the nine wins by Pontiac in 1999 show that the teams are much better.
CT: Having purchased Rudd's shop on six acres in Lakeside Park near Mooresville, North Carolina, will #28, and eventually both teams, be based there?Yates: The #28 team is already there, and there's a strong possibility the #88 team will follow. I don't know when, but probably not before we win another championship. (laughs)
CT: What's the biggest headache about being an owner?Yates: Making the financial package work. That is, providing everything we need and most of what we want with a positive bottom line.
CT: Why do you think the single-car owner/driver is becoming extinct in Winston Cup?Yates: A successful single-car team is not out of the question if money and knowledge are no object. With a two-car operation, the biggest gain is knowledge, especially if both cars run up front. You learn twice as much. Also, operating two teams is more economically feasible and efficient.
CT: Do you favor franchising in Winston Cup so teams will have a much greater value than market price?Yates: If I put on my car owner's hat, yes. If I put myself in the position of a mechanic or an engine builder, I say no. Open competition is devastating to those who don't make the races, but I think it's very healthy. I can get in the mode of hoping that NASCAR will franchise the teams, make Robert Yates Racing more secure, and I can promise sponsors that our car will always be in the race. I can't guarantee that now. However, NASCAR fears that franchising would tempt some drivers and teams to stroke and owners to cut salaries. That would hurt competition and strap people who work in racing.
CT: What's a ballpark figure on the cost of operating Winston Cup teams such as yours?Yates: We need $10 million per team. I've been through more than that on each team the past two or three years. The #28 primary sponsorship was $4.9 million in 1998, but Texaco Havoline has re-signed and increased that substantially. A team can operate on $5 million per season, but you can't invest in technology, lots of testing, or raise salaries.
CT: What do you think of NASCAR's new television agreement with NBC and Fox networks, effective in 2001?Yates: It will bring our sport to a new level. And I hope we will get our share of that 25 percent of new TV money in the purse. I've already hired 10 new people. Now I need the money to pay them.
CT: What do you consider the limit on Winston Cup races in a season?Yates: Thirty-four races are plenty.
CT: What's the biggest issue facing NASCAR?Yates: How to award Winston Cup dates fairly.
CT: Can NASCAR sustain its unprecedented growth?Yates: Yes, if NASCAR carries on the wisdom of founder Big Bill France, doesn't allow wealth and greed to control the sport, and remains a benevolent dictator.
CT: When you became a car owner in 1988, is it true that you mortgaged your home to scrape up the money to buy the late Harry Rainer's team?Yates: I didn't mortgage my home-I sold it, practically everything else I had, and moved into an apartment. I hadn't lived in an apartment for 20 years.