Commentary

Doug Yates' influence writ large

Updated: March 7, 2012, 1:34 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Doug Yates enters the room as two employees wearing blue surgical gloves test an engine on the SPINTRON. Their heads are buried in their work, but not so much to miss that the CEO has been asked how often he gets his hands dirty in a room clean enough to perform open-heart surgery.

"Every day," one employee says with a laugh.

"His therapy," the other says.

Yates holds up his hands, showing they are anything but soft and manicured like you might find with others in a top management position.

"I like being around engines," the co-owner of Roush Yates Engines says. "It's somewhat relaxing. Gets your mind off all the other things I have to deal with."

With apologies to Darian Grubb, the crew chief for Phoenix winner Denny Hamlin isn't the biggest non-driver influence in NASCAR today. He's at least behind Yates, and when you look at the evidence, you'll understand why.

Roush Yates Ford engines took the top three spots at the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway in early February. They claimed the front row for the Daytona 500 and went to Victory Lane in "The Great American Race" with Matt Kenseth.

[+] EnlargeTed Hughes and Doug Yates
Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCARHow do you get to be on stage with Mahle manager of marketing Ted Hughes for winning the Mahle Engine Builder of the Year award? For Doug Yates, right, you get your hands dirty every day.

They are part of why Greg Biffle is an early-season surprise, second in points with third-place finishes at Daytona and Phoenix.

Yates also is as well-schooled as anybody -- maybe better -- on issues with electronic fuel injection (EFI) such as the one that left defending Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart in need of a tow truck push after a circuit breaker malfunction while conserving fuel at Phoenix.

And that social media show Brad Keselowski put on during the two-hour red flag delay at Daytona? Yates can fill you in on how drivers and teams might be able to use their cell phones for a competitive advantage.

Then there is perhaps the biggest coup of the season, Penske Racing's announcement it will switch from Dodge to Ford in 2013. The Roush Yates engine program, as Roger Penske repeatedly said last week, was a huge selling point.

But the winner of NASCAR's 2011 engine builder award isn't one to toot his own horn. He spends more time talking about all that his father Robert accomplished, such as building the engines that helped Richard Petty to wins 199 and 200, than he does his own successes.

"My wife gets on me all the time about that," Yates says. "She reminds me that I've got my own brand to build."

Don't worry, it's building.

But history is a big deal to Yates. It keeps him humble -- if a person can be more humble. He recalls with a smile how the first engine shop he helped his dad start had only three engines and one manifold compared to the more than 1,000 engines built annually in this 75,000-square foot shop.

He recalls that many predicted this shop wouldn't make it through its first season in 2004, much less nine, because of the competitive love-hate relationship his father and Jack Roush had as Ford team owners.

"They really didn't like each other," says Yates, who a few years ago bought his father's interest in the company.

Were it not for Doug Yates, it never would have worked.

"Doug was really the driving force that attracted me to Robert," Roush says. "He is the glue. Otherwise, we wouldn't have been so compatible."


In a corner of an office filled with pictures of Yates' four children and other family members that are most important to him is a large white board. On the right side, the 10 Chase races are listed.

"That's the goal," Yates says.

Yates worked with his father as a team owner/engine builder for more than 20 years, collecting 58 Cup wins and helping Dale Jarrett win the 1999 championship. He tried his hand as a co-owner a few years ago with Roush Fenway Racing support, but a struggling economy forced him to get out.

He hopes to again run his own race team and compete for Cup titles one day, but for now he is happy helping all Ford teams compete for championships.

"I miss being part of the race team side of it," Yates says. "There is something special about having your car line up against 42 other teams. It's almost an adrenaline rush."

Yates need only to walk down the hall and look at the 82 -- not including this year's Daytona 500 -- checkered flags his engines have helped win to know he is valued. The numbers are more impressive when you consider 26 of the wins came after Yates helped design Ford's first new stock-car engine in 30 years.

Two of the frames that encase the flags are empty, which shows another side of Yates. He gave those to the parents of shop employees who lost their lives.

"That's what makes this place so special to me," Yates says of the flags.


Yates points to a picture of Greg Biffle and Elliott Sadler in Victory Lane at Daytona after sweeping the front row with Roush Yates engines in the company's first Cup race.

You can almost see the pride swelling inside.

"I don't know if you have taken a trip to his facility, but it is first class," says Carl Edwards, who last month teamed with Biffle to give Yates his fourth 500 front-row sweep. "There are hospitals I have been to that aren't as nice as his engine shop."

It's true. The only thing cleaner than the floors may be Yates' desk. It is completely void of clutter.

"The cool thing about Doug is that he is very open-minded and he does not have a big ego," Edwards continues.

[+] EnlargeDoug Yates
David Newton for ESPN.comDoug Yates' desk at Roush Yates Engines in Mooresville, N.C., is as immaculate and uncluttered as the the shop he oversees.

On this day, Yates is following up on the issues that may have cost Stewart a win at Phoenix. Even though Stewart drives for rival Chevrolet, Yates is looking at the big picture and how a solution will help all teams in the transition to fuel injection.

The problem was a relay box that shut down a breaker circuit needed to restart the car. For one with an engineering mind such as Yates, being a part of the solution is fun. He has spent the week having fun with NASCAR and EFI designer McLaren to make sure there's not a repeat.

"When you work with engines, it's hard to ever really get away from it," Yates says.

Yates is equally entertained by the prospects of drivers using cell phones to determine fuel mileage and pit road speeds, among other things.

"If you listen to tech guys, they say there are a lot of options to use one as an advantage," Yates says. "Me, I think Brad was just having fun with it. But NASCAR may have a decision to make."


Yates flips off the light switch as he leaves his office. The man with a $2 million dyno machine that tests engines in ways he never imagined as a mechanical engineering student at North Carolina State believes in saving money wherever he can.

"It's a whole new ballgame from the NASCAR I grew up with," Yates says.

Yates has helped NASCAR through the growing pains. There are few in the garage more liked and respected.

Now he's reaping the benefits. His engine shop is performing at its peak. It has put a man who never sought the spotlight smack dab in the middle of it.

He almost embarrassingly admits, "This is what you have to have to compete," suggesting Penske eventually might have to combine efforts as other teams do.

But you don't have "this" without getting your hands dirty from time to time.

Or in the case of Yates, on a daily basis.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter