J.J. YELEY Open Enrollment HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. (Sept. 26, 2007) -- Those in the field of education might be familiar with the term "open enrollment" -- a process through which anyone with the desire to attend college is given an ...
HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. (Sept. 26, 2007) -- Those in the field of education might be familiar with the term "open enrollment" -- a process through which anyone with the desire to attend college is given an opportunity to seek a higher education.
Along those lines, it seems that NASCAR has undergone its own period of open enrollment. Numerous drivers who have previously competed in various open-wheel series in the United States -- and even around the world -- are migrating to the ever-popular NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series.
J.J. Yeley, driver of the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet Monte Carlo for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), made a similar transition three years ago. Yeley came to NASCAR via the open-wheel ranks of the United States Auto Club (USAC) and the IRL IndyCar Series, the latter series having showcased his talents in five races during the 1998 season, including the Indianapolis 500.
Four former winners of the Indianapolis 500, Jacques Villeneuve (1995), Buddy Lazier (1996), Sam Hornish Jr. (2006), and Dario Franchitti (2007) are either committed to or are considering a move to stock cars in 2008. Villeneuve and Lazier competed in their first NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series event last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Hornish has attempted but failed to make the last two Nextel Cup Series races. And Franchitti is expected to make his stock car debut in two weeks in an Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
Yeley made the jump to stock car auto racing in 2004 after signing his first NASCAR contract with JGR the previous year. He recently solidified his future in NASCAR's top series by signing a three-year deal to drive for Hall of Fame Racing beginning in 2008.
While he has no regrets about focusing on a career racing stock cars, Yeley never misses the chance to get back to his racing roots. In addition to competing in the Nextel Cup and Busch Series events this weekend at Kansas, he'll also jump back into a Silver Crown car and shoot for his third straight USAC Silver Crown win Saturday afternoon.
As several other drivers ponder their enrollment in NASCAR, Yeley is happy he made the switch.
And since it's fall and school is back in session, he couldn't be more proud to be a "student" in the Nextel Cup Series as it heads to Kansas Speedway this weekend for Sunday's Nextel Cup Series LifeLock 400.
J.J. YELEY (Driver, No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet):
Several drivers from the open-wheel ranks have moved over to NASCAR in recent years. The defections seem to be growing in recent weeks with Jacques Villeneuve, Buddy Lazier, Sam Hornish, Jr., and Dario Franchitti looking to make the switch next season. Why did you make the decision to pursue a career in NASCAR and why are so many others looking into it as an option?
"It's definitely changing the landscape of motorsports in America right now. I've raced in the IRL before and they are fun cars to drive. If you are true racer, it's not where you want to be because you only race 15 or 16 times a year. I like playing golf but not that much, and I don't like having that much time on my hands. It comes down to this: a lot of these guys just want to race. They want to race where there's more competition against the best race car drivers and that's what NASCAR offers. The face of NASCAR has changed so much in recent years. When you come to events and you see all the hospitality and corporate involvement that you have now, it wasn't like that 15 years ago. It's just the way the sport has changed and it will keep changing. The fans are going to get even more excited because the racing is going to get better. You're going to have quite a diverse group of drivers and it's only going to add to our sport."
Are there other factors that contribute to so many drivers making the switch to NASCAR, or is it simply a matter of money and the popularity of the sport?
"I think it has a lot to do with the popularity of NASCAR. I'm sure the money has something to do with the fact that a lot of these guys want to come over and race with us. I think the majority of them are racers and they want to race more. If you want to drive a race car all year long, with 36 races plus testing, then NASCAR is where you want to be."
Drawing from your experience, what is going to be the toughest part for the drivers who are making the switch from open-wheel racing?
"I think it's going to be a tougher transition for those guys who are making the switch because they have spent a majority of their time driving an open-wheel car, whether that's an IRL car, Champ Car or Formula One car. They are used to a feel that the car is going to give them. Once they get into a stock car, it's going to be nothing like anything they have driven in their lives. I drove a different variety of race cars before I came to NASCAR, so I had a pretty good idea of what it was going to take. But even after a half season, it surprised me what I still had to learn about these race cars."
Compare the conventional cars to the Car of Tomorrow (CoT). Will it be easier for those drivers to adapt to the CoT when it starts running full-time next season?
"I think it's going to be easier for those guys to transition into the CoT car versus the conventional cars. Don't get me wrong, it's going to be tough just switching to stock cars no matter what car it is because it's a totally different feel. But at the same time, I just don't think you need to push the CoT as hard and they are a little more forgiving at some of the race tracks. Once we are running the CoT full-time next year, Goodyear will start bringing some softer tires and things are going to change. For the most part, it will be easier to jump into one car and try to get the feel of just the CoT, as opposed to going back and forth with the different feel that you get out of the conventional cars."
You often say that Chicagoland Speedway is one of your favorite tracks. Kansas Speedway is very similar to Chicago. But what are the differences?
"I think of all the mile-and-a-half race tracks we go to, Chicago and Kansas are the most similar to each other. The only really big difference is that the back straightway is curved at Chicago and it's not at Kansas. There's also a substantial bump that runs from the bottom to the top in turns three and four at Kansas that tends to upset the car much more than anything at Chicago. I've enjoyed going to Kansas because we've had some good Busch Series runs there. Hopefully, we'll be able to turn around our season in the conventional car. The last four or five races in the conventional cars haven't been as good of runs as we would have liked. We've been struggling with the car being loose in the corner and loose off the corner, so I'm hoping we can get that turned around this weekend."
Has the Interstate Batteries team taken a different approach going into this weekend knowing that the last several momentum tracks have been tougher races?
"You just can't race other cars on the track when you can't turn the wheel. We are going to look back at some notes because we've always been good at California and we struggled there earlier this month. We'll see if there is something we might have missed, or if we can do some things a little bit differently. Hopefully, it's nothing that has to do with the body configuration. It seems like every week they find more downforce and side force, and that should help. But ever since we've gotten new bodies, we've seemed to struggle a bit more with the mechanical side."
You're going back to your open-wheel roots again this weekend by running the USAC Silver Crown race at Kansas. You've won the last two Silver Crown races you've entered. Have those races been fun for you this year?
"It's been a lot of fun getting to go back and run those cars, even though they are a lot different than what we used to run when I was the 2003 champion of the series. It works out really well because all these races are at the same venue that we're running the Busch and Nextel Cup races. You get more time on the race track. But the best part is that when I get in one of those cars, I know that the equipment is good and I have a chance of winning. Anytime you get a shot at winning a race, it makes it fun and worthwhile to do."