Darlington Raceway has long been NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee Robert Yates’ home away from home.
First as a fan, then as a pit crew member, an engine builder and eventually as a team owner, Yates and the “Lady In Black” have had a courtship that has lasted a half-century.
Yates recently discussed that love affair, as well as some of the high points of his career there.
“What I remember so much about Darlington was I used to go there before I was in racing,” Yates said. “I’d go with some of my school buddies from East Carolina and we’d go to the Southern 500 and sit under the shade and watch the people go crazy.
“It was the most fun watching the cars sideways off that corner, so Darlington was one of my favorite tracks. I saw Cale (Yarborough) when he went over the wall. I was actually down on the other end of the track, but many light years later that was the first place I was on a pit crew.”
Yates was an integral part of the development team that built the legendary Boss 429 Ford engine. Yates began working with the fabled Holman-Moody team in 1967, shortly after Ford won the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the second straight year.
Yates formed his namesake Robert Yates Racing in 1989, with Davey Allison as his driver.
The team continued through 2009, amassing 1,155 starts among 16 different drivers – including Allison, Ricky Rudd, Kenny Irwin Jr., Ernie Irvan, Elliott Sadler and Dale Jarrett – with 57 wins, 270 top-fives, 433 top-10s and 49 poles.
Those numbers included 59 starts at Darlington with all three of Yates’ Sprint Cup wins there coming with Jarrett behind the wheel.
However, none of those three wins by Jarrett came in the Southern 500.
Jarrett also captured three of RYR’s six poles at Darlington, including two for the Southern 500.
“When Dale sat on the pole I said, ‘That is a man’s pole,’ because that was one of the toughest places and that’s something that when we hired Dale he never sat on a pole anywhere,” Yates said. “The first race out with him we sat on the Daytona 500 pole, but Darlington poles are very, very good.”
But long before Yates formed his own race team, he experienced what it means to win at Darlington while working for team owner Richard Howard in 1972, when Bobby Allison earned the second of his three career Southern 500 wins.
“I had been nervous the whole time getting ready to gas the car, so a lot of firsts happened for me there, but I always remember the time that Bobby Allison was driving for us,” Yates said.
“We were so-so, but I figured out something with the carburetor that was legal and when I tried it we were so fast.
“The Southern 500 was a tough race and a hot race. You had to be good at handling and you had to be good at everything. They dropped the flag and Bobby’s car came off of (turn) four and nobody else’s did. I was like, ‘What happened to the field?’ But he was that much further ahead of everybody.
“The focus Bobby Allison had that day was incredible. That 1972 win, I’ve still got a sticker on my tool box that says Southern 500 Win. Winning the Southern 500 was probably like the Daytona 500.
“That (Allison’s win in 1972) was one of my favorite wins, along with Dale winning there three times.”
Yates will be at Darlington this weekend, reliving some of his most favorite racing memories there, particularly in the days before he made racing his life’s work.
“It was always a real fun race,” Yates said. “To see those cars come off of (turn) four, which is turn two now, was always a lot of fun. Those covered grandstands were very noisy, but I’ve got great memories sitting there. After seeing that I just knew I had to get into this sport because I loved it.”