Tight grip on steering wheel

NASCAR: Turning over his racing team to son Doug has been tough for Robert Yates.

Auto Racing

March 07, 2003|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

When engine builder Robert Yates decided to become a car owner and build a Winston Cup race team, he did it with the idea that one day maybe his son Doug would want to take over the family business.

That's what the father wanted. He just didn't realize how hard it was going to be to give up the keys to the office door.

"Certainly, I wanted this for my son," said Yates, 59, whose company, Robert Yates Racing, fields teams for Dale Jarrett and Elliott Sadler, who are in Hampton, Ga., this weekend for Sunday's Atlanta 500.

"But you don't know if they really want it. You see people build a wealthy business and kids don't want to touch it. Some of the unhappiest people I've seen are those who have inherited the ship, because it's not about what your ambitions are or were, but about them and their drive."

Robert Yates wasn't sure what his son wanted. And the son, for a while, wasn't sure what he wanted, either.

Doug Yates, now 35, was at North Carolina State, studying engineering, when his father bought the race team. His mother told him to come home and be part of it. Doug did, on a part-time basis, but finished college before returning home full time. That was 12 1/2 years ago.

"I pretty much saw how many hours my dad worked," Doug Yates said last month in Daytona Beach, Fla., before the Daytona 500. "I didn't know if I wanted to work like that. I thought I'd like just being a mechanical engineer, designing the cars and having a life. But this came to me as a good challenge. If I hadn't taken this challenge, I wouldn't have gotten to know my dad. My biggest reward is seeing him smile."

Through the years, Doug Yates took more and more control of the engine shop, continuing the program and building the reputation his father had forged for big horsepower. And Robert Yates often credited his son with the team's engine success, while squawking at him for spending money to do it.

But when it came down to who was in charge, the big dog was Robert Yates. And it was Robert who continued to put in the long hours in the garage, to the point where he worked himself into a hospital stay in Daytona the night before the 2002 500.

But even that stress wasn't enough to make Robert turn over the team to his son.

"My first reaction was, `No way I was allowing anyone to have their way,' " said Robert, laughing at his stubbornness. "I wouldn't even consider it. But I talked to Carolyn [his wife] about it and finally concluded it wasn't a bad idea to start opening up the operation to Doug.

"I didn't want them to scrape me off the floor one day. We're one of the few organizations that lives off racing, and, with the economy the way it is, it's good to have someone younger with new ideas. I realized if I ran it like I did last year, we'd be out of business."

In the end, that was the bottom line. After six straight years in the top five in the season-ending points standings - including the 1999 Winston Cup title - Jarrett finished ninth last year, and Yates' second driver, Ricky Rudd, decided to leave for the Wood Brothers team.

Meanwhile, Doug Yates wanted to run a team so badly that he had gone out and made a deal to start his own, signing up for sponsorship from M&M candies with Sadler as his driver. So the elder Yates handed over the keys to his son.

"I have aspired to have my own team," said Doug. "I've learned from Dad and I had been looking for my own program and it was about to happen with the M&M sponsorship. But after sitting down and talking to Dad, we decided to run both teams here now as if they were my own team."

During a rainstorm in Homestead, Fla., the day before the final race last season, Robert and Doug came to an agreement. They'd put both teams under the same roof in a new garage. They'd relinquish their claim to the No. 28 made famous when the late Davey Allison drove for Yates Racing, treasure the memories and go forward fielding car No. 38 for Sadler, whose exuberant personality and budding talent reminded everyone of a young Davey Allison.

And it would be Doug Yates who would handle the money and run the show.

"It took a couple heart-to- hearts to get it to happen," said Doug. "If he doesn't give me everything, I can't do a good job on my own."

Since the transition, the organization has signed a new five-year agreement with Ford, bumped Jarrett's longtime crew chief, Brad Parrott, to overall team manager and rehired Parrott's brother, Todd, to be Jarrett's crew chief after he masterminded five victories in 13 Busch series races for Roush Racing last season.

And it seems Robert Yates has really given all the responsibility to his son. In three races this season, it has been Doug who has been in the garage for 12 hours a day, while Robert has been mostly absent.

"I'm working on special projects," said the older Yates. "And, mostly, I think, I'm enjoying life with Doug in charge."

So far, the results have been mixed. Jarrett finished 10th at Daytona, won at Rockingham, N.C., and then finished 31st last weekend because of an accident. He is 10th in the points standings. Sadler, meanwhile, is 27th in points, with one Top 10 finish.

"Through it all," Jarrett said, "from what I've seen within this organization, it is better prepared and more organized than it was a year ago, and that's the reason for so much more enthusiasm."

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