Legendary NASCAR team owner Robert Yates is in the race of his life

Robert Yates talks about cancer diagnosis

Yates has been in treatment since the end of October, 2016. He's awaiting the next step, surgery, sometime around the race in Daytona.
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Yates has been in treatment since the end of October, 2016. He's awaiting the next step, surgery, sometime around the race in Daytona.

When NASCAR opens its season later this month at Daytona International Speedway, legendary team owner and engine builder Robert Yates will be back in North Carolina, preparing for what he hopes is the final round of a successful battle against liver cancer.

Much is known about Yates’ hall-of-fame worthy career, which as a team owner includes a Cup championship, three Daytona 500 victories and the reputation as perhaps the sport’s most innovative and successful engine builder.

Less is known about what he has overcome to get there.

He has faced a series of health setbacks dating to the days when he was growing up the son of a Baptist preacher and the youngest of nine children in Charlotte’s Plaza-Midwood neighborhood.

Yates, 73, has suffered from rheumatic fever, sustained a life-altering concussion when he was 8, then another potentially fatal blow to the head only two years ago.

“My dad’s an amazing guy and he’s accomplished a lot of things,” said Doug Yates, who runs what is now Roush Yates Racing. “But what I’m most proud of is how he’s handled some of these things that have happened to him in his life and how he’s dealt with them.”

Liver cancer is just the latest.

The kind of cancer he has, called a cholangiocarcinoma, is daunting.

“These are big, bad, ugly tumors,” Dr. John Martinie of Charlotte’s Levine Cancer Institute said. “He has no chance of survival without the surgery. His best chance is getting into the operating room and getting to the tumor. Then he will have a very, very good chance of being alive after five years.”

But Yates has never been the sort to let something stand in his way.

These are big, bad, ugly tumors. He has no chance of survival without the surgery.

Dr. John Martinie of Charlotte’s Levine Cancer Institute

A bumpy Charlotte childhood

Born in 1943, Robert and his twin brother Richard were the youngest of nine children born to John Clyde Yates and his wife V.C. They were raised on The Plaza, across the street from the VanLandingham Estate and near Allen Street Baptist Church, where John Clyde was minister.

Robert contracted rheumatic fever, an inflammatory disease, as an infant. The illness severely impeded his physical development.

“I lay in a crib for a couple of years,” Yates said. “I didn’t walk until I was 5.”

He made up for lost time after that, becoming an active child who played football and baseball in the neighborhood. But when he was 8, he hit his head when an older brother pushed him down, an impact that would remain with him for much of the rest of his life.

“I started having these issues, I was very dizzy and would have these spells,” Yates said. “I couldn’t hold my head upright. I’d try to go to school, but I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t make good grades from the day I started. My teachers would ask, what’s wrong with you? I’d tell my mom there was something wrong.

“I couldn’t memorize ‘Jesus Wept.’ ”

Yates is certain he had sustained a severe concussion that was never diagnosed.

“School for my brothers and sisters came easy,” he said. “I felt like the black sheep – I was the black sheep.

“I couldn’t study. I’d go to class and just put my head down.”

Another blow

Yates still managed to enjoy and play sports. But then came another blow: He was forbidden to play for his school teams because of a hole in his heart that had resulted from the rheumatic fever.

Frustrated, Yates went home and punched a hole in the back-porch wall. But being unable to play stick-and-ball sports any more opened up something else for him. He had already developed an interest in racing and putting engines together.

Motorsports, whether done legally or not, began to be his primary focus.

Soon, he was drag racing around the streets of Charlotte – his favorite spots were Albemarle Road and Plaza Road Extension. Yates and his friends (one of whom, Buddy Baker, was a future NASCAR star) were often caught by police.

Yates made money on the side by repairing and building engines, but school remained a struggle. After failing 11th grade at Garinger High, Yates went to live with one of his sisters in Wake Forest, near Raleigh.

There, Yates found a subject in school to match his interest in engine building: Math.

It starts to add up

After graduating from high school (he said he made straight A’s as a senior), Yates bounced around. He went to a technical college in Wilson, then transferred to Mars Hill near Asheville, where he worked part-time on heavy machinery.

He even spent one summer fixing tractors on a Jolly Green Giant pea farm in Oregon.

Then a friend told Yates that a racing organization in Charlotte was looking to hire somebody who was good at math and geometry.

Yates went for the interview at Holman-Moody, a legendary outfit that built engines for NASCAR’s Ford teams and drivers such as Fireball Roberts and Fred Lorenzen.

Robert Yates’ hall-of-fame worthy career includes a Cup championship and three Daytona 500 victories as a team owner, as well as the reputation as perhaps the sport’s most innovative and successful engine builder.

He got the job.

“Holman-Moody was a school of learning,” said Waddell Wilson, who also worked there and would go on to NASCAR fame as a crew chief and engine builder. “If you paid attention and were interested in achieving your goals, it was the place to be.

“Robert was in there to learn what he could. He was always curious about what was going on, even though we all had our heads stuck down inside the engines. He had higher goals than what most of the others did.”

On the side, Yates built cars that competed on dirt tracks around Charlotte against drivers such as Ralph Earnhardt (father of Dale Earnhardt) and Buck Baker (Buddy’s dad).

“Nobody could touch us,” Yates said. “Some tracks paid us full pay not to show up.”

Up to Cup series

Yates’ stock grew quickly. After Ford left NASCAR in 1966, he went to work for Junior Johnson and drivers Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison. Next came a job as engine builder and partner at DiGard Racing, with drivers such as Allison, Darrell Waltrip and Ricky Rudd.

By 1989, Yates had raised enough money to buy a race team from Harry Ranier.

But in 1993, Robert Yates Racing driver Davey Allison was killed in a helicopter accident, and a year later Ernie Irvan, another Yates driver, was critically injured in a wreck at Michigan International Speedway.

Yates, in a magazine interview in 2000, said he didn’t know how he’d get past those sad times.

Somehow he did.

In 1999, Dale Jarrett won a Cup championship in a Yates car.

Lingering effects

Yates was always hands-on around the shop and the garage. But even as his career flourished, Yates continued to deal with the effects of the blow to his head he took as a child.

When leaning under the hood and into an engine or crawling beneath a car, he said, he had to adjust for the dizziness he often felt.

My chemo guy fusses at me about keeping my weight up. I told him I’ll have to slip some tungsten in my pocket to do that.

Robert Yates

“When I was working on a car, I had to turn my head around a certain way,” Yates said. “I couldn’t lean back to look at something. Even when I made a hard left turn driving a car, it would hit me. I was messed up for all those years.”

The effects spilled into his in everyday life. Sometimes he was unable to grasp a fork or pick up a cell phone.

One day in 2015, Yates stepped on a wasp nest while walking through some tall grass. The stings made him jump, and he hit his head on a tractor parked nearby.

Gushing blood, Yates was rushed to the hospital, where he had immediate surgery. Holes were drilled in his skull to relieve pressure that had built in his brain. When Yates was awakened, the symptoms of his earlier blow to the head were gone, too.

“As soon as they got the pressure balanced, I could turn my head this way and that way,” Yates said. “It was so nice to lie on your back for the first time in 65 years. I could lie down and look straight up. I could sleep on my back.”

A new problem

But in recent years, Yates had begun to feel generally poorly in other ways. He started losing weight and had stomach problems. Doctors couldn’t pinpoint the problem.

Finally, last fall, an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) revealed a grapefruit-sized mass in his liver.

It was a cancerous tumor, called a cholangiocarcinoma or cancer of the bile duct.

Yates said he received three prognoses from doctors. One told him he had no more than between five to 10 years to live, whatever treatment he chose. Another said continuous and debillitating chemotherapy would be the only solution to stay alive for any length of time.

But Martinie told him that a condensed course of several chemo and radiation treatments known as multimodality therapy might shrink the tumor enough that it could be surgically removed, leaving the rest of the liver untouched and cancer free.

With two more chemo treatments scheduled, Yates is banking on Martinie’s option. He is on track to have the surgery, possibly in early March if scans show no signs of the cancer spreading.

The chemo has left him 65 pounds lighter (he’s down to 175), but still with most of his hair and a fighting spirit that has yet to be contained.

57 Victories by Robert Yates Racing drivers

“My chemo guy fusses at me about keeping my weight up,” Yates said, sitting in the Lake Norman house he shares with wife Carolyn. “I told him I’ll have to slip some tungsten in my pocket to do that.”

In the meantime, Yates works from his office at the shop in in Mooresville, helping with Roberts Yates Racing Engines’ K&N Pro Series program.

He also spends as much time as he can on his ranch in Wilkes County, a 600-acre spread where he raises cattle.

And he thinks about what he has overcome, and what is ahead.

“So many people have cancer, so I’m always reminded that I’m not by myself,” Yates said. “But a friend asked me recently how tough having cancer was. You know what I told him? It’s tougher than winning the Daytona 500.”

Yates has beaten that field three times. But this is the race of his life.