When Kyle Bates was racing in NHRA’s Jr. Drag Racing League, he knew what he wanted to be when he grew up. Like many kids just starting out, Bates saw Top Fuel in his future; but when it came down to it, the Oklahoma native found something even more exciting. Today, 26-year-old Bates is a key member of the Elite Motorsports team and their engine shop based in Wynnewood, Oklahoma. On the road, he is assigned to the increasingly quick Ray Skillman Chevrolet Camaro driven by Sportsman racer-turned-Pro Stock standout Drew Skillman.
“From the time I was 8 years old until I went to The School of Automotive Machinists (SAM Tech), I dreamed of working on a Top Fuel car,” said Bates, who raced Jr. dragsters from 8-16 years of age and then competed in the High School class at his local track.
“When I started to become more educated about engines, I realized that was just not the way I wanted to go,” he continued. “I knew I wanted to work on something more precise. Something that required more skill than just being fast.”
After graduating from SAM Tech, Bates began to work his way towards his new dream, the one in which he would play an active role on an NHRA Pro Stock team.
For several years, he put the craft he learned at SAM Tech to use as he pursued a real-world education, including two years with renowned engine builder Reher-Morrison.
“As far as the hands-on experience, they really taught me everything I know,” said Bates. “[Reher-Morrison] got me started and helped me become established with assembling engines, and during that time, I also had the opportunity to work with Rodger Brogdon’s team doing the clutch part-time. That continued when Rodger signed on with Elite Motorsports, and eventually Nick [Ferri, engine builder] was like, ‘Man, we’d really like to have somebody like you full-time.’ ”
Bates saw the situation as a win-win; he and his wife, Rebecca, are both from Oklahoma, and the Elite shop wasn’t but 40 minutes from where his family is based.
Bates soon got a powerful taste of success as Brogdon earned his first career win at Bristol in 2013 and then went on to win again in Reading, his first official event with Elite Motorsports.
“It was pretty awesome,” said Bates. “The win in Reading was my first race with Elite, and then Erica [Enders, Elite Motorsports driver] won Las Vegas and Pomona and the championship. It was unbelievable to be part of that. Then during the winter we signed a deal with Drew Skillman, and we went to the final round our first race as a team [2014 Pomona Winternationals]. I’ve been with Drew since he started, and that is true for all of us. Nobody has moved or changed, and we’re all very happy with how we work together. Things tend to go so smooth. This is home for me, as far as a Pro Stock team. I really like being here.”
While he enjoys his time on the road with Skillman and the rest of the Elite Motorsports team, Bates is learning all he can back at the shop under the guidance of Ferri.
Upon return from a race, the engine shop gets a game plan together, and then Bates digs in. In addition to disassembling and reassembling, he updates his notes, including tracking runs and parts. Although everything is a collective team effort at Elite, Bates is primarily responsible for engine assembly. Anyone in the shop can jump in at any time to help out anyone else, though. As he says, “I never know what I might be doing, but that makes it a great experience.”
Lately, Bates has been learning the business side of things as Ferri has introduced him to ordering parts and working directly with the manufacturers.
“It’s been exciting to start taking on more responsibility, because my end-goal is to be an engine builder and not an engine assembler. There is a big difference between the two,” said Bates.
“One of the major things that has been difficult for me is that I’ve spent my whole engine career learning how to move power up in rpm, not down,” he said, referring to the new rule for 2016 that mandated a 10,500 rev-limiter on their 500 cid engines. “You can’t just sit back and try to reverse-engineer things; it’s just not that simple. I also really want to get more involved in fuel injection, and Ben Strader and EFI University have really taken me under their wing. I think understanding fuel injection will be very important to my future, because in 10 years, we probably won’t work on anything with a carburetor.”
Bates explains Ferri’s teaching style as in-depth and different than anyone else he has ever worked with, and from his first day on the job, he was given a certain amount of trust.
“Nick has never been one to watch over my shoulder,” he said. “Jake [Hairston] gave me the tour and showed me how they wanted things done, and they let me go from there. There are six of us in the engine shop, and we all work very well together. They trusted in me then, and they still do.”
Skillman, who won his first Pro Stock race in St. Louis in 2015, has this year been one of the few drivers to really give the KB Racing/Summit Racing Pro Stock team of Greg Anderson and Jason Line a run for their money. Currently No. 4 in the points heading into the NHRA SpringNationals in Houston, Skillman was No. 2 qualifier last week at the Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte and raced to the final round with one of the stronger cars on the property.
“We struggled with all of the [rule] changes in the beginning, and I was a bit distraught, but we’ve really pulled together as a team. I believe we will continue to move forward and, hopefully, [Elite Motorsports] will win more races and more championships,” said Bates. “I know we have a lot of work to do, but I think that with Nick, Jake, Richard Freeman [team owner], and everybody on this team, we can do it. I have no doubt we can get back to where we were.”