Yeley on the verge of historic triple

"Cactus Jack" Yeley's son is on the verge of an accomplishment that only one man has achieved in the past: J.J. Yeley stands to win championships this season in all USAC's top divisions.

J.J. Yeley.
Photo by Kenneth Plotkin.

Tony Stewart, who went on to win the Indy Racing League Championship and the NASCAR Winston Cup Championship, won the USAC Silver Crown, Sprint car and Midget championships in 1995 -- three championships in a single season.

Yeley's father, the famous "Cactus Jack" Yeley, won seven Arizona midget championships and two World of Outlaw midget championships. He was so busy racing; he barely had time to get his son involved in the sport. "I started racing quarter midgets fairly late," said J.J., "I started at about (age) 11. I did that for just a little while and I just wasn't able to race very often. My Dad was always racing on Saturdays and unfortunately we never had time to go to the quarter midget races."

As it turns out, the Yeleys developed a plan to put J.J. in a full size midget so father and son could race together. "We worked on some legal documents and at the age of 14, he had me in a midget so I could go out there and race with him on Saturday night."

At the age of 17, Yeley was driving 410 non-winged sprint cars. Fuel injected monsters with 800 horsepower engines in 1200 pound cars.

In 1997, Yeley earned several high profile victories, including "A.J. Foyt's Cavalcade of Sprints," the "Tony Hulman Classic" and the "Jim Hurtubise Memorial Classic" at Terre Haute. One year later, the Phoenix native found himself aboard an Indy car for five races. At the Indianapolis 500, Yeley was the fastest rookie in the field.

Racing in the Indianapolis 500, where he earned a top ten finish, left an indelible mark on the rising star. "It was awesome. The fans definitely make that race what it is. As a rookie the fans really made me feel very welcome. When you're rolling around there during the parade lap, to see all those fans around there, as a driver that is the neatest feeling you can get. With all the tradition of the Speedway, it was a very big moment in my racing career to be able to participate in that."

Growing up in Phoenix, Manzanita Speedway was J.J.'s local track. Manzanita is home to some of the toughest competitors in the nation and a stop on the ultra competitive SCRA sprint car tour. It's no wonder that, as a teenager, J.J. loved racing on dirt. But that's beginning to change. "A couple of years ago I preferred dirt. Anymore I've really started to enjoy pavement more. On pavement, if the car's off, as a driver, you're limited to what you can do to make the car faster. On dirt, depending on how much desire you have as a driver, you can take a tenth place car and do things some things some other guys might not do and still win with it.

"It's kind of a toss up between the two. Dirt is a little bit racier and you're able to pass a little bit easier. On pavement track, it's difficult to pass."

J.J. Yeley seeks to stretch his record.
Photo by Kenneth Plotkin.
Perhaps Yeley's new affection for pavement is based on his present career opportunities. Faced with limited opportunities in the IndyCar Series, and an ever-growing demand for NASCAR racing, not to mention career longevity, J.J. thinks his future is with the stock cars.

"At this time, obviously open wheel is my love. I've done it my entire racing career. It's a lot of fun. You don't get so much into the politics side of it, but you don't get into the big money side of it either.

"I tested a Busch car at the end of last year and I really enjoyed it. The cars were a lot of fun. As a driver, the cars are very challenging. The cars change so much during a 30 or 40 lap run. So as a driver, it always kept you on your toes. You always had to drive a different line to try and make up for changes in the car. At this time, it's something I'm really looking forward to getting into."

Used to the power and agility of a high-powered open wheel car, J.J. says the stock car is "definitely a different feel. It's just something you have to get used to. They react a slower than a midget or sprint car will on pavement. In terms of momentum, you have to be smooth and you have to be able to keep those tires underneath you."

Despite interest from some IndyCar Series teams, it's most likely he'll end up joining NASCAR starts Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman and Jason Leffler racing stock cars.

"It's hard to say. At this point, I've had a couple different IRL teams approach me to see how interested I was in something for next year. At this time, with the doors that are opening up on the NASCAR side, that's really where my heart wants to go. I'm a racer and I'm used to running a hundred times a year. To only be able to go race 12 or 14 times a year, you know, I'm not good enough at golf to have that much free time. With the stock car stuff, hopefully I'll be able to race with them next year."

Before he ventures off to seek his fame and fortune in the land of NASCAR, the 26 year old Phoenix native still has some unfinished business in open wheel racing. In 2003, he's set a new record for victories in a single season and he's won the Indiana Sprint Week Championship for the second time. Last year he won the USAC Silver Crown championship, while finishing second in both the Sprint and Midget divisions. This year, his goal is to win all three.

"So far we've had a really awesome season with all three divisions. Right now I think we actually have the Sprint Car championship locked up. Unfortunately the Midget and Silver Crown aren't quite as close but we're still leading both. We have to keep digging, try to win races and make sure we run for podiums. And we can't afford to have anymore DNFs this season."

Tony Stewart will be happy to see J.J. match his feat set in 1995. After all, Stewart is one of Yeley's USAC car owners. Stewart may change his tune when the hard charging kid from Arizona is filling his mirrors.