Industry Insights: Doug Yates

By: Dave Argabright, Performance Racing Industry (PRI)

July 13, 2018

Building on the legacy of his legendary surname, this highly accomplished engine
builder and head of Roush Yates Engines reflects on career-defining moments,
influential figures throughout the years, challenges in NASCAR and beyond, and the
future of performance.

“My job as a leader is just to make sure I’m asking the right questions and we’re moving in the right direction,” Doug Yates said.

A second-generation engine builder who was twisting wrenches in his father’s shadow as a
teenager, Doug Yates has risen to become one of the most respected figures in professional
engine building. Today he heads Roush Yates Engines, the provider of horsepower for Fordpowered
teams in NASCAR as well as sports car racing.

A 1990 graduate of North Carolina State University, Yates immediately joined Robert Yates Racing,
led by his father, legendary engine builder Robert Yates. He soon ascended to the role of lead
engine builder for the team, winning the 1999 Winston Cup title with Dale Jarrett at the wheel.
In 2003 Doug Yates was tasked with creating a company that merged the engine-building efforts
of Robert Yates and Jack Roush—fierce, lifelong competitors. The historic merger birthed Roush Yates Engines, and with Doug Yates at the helm the company rose to become a key strategic partner of the Ford Motor Company.

The performance world is filled with ups and downs, and at this writing in mid-May, Roush Yates
is on a significant upswing. Their engines have led the way in Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series
competition in 2018, with Kevin Harvick of Stewart-Haas Racing scoring an impressive five Cup
victories in 12 races, along with teammate Clint Bowyer taking the checkered flag once so far this

Yates recently sat down with PRI to discuss a variety of topics, and in the process shared some interesting thoughts on the future of engine performance.

PRI: From the beginning—and I’m going back to your dad Robert’s earlier years— Ford has been
in the picture at Roush Yates. How did that relationship begin?

Yates: My dad’s first job in the late 1960s was with Caterpillar, working in the field repairing heavy
equipment. His supervisor there told him about Holman Moody down in Charlotte and told him
he’d be a great fit there. Holman Moody was paying pretty well, and the supervisor urged my dad
to check it out. So he went down there and got a job. He started in the air gauge department, and
he excelled there because of his strong math skills. He worked really hard and paid attention to the details, and worked alongside people like Waddell Wilson and Tommy Turner and the other greats who came along in our sport. That was his first exposure with Ford, and when Ford exited
NASCAR for a while in the 1970s my dad went to work for Junior Johnson and was building
Chevrolet engines there. But his first steps in racing were with Ford, and around 1985 the Ford
guys—Lee Morse and those guys—called him and asked him to run Ranier-Lundy Racing, the 28
car. At that time Cale Yarborough was running a partial schedule with them, and ultimately, they
brought on Davey Allison as a rookie, and that’s where it all got started.

PRI: In recent years we’ve seen Roush Yates enter several new motorsports arenas such as IMSA
sports cars and FIA World Endurance Championship racing. How did the new direction come

Yates: It’s interesting. We began our road race program with Don Panoz in 1999, the same year
we won the Winston Cup championship with Dale Jarrett. Don was basically running a fuelinjected
aluminum version of our NASCAR engine and was running the American Le Mans Series
here, as well as Le Mans. We got our first experience at Le Mans with Don and that engine, and
we’ve been road racing ever since. When the IMSA series changed in the early 2000s, we were
involved with that program with Multimatic Motorsports. We’ve been racing that type of engine—
basically a 5.2-liter injected Mustang engine—for quite some time. We’ve had a lot of success, and
we won the Rolex 24 in 2012 with Mike Shank, and in 2015, 2017 and 2018 with Chip Ganassi. I’m
really proud to say that our company won the Rolex 24 four times and won Le Mans in 2016.

Many people might not know that because that was in the background a little bit. But we’re proud
of our involvement. By being active with road racing from 1999 on, it gave us more opportunities.
When Ford wanted to go back to Le Mans with the EcoBoost twin-turbo V6 engine, we were ready.
There wasn’t really a plan, but we were positioned well and the timing was right. When Ford called
on us to provide the engines and support for that program…I’m really glad we stayed involved in
road racing and I’m glad we stayed engaged. It’s a healthy activity and it’s something we’re proud

PRI: Your resume is filled with motorsports experience, Doug, all the way to the beginning. Is your
current role as leader of the company a place where you believed you would ultimately be?

Yates: (Laughing.) No. My oldest son [graduated college this year], and I’ve been thinking a lot
about his future. I remember the day I graduated from NC State. I went to a function on Saturday
night here in Charlotte, and then I went to work on Monday morning and I’ve never checked up
since. When I went to work for my dad’s team, Robert Yates Racing, we had about 12 people in the
shop, and we owned three race cars and three engines. We all did everything—just worked. The
only vision we had was winning the next race. That was just the goal, every week. Work really hard
and find advantages and go win the race.

The vision my dad and I shared was to have a world-class engine shop, and that’s why I wanted to
go to engineering school. What I envisioned was lab coats and high-tech equipment, but I didn’t
really know exactly what that meant. In 2003 we moved into what we felt was our world-class
engine shop here in Mooresville, and that’s where we are today. But we didn’t really know where
it was going to go. We were racers, and we just wanted to do the best we could do. Through theyears, looking ahead, working hard, having great engines, more and more people wanted to use our product. By doing a good job, and being diligent and focused, it presented those

There was a time when every team in NASCAR built their own engines. Today you basically have
one builder pre-manufacturer, except for GM, which has two. That’s something I’m really proud
of. There wasn’t really a strategic plan, but more a matter of working hard and trying to be
prepared when opportunities came along.

PRI: I know it was very hard with the loss of your father a few months ago. I suspect you would
tell us that his impact on your company, and the people within it, is immeasurable.

Yates: It’s tough, it’s hard…I can’t even believe it, to be honest with you. It doesn’t seem real.
Without my dad’s vision and leadership and all the things he accomplished, we wouldn’t even be
talking today. He was such an influence on my life; I had a lifelong apprenticeship alongside him.
He taught me everything I know about engines, along with other great people I’ve worked with
through the years. But equally he taught me about life, and how to treat people and try to do the
right thing. His dad was a Baptist preacher, and that’s something he was very proud of. He
wanted to use his platform to help share his father’s message, and his way of sharing that was by
doing. Not by preaching, but by teaching by example. That was important to me, and it is reflected
in the people who work here at Roush Yates. Hopefully I can carry that on.

He would be so happy with our success this year. For Kevin Harvick to win five races, that’s
something we would be talking about on Sunday and Monday and Tuesday. He’d tell all his
buddies about it. He loved to race, and he loved NASCAR. He liked to compete and he liked to win.
He’d be very proud of all the people here and all the hard work they’ve done. I just wish he was
here to enjoy it with us.

PRI: In addition to your father, who can you look back upon as someone who had a big impact on
you and your life?

Yates: Scooter Brothers of COMP Cams, I call him my racing dad. When I graduated from college
and went to work tearing down engines and washing parts, I think the guys at the shop felt a little
sorry for me. “You went to college to come back and do this?” they’d ask. So they decided to give
me a project: working on a restrictor-plate engine. In the early days of restrictor-plate racing they
started out by downsizing the carburetor, going from an 830 cfm to a 390 cfm. And the cars were
still too fast. So they gave me the project of working on camshaft development, and handed me a
business card: Paul Brothers of COMP Cams. I dialed the number and asked for Paul Brothers.

The guy stopped me in my tracks and said, “First of all, my name is Scooter. And I’m going to help
you out with this project.” We became great friends and he’s been an important mentor for me.
On that first project together we sat on the pole of the 1991 Daytona 500 with Davey Allison. We
probably tested 25 different cams and made so much progress. The very next year we won the
500 with Davey Allison. Scooter was a huge part of that. Every year for the All-Star race—it used to
be called The Winston—we’d design a new camshaft for that race. We won the 1992 Winston with
Davey Allison on “One Hot Night” with that special camshaft.

But whether it was camshafts, or cylinder heads, or intake manifolds, or introducing me to people
like Bob Glidden, Scooter was there. Or if there were personal things I couldn’t talk with my dad
about, I could talk to Scooter. I could always call Scooter, and he would be there. And he still is
there today. He’s a great man who has helped so many people in racing. It’s a good community
and a good thing to be part of, and Scooter is truly one of the good guys in the sport

PRI: At the moment, your engines—and the teams you work with—are excelling on the track in
NASCAR. How much does that kind of success inspire the people in your building on a day-to-day

Yates: You know, we are blessed with such a great team of people. It’s interesting, you go through
seasons when you have a lot of success, and you go through seasons where you don’t. But you
can’t have a pep rally to fix losing. My dad always used to say, “You can’t lie to the grandstands.”
What I enjoy is that we have a final exam every Sunday. It’s easy to figure out how you’re doing.
And the mood of the people is directly related to your on-track success. Success breeds more
success. Our people right now, we could hardly run them out of here, could hardly get them to
stop working if we wanted to. They are here early in the morning and ready to get started, and
they’re here at 9 o’clock at night. Whatever it takes to do the job. My job as a leader is just to make
sure I’m asking the right questions and we’re moving in the right direction. Our team right now is so strong. Racing is a passion sport; there are easier ways to make a living than racing. But what you can’t replace is that feeling when you win a race. You can’t replace the satisfaction that you
had a part in an engine that won the race on Sunday. It’s hard to describe that, but it’s so special.

We have 185 people here who are engaged, and they are doing the best work they can do. The
secret to building great engines is what happens on the shop floor. Every decision that is made,
every test that is run. It’s great to see and I’m proud to be a part of it right now.

But we also know we still have a lot to do. I was walking through the shop this morning and highfiving
a guy and he said, “We’ve got one thing to do: win a championship.” That is exactly right.
They are locked and loaded, and this is a good time for us. I’m happy for everybody here to be a
part of it.

PRI: What would you point to as the biggest business challenge your company deals with today?

Yates: That’s a great question. It’s all about strategy. What do we do next, and how do we ensure
the future of our people and our company? What’s the next right move? We’ve been very
fortunate to make some good decisions in the past…when people came to us and asked us to
build their engines, we didn’t turn away from that. We accepted the challenge, and that positioned
us to merge with Jack Roush and his company to form Roush Yates. We’ve tried lots of things as a
business; we’ve had a parts business for a while, we built grassroots engines, and we’ve kind of
pared that back a little bit to focus on our core: building great engines for Ford Motor Company.
We want to be a great partner. But we also think about what else we could do based on what
we’re good at. We feel like we’re pretty good and getting better at machining, and manufacturing.
I think that has some runway. We could do some things at the aerospace level. We’re ISO certified,
AS9100, which is something we took on ourselves because we believed it would make us a better
company and be a catalyst for change. We’re really proud of that.

You have to think about strategy every day. You have to keep your eyes open for the next
opportunity, but you want to make sure you’re making good moves. I feel the responsibility for
trying to have a strong company for all of our employees and their families. The challenge is
seeing what the next three years, the next five years, will look like. There are a lot of changes with
NASCAR, a lot of change in the OEM space for sure, and change is exciting. We need to be ready
as a company to address those challenges and move ahead.

PRI: In this hyper-competitive arena, how do you recruit the skilled employees you need?

Yates: Talent is the key to the future, and you have to be intentional and develop that pipeline.
We have a great partnership with UTI and NASCAR Tech here in Mooresville, and that is a really
good education for entry-level technicians. People who come into the tear-down department, the
subassembly department, even machining. We’ve hired over 90 graduates from UTI, and that’s
something I’m proud of. Most recently they’ve started a CNC program, which is a partnership with
Roush Yates, and they recently had their first graduating class. We’ve hired three graduates from
that class for our manufacturing facility.

The skills gap that people talk about today in manufacturing is real. We see it here in racing, and
the rest of the world is seeing it, too. So we’re working on that pipeline and developing those skills. I feel like the NASCAR community has a very strong program here. On the engineering level we’re working with several universities—NC State, Virginia Tech, Clemson— to develop a pipeline
for engineers to enter our company and grow with us. We still need to grow in that area, to
become more recognized.

When we go to job fairs we’re still a pretty small player, and people have a lot of questions about NASCAR and racing and do they want to get involved with it. We work with the SAE programs and find people who have a passion for racing. You have to work really hard in this area. I started out building engines and had no idea what the HR department did other than making sure we had insurance and making sure we got paid, but I came to realize
that a good HR department can really propel a company into the future.

PRI: Now, take that one step further: What does the next generation of racing engines look like?

Yates: That’s pretty exciting. It’s hard to say when NASCAR will make a transition, but our
experience in IMSA and Le Mans is racing production-relevant technology. Smaller cubic engines,
direct injection, turbos, and I think there will be an electrification component to that. All of that is
exciting, and I want to make sure our company is prepared for it. Stock car racing started out with stock engines. Today, we’re going to the All-Star race with a
restrictor-plate engine that is 420 horsepower. Production engines today can make way more
power than that, so it’s easy to imagine racing an EcoBoost engine in NASCAR in the future. The
challenge in that respect might be the sound; people love the V8 engines, they love the sound.
How do you bridge that gap? But from a powertrain standpoint, production engines with some
sort of electrification will probably come at some point.

Which is really exciting for engineers, by the way. One of the biggest challenges we had with
recruiting engineers into our company was the fact that people didn’t want to work with
carburetors. When NASCAR made the switch to the McLaren ECU and the EFI system, and the
digital dash, that kind of technology is good for the sport. Albeit it’s more expensive, that’s a fact.
But the technology attracts talent, which keeps NASCAR interesting for young people. Young
people today have all sorts of technology around them, and if you want to engage young people
you have to engage technology.

PRI: Somewhere, working in a small shop, is a guy who puts together engines for a couple of
short track teams. He has dreams of growing his business and hiring people and winning
championships. What advice would you give that guy?

Yates: Work hard, pay attention to the details, and network. Ask people questions. Whatever you
want to learn, people in this sport will provide the answers. Everybody wants to help others and
they love to answer questions. If you are struggling with something—technical or otherwise—
people are there to help you. This is a great community. Ultimately your product and the way you
treat people will define how far you can go with your business. And get your engines in winning
cars! That’s very important. But don’t be afraid to ask for help.

PRI: In the world of performance, does a Ford guy still take some pleasure in beating Chevrolet

Yates: You’d better believe it! My dad told me the story that when he went to work for Junior
Johnson, Ford had dominated recently at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Chevrolet was having
some challenges getting people in the grandstands. They built their first engine from a school bus
engine, and Charlie Glotzbach sat on the pole at Charlotte. Almost instantly all the Chevy guys
showed up in the grandstand, talking it up to the Ford guys on how they were going to beat ’em.
That’s what it’s all about. People love competition, and that’s what makes the world go around.
The best thing about our deal is that it’s Ford versus Chevrolet versus Toyota. We’ll have times
when we have our run, and GM and Toyota have had their times. You win on Sunday and sell on
Monday, and that still holds true today. We want to win our share and we want our Ford fans to
be proud, and that’s what keeps us going.


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