INDIANAPOLIS (August 24, 1998) -- He's the two-time defending Winston champion competing in a year that's been feast or famine for Splitfire/Peak Pontiac driver Jim Yates. After 15 events, the Firebird Pro Stock pilot sits in fourth place in the...
INDIANAPOLIS (August 24, 1998) -- He's the two-time defending Winston champion competing in a year that's been feast or famine for Splitfire/Peak Pontiac driver Jim Yates. After 15 events, the Firebird Pro Stock pilot sits in fourth place in the Winston standings with 884 points, 409 behind the leader Warren Johnson with the clock ticking down towards the two-minute warning. But if you take a closer look at the championship race, you'll see that the battle is just beginning to heat up with Yates less than four rounds out of second place.
With the 22-event Winston championship tour making the turn south towards Indianapolis, Jim Yates knows that a few breaks along the way would have put him in contention for a third Winston title.
"I would still give the Splitfire/Peak Pontiac team an 'A' for perseverance," said Yates. "So far, we've just had a couple of bad episodes, but overall it's been a good year. Not qualifying at those races kind of dealt us a bad hand in our pursuit for the points championship, but we're still fighting and we're not giving up. A couple of thousandths of a second here or there and we would have won some more races.
"Struggling to redevelop a baseline was our biggest problem. The carburetors were a curve ball that messed us up when we had them on the engine. But once we replaced those, finding a consistent baseline with the new carburetors was the challenge. Now that we've done that it seems like we're coming back pretty good."
At the season opener in Pomona, Yates stormed to the winner's circle in a performance that was reminiscent of the 1997 championship season in which he won nine times in eleven final rounds. Demonstrating that the Winternationals endeavor was no fluke, he advanced to the final round at Phoenix and Gainesville, and then jumped to the No. 3 qualifying spot at Houston. But at Richmond, Yates failed to qualify for the first time since October 1993 (84 straight races), and then failed to make the race again at Chicago and Sonoma. It was more of an indication of the dog-eat-dog competitiveness of the class than it was of the team's ability.
"I think that every year you have to have a battle cry," said Yates. "You have to have something that says, 'This is what's going to make us race!' Two years ago it was winning the championship from Warren Johnson, and then last year it was winning the championship with Bob Ingles as our engine builder. This year, maybe what we've lacked is that battle cry, something to get us motivated to go out and do the job.
"It's difficult to raise yourself to the occasion because it takes 110% of your effort 100% of the time to win the championship. When you're lined up on the starting line on Sunday, you have to remember that this is it. You can't lose, there is no turning back, and there is no second chance."
In addition to his final-round appearance at the Pontiac Excitement Nationals in Columbus, Ohio, Yates has advanced to the semi-final round at Dallas, Englishtown, St. Louis, and most recently, Seattle. He was also the No. 1 qualifier at Brainerd. When his Firebird is racing on Sunday, it is a machine to be reckoned with boasting a win-loss record in 1998 of 22-11 for a race-day batting average of .667.
The 44th Annual U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis Raceway Park on September 2-7 is the 16th event on the 22-event Winston championship tour. Yates has never won at Indianapolis, with his best year coming in 1996 when he qualified No. 1 and advanced to the semi-finals before losing to eventual race winner Kurt Johnson. Last year, he qualified No. 4 but lost in the first round to Bruce Allen.
"I enjoy the thrill of competition," insists Yates. "I enjoy going against another guy on Sunday. That's why I race. That's the No. 1 thrill when you're beside someone at the starting line, whether it's Warren Johnson, Jeg Coughlin, Pete Williams, Rickie Smith, Tom Martino, anybody. It doesn't get any better than that. Having somebody sitting beside you waiting for that light to change, trying to let the clutch out first with everything on the line.
"When I look back on my career as a Pro Stock driver, I am astonished at the level of success we've had in the short time we've accomplished it. We won two championships back-to-back and have only been in the sport eight years. When you're racing against guys like Warren Johnson, that's tough to do.