Wrecking Loose: How Roush and Yates Came Together
by Tom Jensen May 17, 2023
The inside story of how two NASCAR team owners went from bitter rivals crashing each other’s rental cars to partners in one of the sport’s most successful businesses.
Today, Roush Yates Engines is one of the most powerful organizations in global motorsports, having provided the Ford engines that so far have won more than 375 races in NASCAR, the International Motor Sports Association and the Federation Internationale De L’Automobile Series.
Founded in late 2003 as a partnership between NASCAR Hall of Famers Robert Yates (Class of 2018) and Jack Roush (Class of 2019), the Mooresville, North Carolina-based company is the exclusive Ford engine builder in NASCAR’s top three series, Cup, Xfinity and Craftsman Truck.
Doug Yates, Robert’s son, serves as the president and CEO of Roush Yates Engines and he and partner Jack Roush have deep respect and admiration for each other. Together, they have built a dynamic business that’s enjoyed tremendous success in NASCAR and elsewhere in the racing world.
But it wasn’t that long ago that Robert Yates and Jack Roush were bitter rivals.
Roush started racing with driver Mark Martin (Class of 2017) in the NASCAR Cup Series in 1988 and Yates took over Ranier Racing the following season, launching his Robert Yates Racing team with Davey Allison (Class of 2019) in the cockpit.
The teams Roush and Yates fielded ran Fords then, as did two more Hall of Fame team owners, Junior Johnson (Class of 2010) and Alan Kulwicki (Class of 2019). All four squads were vying to be No. 1 in the eyes of Ford Motor Co., but the rivalry between Roush and Yates was especially contentious.
“Robert and I competed for space as siblings do in families and peers do in sports and business, if they’re in proximity,” said Roush prior to his induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. “You compete for space, you compete for attention, you compete for support. The fact that it got heated and intense is not surprising. He (Yates) and I would typically exchange pleasantries at (NASCAR) banquet time,” said Roush. “Except for that, we would not have time for one another the whole rest of the year.”
“My Dad and Jack competed really hard because they were both racing Fords and they wanted to be the best Ford and have the favor of Ford Motor Co. on their side,” said Doug Yates. “Their entrance into NASCAR from a team owner’s standpoint and their backgrounds as engine builders kind of set the stage for some really fierce competition.”
My Dad and Jack competed really hard because they were both racing Fords and they wanted to be the best Ford and have the favor of Ford Motor Co. on their side.
— Doug Yates
The bad blood was so great that on one particularly memorable evening at Richmond Raceway, Roush and Robert Yates crashed into each other leaving the track. The two owners were heading for the one-lane tunnel leaving the infield when chaos ensued.
“Traffic was merging down from two lanes to one lane,” said Roush. “And there was a conflict between us for space. Nobody lifted. I wound up knocking both side headlights out of a Jaguar and had contact with his (Robert’s) van. It was a ‘Days of Thunder’ moment for sure.”
“Neither one of them would give an inch, so they both wound up knocking the sides off their rental cars trying to get out of the tunnel,” said Doug of his late father and Roush.
Fortunately, in the long run, cooler heads prevailed. In 2003, Roush was thinking about relocating his engine-building operation from Michigan to the Charlotte area, at roughly the same time Robert and Doug were opening a new 75,000-square-foot shop in Mooresville.
At the Atlanta Motor Speedway race weekend in late October 2003, the elder Yates approached Roush about forming a partnership. “I felt someone tapping on my shoulder and looked around and it was Robert Yates,” said Roush. “And I looked him in the eye and said, ‘OK, what’s on your mind?’
“He said, ‘I’ve got a building that I’ve built that I’ve outfitted to build my race engines here that’s bigger than I need,’” Yates told Roush. “And if it’s true that you’re coming to Charlotte, I’d rather have you be a partner all the way to the dirt than to compete against you.’”
“I thought about that, and the sting was still there from some of the things that had happened between us,” said Roush.
What helped make the deal happen, despite Roush’s initial hesitancy is that a young Doug Yates and Roush had worked together on a restrictor-plate program a couple of years earlier to strengthen Ford’s program and defeat Dale Earnhardt (Class of 2010) at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, the two longest high-banked oval tracks on the NASCAR circuit.
“The thing I didn’t have was a son getting ready to graduate from college that had the interest and experience and the inclination I had seen from Doug,” said Roush. “We had done some testing on one of my dynamometers for restrictor-plate engines a couple of years before. So I’d had a chance to work with Doug a little bit, and I was really impressed. I considered him to be an equal interest to my decision to go with Robert’s suggestion. I don’t know that I would have done that without Doug. If I’d have had Doug and Robert didn’t, I’m sure I would have stood pat and done my own thing.”
The deal was quickly consummated and has paid big dividends ever since. Doug Yates said the reason the partnership is so dynamic is because he and Roush bring different approaches to the table.
“What most engine builders, myself included, would try to do is make the most power,” said Yates. “What Jack would think about is, ‘How do I use the engine as a tool to make the car go around the track faster?’ And what I mean by that is, if I can run it hotter, then I can put more tape on the front end and create more downforce and reduce drag. He was one of the first guys to do that, and he really understood the cooling system of the car. He was very creative in some of the innovations and advancements in the cooling system. He looked at the engine as an enabler to help the car go around the track better.
"And that’s what made our partnership fantastic: We had totally different philosophies about what the engine’s function in the car was going to be. And when we blended those together – my dad and I making the most power, Jack running it the hottest and turning the most RPMs – it lent itself for a really good combination,” said Yates. “And we push each other really hard.”
Not to mention giving fits to the competition from other automakers.