Robert Yates, the legendary engine builder and NASCAR innovator, knew he was being inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame – he just didn’t know if he’d live to see the day.
Unfortunately, he didn’t. Yates succumbed to liver cancer in October at the age of 74, four months shy of his induction.
But Friday, his legacy endured through more than just his induction – it lived on through his words.
Yates’ induction letter, which he wrote before he died, was recorded by his longtime friend Dale Jarrett and played at Friday’s banquet. It was the first time Yates’ own family had heard those words. Jarrett said afterward how difficult it was for him to record the piece. How it had taken many breaks – and tears — to get through it all.
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That kind of raw emotion is unrivaled. It’s what makes sports great, and it’s what made the entire evening come together. It’s not often that you get to have that sort of experience, to hear what seemed like someone’s last words. Even as someone who didn’t know Yates, I couldn’t help but get teary-eyed listening.
And that’s why Yates’ speech will endure in the collective consciousness.
Still, as remarkable as it was, the NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremony also gave us other many other moments. It gave us humor, in the form of Ron Hornaday Jr. asking for a beer as soon as media interviews began. It gave us a peek back into history, in the form of Ray Evernham and Jeff Gordon clapping each other’s backs and rehashing the “good ’ole times.”
One other thing it brought us? A peek into what could be in store for next year’s class.
Speaking of Gordon, he could be the headliner for the class of 2019 (depending on if the Hall ignores his fill-in role for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2016). With his four NASCAR Cup Series championships, Gordon is a shoo-in when his name comes on the ballot.
Other potential inductees, including some from last year’s finalists list: Davey Allison, who won 19 Cup races before dying in a helicopter crash in 1993; Buddy Baker, who also won 19 races at NASCAR’s highest level before his death in 2015; and a trio of owners in Joe Gibbs, Roger Penske and Jack Roush who have all made major contributions to racing.
It’s difficult to pinpoint who might get in in 2019, but if anything is for certain, it’s that topping the magic of 2018 will be no easy feat.