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Yates' Love Affair With Brickyard Produced Powerful Victories

During his time as a NASCAR team owner, only Rick Hendrick was more successful in the Brickyard 400. But it’s doubtful anyone loved seeing his cars race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway more than Robert Yates.

“All the way through my career I just wanted to go there,” Yates said. “When I was in the Army, I was stationed at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis and paid a quarter to ride around the track in one of the tour buses in 1968. I wanted to go to work for Roger Penske and do the Indy stuff and had opportunities to do that. Also, the STP guys wanted to hire me. I had a few chances to get to Indianapolis, but for a couple reasons I didn’t get to go. When NASCAR tested up there in 1992, I really wanted to be a part of it and go to that place. You always wish for something you don’t have.

“The hair stood on the back of my neck. It always did whenever we ran at that place. It did something to me. I love Indianapolis and wanted to win every time I was there.”

Yates nearly won the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994 as Ernie Irvan had the No. 28 Texaco/Havoline Ford in front three times for 15 laps. Late in the race, Irvan was the leader but was being hounded by a young driver who grew up about 25 miles west of the Speedway in Pittsboro, Ind. – Jeff Gordon.

With five laps to go, the two cars were running through Turns 1 and into the south chute before one of the tires on Irvan’s Ford shredded.

Gordon would go on to win the race; Irvan finished 17th.

“We actually should have won the first race,” Yates said. “We went there with Ernie Irvan, and he was running real fast in practice in the very first race. He came in and said he had lost oil pressure. We had the best engine in the car. We looked in, and the guy left the O-ring out of the oil filter and lost oil pressure. We pulled the engine out, went into the parking lot, and Doug Yates and I and Ron Hornaday were out there helping us with the engine. We pulled the motor apart, checked everything out in the parking lot and put it back in the car.

“We had backup engines, but that was such a big race; we wanted the best engine we had in that race car.”

It was apparent why Yates wanted that engine in Irvan’s car because he started 17th and was able to easily move through the field on a racecourse that was completely unfamiliar to the NASCAR drivers.

But a piece of debris ended Yates’ bid for victory.

“Kyle Petty’s exhaust pipe broke, and it came back and cut a tire,” Yates said. “That ended our day, but what a week. That was the highlight of the season. I love Indy.”

Just two weeks after the Brickyard 400, Irvan would suffer a serious head injury in a crash at Michigan International Speedway. He was still on the mend in 1995, and Dale Jarrett was in the famed No. 28 for the second Brickyard. After a lengthy rain delay, Jarrett started 26th and was able to move toward the front of the field, eventually finishing third behind race winner Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace.

“We were not a winning car that day, but we worked our way up the field,” Yates said.

Jarrett had already won the Daytona 500 when NASCAR came to Indianapolis in 1996. No driver had ever won at Daytona and Indianapolis in the same year until Jarrett took the checkered flag. That year, Jarrett had moved to the No. 88 Ford because Irvan was back in the No. 28. The race for the checkered ended up being a battle between those two drivers, with Irvan leading four times for 39 laps and Jarrett in front twice for 11 laps.

Jarrett would cross the finish line just ahead of Irvan to give Yates a 1-2 sweep at Indianapolis.

“NASCAR had a guy that mailed everybody’s checks for them, and he told me it was the first time ever he had to put extra stamps on the envelope to mail us our checks,” Yates said. “Everything between souvenirs sales to race winnings, we had a great weekend. Coming off the backstretch that is where DJ left blackmarks down when he passed Ernie Irvan. It looked like he had nitrous oxide when he passed him, his car was so fast. I was just praying they didn’t wreck each other because they both wanted to win.

“I was pulling just as hard for either of them; that’s how much I wanted to win that race.”

Jarrett would finish third and Irvan 10th in 1997 before Jarrett’s Ford flexed its muscle in 1998, building a huge lead before a fuel miscalculation at the halfway point of the race would put the team into a hole it could not escape.

“We knew what we had to do, but we didn’t get enough fuel in it,” Yates said. “Had it been full, it would have worked out. Todd (Parrott) looked at me, and I took some heat for that. Dale went two laps down, and he still finished on the lead lap. We had the best car there, and that hurt us when we ran out of gas. We didn’t need to play the tight deal on the gas. We went home aggravated, but we got over it.”

Yates’ Fords had swept that front row that year, with Irvan on the pole and Jarrett second. Irvan would finish sixth and Jarrett 16th.

The team looked for redemption when it arrived in 1999, and Jarrett did not disappoint. He started fourth and joined Jeff Gordon as a two-time Brickyard 400 winner at that time with another victory, leading six times for 117 laps. Jarrett would go on to win the championship that season.

“That was just a great year,” Yates said. “We were focused. Todd Parrott (crew chief) was a huge cheerleader in it. We did our own aero stuff the way we wanted to do it. We probably didn’t have but seven or eight different cars. It was a good way to do it.”

That would be the last time Yates celebrated a victory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, although his cars would remain competitive. Ricky Rudd had replaced Irvan in the No. 28 Ford and won the pole in 2000 before a fan belt flew off his engine during the race, dropping him to a 21st-place finish. Jarrett would finish where he started – eighth.

“That is another one we should have won,” Yates said of Rudd’s car. “We were really good with Ricky Rudd and knew the belts were having an issue about rolling. I got talked into running them, and we rolled one in practice and put a new one on; the damn one rolled again. We put a belt on, and Ricky went out and was still the fastest. He started on the pole and we were kicking ass and rolled the fan belt, and we cooked the motor and changed the heads. I’ll never forget that call.

“It took a lot of horsepower, the right tuning and the right kind of horsepower. It took the right tuning and the right levels of power and the right chassis. That is what we worked on. We won with good cars.”

In 2001, a string of poor Brickyard finishes would start for Yates’ team, with Jarrett 12th and Rudd 39th. The sport was changing with multi-car “Super Teams” beginning to dominate, and that meant changing the way teams were run.

“When we won races, almost in every occasion I was involved with the entire setup – chassis, shocks, engine,” Yates said. “We won races with good, legal advantages. Those last couple years I didn’t even test with them. It was computer simulation, and I couldn’t stand it. They had all this crazy stuff in their heads, and I just wanted to sell out. I just didn’t leave. When we listened to our cars and didn’t get a setup from anyone else and worked on the shocks ourselves, we won races and we listened to that. We acted on what we had, and not what everyone else was doing.

“We didn’t copy crap. W

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