READING, Pa., September 6, 2001 - With the completion of last weekend's U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, the 24-event NHRA Winston championship season has now turned the corner and is headed for home. Borrowing from standard football terminology,...
READING, Pa., September 6, 2001 - With the completion of last weekend's U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, the 24-event NHRA Winston championship season has now turned the corner and is headed for home. Borrowing from standard football terminology, the upcoming Keystone Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway marks the beginning of the fourth quarter and Splitfire/Peak Pontiac Grand Am driver Jim Yates needs a touchdown to catch current points leader Warren Johnson. In actuality, the difference between the two former champions is a razor-thin 80 points, or four round wins. With six races left on the schedule, that leaves a potential total of 24 rounds still left on the table to be won or lost.
The scorecard on Yates this year is impressive. Through 18 events, the 48-year-old Alexandria, Va., resident has one victory and raced in five final rounds. He's won 27 rounds of eliminations, qualified in the top half of the field in 16 of 18 events, and in the top five eight times. At Atlanta, where Yates qualified 14th in the final session of time trials and dodged the dreaded DNQ, he went on to win the event. His other final-round finishes this year were at Las Vegas (where he was No. 1 qualifier), Bristol, Chicago and St. Louis. In addition, Yates won the $50,000 Holley Dominator Duel at Englishtown. He is a two-time winner at the Keystone Nationals, scoring victories at Maple Grove Raceway in the same back-to-back seasons in which he won his two Winston championships (1996-97). In an effort to turn his program up a notch, Yates will field a second Grand Am at Maple Grove Raceway with Rickie Smith performing the driving and tuning duties.
Yates on the '01 Pontiac Grand Am. "The Grand Am is the best racecar I've ever owned. It's as good as either of the Firebirds I won championships in. The truth of the matter is that when we built this Grand Am, I basically went to Jerry Bickel and told him that I wanted the chassis to be identical to the one I won the championship with in '97. That's what he did. He built a '97-style chassis and then we put the 2001 space-age Grand Am body on it with the latest and greatest aerodynamically-designed Pontiac. It's an incredibly balanced racecar that gets up and down the racetrack and has won us a lot of rounds. It's a combination of old and new."
How do you approach the next six events? "Looking back on the season there's no question that we've been in a tough battle all year. We've had some good spurts where we've raced in five out of nine finals, and Warren had a streak there where he won three out of four races - everyone seems to have been on a run at one time during the season. I think it's going to come down to whoever can get on a run during these last six races. I'd much rather be in the lead like he is, but by no means is the lead large enough to take to the bank. One good race and we could be right there with him. We're in as good a position as anybody out there right now and with a little luck, a little consistency and keeping everyone on the team pulling in the same direction, we've got a good shot."
You finished eighth last year and now you're second. Where does the credit go for your improvement? "The Splitfire Pontiac Grand Am has been performing well and that's a real plus for us. Bob Ingles (engine builder) has stayed home from a lot of races and has found us some new horsepower this year and that's a major factor - you've got to have power to win in Pro Stock. But I think the team is coming together more and more, trying to get that power down the track. Sometimes having a little more power throws you a curveball and right now, the motors are so responsive that we're having trouble getting the car to the 60-foot because it keeps wanting to spin the tires really hard. If we can come up with a way to harness that power in first gear I think our performance will increase even more."
Fall has arrived and the conditions are going to improve. Does that bode well for your setup? "I think we have a motor combination that loves to run in good weather. The key is obviously the track surfaces. We suffered quite a bit on these slick racetracks - we can't seem to get down them very well. By the same token, so has Warren, so I don't know who is in the position to benefit more. We're so close right now that if we can run just a little bit better, and if I can drive better then the championship is well within our grasp. Going into Maple Grove, that's one of the best tracks we've ever raced on. We're certainly excited about going there and getting a jump on the rest of the season."
Why do you enjoy racing at Maple Grove? "I've been going to Maple Grove for the last 25 years when I started bracket racing. I raced there at this time of year for the bracket finals. I'm familiar with the track surface, the area, and the little nuances of racing there, how the weather acts and how the humidity shows up in the afternoon, little things like that which can help you, especially when you're winning or losing races by a thousandth of a second. We lost at Indy by less than two thousandths of a second, so if we can get just an infinitesimal bit of an advantage, that can be the difference between winning and losing. Right now we have to win."
You will be entering a second car at Maple Grove. "We have a brand new Grand Am that Jerry Bickel built with all the latest and greatest technology. We've had it in our trailer now for about two months and just haven't had the manpower to race it. We were looking at last Sunday where we lost a race by less than two thousandths of a second, and we think the new car could be a hundredth faster, so it's crazy to go to the end of the year and lose the championship by a thousandth of a second and have a hundredth sitting in the trailer. We've got carburetors that we ran earlier in the year that looked really good, but we've got a combination on my car right now that we don't want to mess with. We want to take this opportunity to put all this stuff on the other car, race it and see how it runs. We considered putting Jamie (Yates) in the car, and getting some crew people to come work on the car, and this and that, but the A team is doing so well right now that we don't want to take anything away from that in any way, shape or form. With Rickie (Smith) leaving Krisher, he's worked with me before, and we know he loves to drive a racecar. He's darn good at driving and he's darn good at tuning the car. If we can put those two aspects together where he can step in and take that program on his own, he'll be racing it within our pits, but he'll basically be the crew chief and the driver and have somebody helping him with the car. It's going to be his deal to work on and then we'll let him go ahead and figure out some of these parts we have. We have a whole trailer full of parts we've collected and developed over the year, we have three or four motors besides the one we're running that show a lot of promise, and we have three sets of carburetors and three sets of headers that have looked good from time to time. We'll let Ricky go ahead and run that stuff at a national event, we'll find the best parts and then put them on my car. If that car's the best car then I'll drive it at the next race."
Is this an effort to try and put you over the top for '01? "We're looking at doing everything we have to do to win the championship. We've pulled out all the stops. It's there to win, although I can't tell you what the odds are of us getting the job done, but if we don't do everything in our power to develop and find the best equipment, then we have no one to blame but ourselves. You know, this championship could come down to me and Warren racing in the semifinals or finals at Pomona. We just want to make sure that if that's the case, we have the best motors, the best headers and the best of everything on the car that I'm driving. Guys like Rickie Smith and Terry Adams are hard to come by. The guys that can do it all themselves are very rare, and I'm fortunate to have Terry as a crew chief and to be able to put Rickie in a position where he can drive that other car. There are very few people that could step in and do that job. Terry Adams is one of them and Rickie Smith is another, and I'm going to have both of them on my team. I'm real fortunate to have a lot of good people pulling in our direction trying to get that championship for the Splitfire Pontiac team."
So the key is to take advantage of the opportunity? "Everyone goes to Pomona at the beginning of the year with the same thing in mind. This is a plan we put together in the middle of last year when we sold the parts business. We've built motors and cars and put together a tremendous plan. The key to being successful is to set your goals, plan your work and work your plan. We set our goal to win a championship like half the drivers in NHRA Pro Stock, and maybe all the pieces haven't come together like we thought, but we have enough in place to where now is the time to get it done. It's nice to be in a position where the championship is in our grasp. We don't have to depend on Warren messing up. If we do our job then we can win the championship and not depend on anybody or anything but the work that we do. Maybe we won't win it all, but through planning and hard work we've been fortunate enough to put ourselves in this position. That's all any team really wants - to be a contender. This is a thrilling time at Jim Yates Racing, to be in the hunt this late in the year with a real chance of doing something about it. I'm so excited about racing right now that I can't sleep at night. Coming out of Indy, and I don't know why, but I'm rejuvenated. Everybody on the team knows we can do this and it's a neat feeling to be in that position."
Will you test before going to Maple Grove? "We'll test at Bud's Creek on Tuesday. We're going to shake down the new car with Rickie driving and Rickie tuning it, just get it ready for Maple Grove and get my car back to a nice baseline we're used to running at Maple Grove."