DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - On Nov. 27 last year, a historic marriage took place - one that could very well change the course of stock car racing for the very immediate future - and beyond.
This wasn t boy-meets-girl, flowers, soft music and living happily ever after. It was two intense rivals deciding to pool their resources and join forces for the betterment of both.
When Jack Roush hooked up with Robert Yates, it was two very rich men with a very expensive hobby being joined in what you might call unholy matrimony.
Roush and Yates are team owners on NASCAR s top circuit, now the Nextel Cup Series. Each has a solid background in engine building, and both run Fords. Between them, Yates and Roush have 120 Cup victories, and more than $100 million in winnings.
Yates has two Cup racing teams in his stable; Dale Jarrett and Elliott Sadler are his drivers. Roush has five - 2003 Winston Cup points champ Matt Kenseth, Jeff Burton, Mark Martin, Kurt Busch, and Greg Biffle, who will be sitting on the pole in Sunday s Daytona 500.
But until that day 21/2 months ago when Yates tapped Roush on the shoulder at a NASCAR social event and said simply “We need to talk, these guys weren t friends. They were fierce, steely-eyed competitors.
“I think Robert and I always had an unspoken respect for each other, but from the beginning of the racing season in Daytona until the end of the year, we wouldn t talk to one another. We wouldn t acknowledge one another, wouldn t have eye contact, and by no means would we wish one another good luck, Roush said.
“We were struggling and competing for the same thing, and we competed every week on the track.
And last year, they both watched the Chevy and Dodge teams share technology and resources - and zoom to the front of the pack.
“Last year the Fords only had two poles, and Roush didn t have any. So I think maybe things are just a little more balanced now, Roush said. “This year, we ve got a chance to be a factor in the Daytona 500 like never before, and I m really excited about that.
This was strictly a business deal, but in essence, it was a Hatfield marrying a McCoy.
“It s just weird walking into the garage and seeing Robert and Jack side-by-side, looking under the hood, Sadler said. “A year ago, that seemed impossible - nobody would believe that could ever happen. But it s an alliance that has strengthened both teams, so nothing but good has come of it.
After last season, Roush sent an engine from his Michigan facility down to the Yates operation in North Carolina. It was set up side-by-side with a Yates engine, and the comparisons began in earnest.
“We found that the engine we had run at Talladega was two horsepower less than the engine they d run down there - and we were both surprised that they were so close, Roush said.
“We put a number of their parts on the engine, and it made a four-horsepower better package than they had seen, and a six-horsepower better package than we had seen. So from that point up to now, the winter has been an Easter egg hunt.
When Jarrett won Saturday night s Bud Shootout with a Yates-Roush Ford engine, and Biffle and Sadler took the front row in Sunday s qualifying runs for the 500 - both running Yates-Roush power plants, the rest of the stock car racing world snapped to attention.
“We ve been taking things apart, seeing how they look, and putting the best of both together, Roush said.
“There have been a lot of things that I hadn t thought about, and then I saw that they had done very well with them. And to their surprise, there were a number of things they saw that the Roush guys had done better than they thought.
In previous years, there was a sibling rivalry between the two that constantly left Ford stuck in the middle.
If Ford invested money on an engine development program with Yates, he would not share the results with Roush, and Roush was the same way.
“He would have to tell you if he feared or respected me, and either one was OK, but I did respect him, Roush said. “Since he wanted to talk, I wanted to hear what he had to say. I m pleased we got together on this.
Yates provided the domicile for the union. He had a huge 75,000-square-foot facility in North Carolina, a massive place with the ability to support 10 Cup teams, and he was only building engines for two.
Roush was planning on moving his operation there and building his own facility. Yates invited his new comrade in rpms, and made him an equal partner. Roush skipped the 18 months it would have taken him to build his own place, Ford skipped the redundancy of having two engine development operations, and they simply joined forces.
“We re 50-50 partners down to the dirt right now, and we re committed to do this together, Roush said. “Our race teams are going to run closer together than they could have otherwise. In his mind s eye, Robert saw this as helping us both.
Ford, the maid of honor at the unusual nuptial, is understandably giddy over the developments.
“As we look toward long-term development and long-term projects, we know who we will be working with, and we know there s a level of trust there from both sides, said Dan Davis, who heads Ford s racing engine development program. “We ve picked our dance partners for the future. And now it s time to dance.
Sadler expects the combination to bring out the best in both.
“It s no secret that Robert Yates has always had great horsepower and Jack Roush has always had great fuel mileage, Sadler said. “What we re learning is that if you put those two together, we re gonna have a Ford race team to be reckoned with week in and week out.
“If you think about it, this is really ideal for both teams, Sadler said. “It just makes sense, too, to have two top Ford teams sharing technology, sharing a facility in North Carolina, and constantly swapping know-how and racing experience.
“It is no coincidence that the same two have their cars out there setting side-by-side on the front row for the Daytona 500.
But a bit of the old rivalry remains. Roush was asked who had the more opulent motor home.
“Oh, I don t have a motor coach - I have airplanes, Roush said. “I have 727s, I have P-51s - I ve got nine airplanes. I m different than Robert.