NASCAR racing is about competition. The NASCAR Hall of Fame is about humanity — common people achieving uncommon success and in the process revealing a lot about themselves and the successes and failures they’ve gone through over their careers
Stick around NASCAR long enough, as I have, and you realize the role life and death play in the sport.
Those of us in the business have all seen drivers die or get badly injured doing what we love and we’ve seen the best and worst of what racers go through. You maybe don’t see it as much in the races every week, but you sure see it in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Ned Jarrett once told me that once the hall opened, he started taking better care of himself physically because he wanted to live long enough to get in. Fortunately, Ned is alive and well, and not only is he in the hall, but his son Dale is, too. It’s a great story.
Most stories around NASCAR Hall of Fame members are a little more complicated.
Wednesday evening, Robert Yates, one of the sport’s true legends and pioneers, was elected into the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2018, along with Red Byron, Ray Evernham, Ken Squier and Ron Hornaday Jr.
Yates won championships as an engine builder and a car owner, winning a combined 134 races in those roles. His son, Doug, runs the family business, Roush Yates Engines, which builds the powerplants for all the Ford Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series teams.
As a young man, Robert got his start sweeping the floors at the powerhouse Holman-Moody team, once Ford’s No. 1 race team. He worked his way up from there, a true racer’s racer, someone in the sport for the love and not the money or the glory. Many times he drove the team’s transporter too and from the track himself.
But time is no longer on his side.
Now 74, Yates is battling liver cancer. His health is not good.
“It’s been tough,” Doug said. “And he never complains. I can’t imagine a tougher group of people than racers, and going to battle what he’s battling now is like trying to win the Daytona 500, but probably tougher.”
I was sitting here last year when Robert was one of the 20 nominees, but didn’t get voted in, and I saw him get up and walk away with his family, clearly disappointed.
Today was something different entirely.
And you could just tell what this meant to Robert and Doug.
“I’m just happy to be in here while I’m still walking and alive,” Robert told me after the event. “I’m fighting some stuff. This will give me a boost.”
If that doesn’t send chills down your spine, you need to check your pulse.
“This is about the people,” Robert said. “Maybe I didn’t … I was so busy under the car, working on cars. But I know who got me in here. It’s the people that truly, honestly, put me in here.”
And then, fighting back tears, Robert added, “I’m indebted to the sport forever, because it gave me the best job anyone in the world could have.” If you know Robert you know he always gave his best, too. And now, he’s getting recognized for it.
Robert wasn’t the only one fighting back tears.
Winston Kelley, the executive director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, fought back tears as he and Doug Yates hugged. It was that kind of night.
“It’s just a proud moment, a really proud moment for him,” Doug said of his father. “God has a plan, and the timing of this couldn’t be better.”
gallery: Five inductees for NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2018 announced