JIM YATES Splitfire/Peak Pontiac Pro Stock Firebird TOPEKA, Kan. (September 22, 1999) - The NHRA tour returns to the windswept plains of eastern Kansas for the 11th annual Advance Auto Parts Nationals on September 30 - October 3, at Heartland...
JIM YATES Splitfire/Peak Pontiac Pro Stock Firebird
TOPEKA, Kan. (September 22, 1999) - The NHRA tour returns to the windswept plains of eastern Kansas for the 11th annual Advance Auto Parts Nationals on September 30 - October 3, at Heartland Park. It's a racetrack that two-time Winston Pro Stock champion Jim Yates knows well. The Splitfire/Peak Pontiac Firebird driver scored victories at this event in 1996-97, and was runner up at the spring race when it was still contested here in 1994-96. Last year, Yates qualified in the No. 2 position and advanced to round three before losing to Jeg Coughlin Jr. With just five races remaining on the schedule, the 46-year-old Virginian is currently fourth in the Winston point standings and is looking to add another victory to match earlier season wins at St. Louis and Sonoma.
The 11th annual Advance Auto Parts Nationals is the 18th race on the 22-event NHRA Winston championship schedule. Television coverage of qualifying highlights can be seen on Speedvision on Saturday, October 2, beginning at 8 p.m. Eastern. First-round coverage can be seen on Speedvision on Sunday, October 3, beginning at 2 p.m. Eastern, and final-round coverage will be telecast on FOX Sports starting at 5 p.m. (local time). Check your local listings for specific play dates and times in your area.
How would you evaluate your season up to this point?
"We started this year off with the best of intentions and I think we've had good fortune at times, and we've had some unlucky periods at other races, but overall the performance level of the Splitfire Pontiac Firebird has improved as we've made our way through the season. The bottom line is that to be successful in Pro Stock you need to perform; you need to have horsepower, you need to make good runs and you need to win. We had finally gotten back to our winning form at St. Louis and the middle of the Western swing. We were in three finals in four races, felt really confident in our ability to win again and then we went to Brainerd and failed to qualify. It's been one of those years where we were able to reach that peak level of performance that you strive to achieve, and then we dropped off. Brainerd was a reality check. We have a lot of new stuff coming down the pike that we're working on. I think that's one of the reasons we didn't do well in Brainerd and maybe why we struggled a little bit at Indy. We're trying to win right now and our complete attention is on whatever event we happen to be racing at. We're not looking at overall consistency for the year because I don't think there is any way to catch Warren (Johnson) for the championship, so the next thing that counts is trying to win as many races as we can. We went to Indy and put a brand new engine in the Splitfire/Peak Pontiac Firebird which we've never done before. We'd only tested it once, and it looked pretty good so we put it in the car because if we're going to win we need as much power as we can muster. This engine has more power and that's what we felt we needed at Indy. Now that we're in the final half of the season, we're spending a lot more time swinging for the fence in an attempt to get that next win under our belt rather than trying to protect a points lead. Sometimes that helps because you get a win, and sometimes that hurts because you don't run as good as you think, but we've improved our performance capability as we've progressed through the year. I was happy with our third place position in the points standings when we arrived at the U.S. Nationals and at that time we were only six rounds behind Kurt (Johnson) for second place. Our goal for the remaining five races of the year is to try and get to the final round, win as many of those races as we can and try and get to the No. 2 spot."
Is the goal now to rebuild for next year?
"That's exactly what we want to do. We have a brand new Don Ness car coming, and we'd like to get that on board and run that at a couple of races between now and next year so that we can see what the potential is there. We have a new engine program that with the DRCE engine heads and blocks shows a tremendous amount of promise on the dyno. The engine is a little bit heavier, it has a lot more power up higher, and it's a little harder trying to get it down the racetrack, so trying to adapt all of that is a challenge. We know that if we get all of these pieces clicking together we can be a contender again just like we were on the Western swing."
Is having your own engine program a prerequisite to winning a Pro Stock championship?
"You definitely need to have your own engine r & d program, but even that isn't enough. You have to have a good engine r & d program. You have to have people with imagination, the ability to figure things out, think outside the box and to come up with ideas that are new and revolutionary. With Bob Ingles we have that. Bob has been involved in this Pro Stock stuff for a long time. He's got a good baseline and a vision of where we need to go. Carl Foltz has been doing all of our head development and he's done an excellent job of helping us refine this DRCE head. In fact, if you were to ask me how much horsepower we should be making, I would never ask for as much horsepower as we're making right now. We are beyond our expectations at this point in time with our engine program. We are behind the curve with getting it down the racetrack, but the numbers that the dyno is producing right now are beyond what we ever expected to make this year. Unfortunately, we have some really good competition out there. Warren (Johnson) is doing a great job, he's making a lot of horsepower and that's who we're chasing. I don't think we're giving up anything to anybody but Warren, but you have to give the man credit, he's making a ton of horsepower and he's definitely raised the bar. We're going back to the well and we're working hard right now. We have a lot of new pieces going on the engine and hopefully we can improve our performance at Heartland Park."
So the amount of horsepower you have isn't the problem, it's utilizing what you have as efficiently as you can.
"Exactly, and coming up with the correct gear ratios so that we can use the motor in the power band that it wants to be used in. It's not just the traction side of it, it's getting the motor to run in the proper rpm range."
Why is that so difficult to accomplish?
"Because as you change gear ratios to improve your performance down track, you compromise by creating a problem at the starting line. Whenever you give something up on one end of the racetrack, you have to have to make it up on the other end. It's the basic laws of physics; if you put gear ratio in the car on the starting line to help it, then it hurts you as you go down track - you have bigger drops on your gear changes.'
What's the high point been for you this season?
"Probably winning in Sonoma because we beat Warren, and Kurt and Mike Edwards to get the victory. Warren and Kurt are the best guys out there, so when you can beat them to win a race you know that you're on top that day. It makes you feel good."
Did the Brainerd DNQ knock the wind out of your sails after the win at Sonoma?
"I thought going into Brainerd that we were in pretty good shape towards making a run for the championship. We were making up a couple of rounds on Warren at every race, and I felt that if we could go into Brainerd and Indy and go to the finals then we could keep putting the pressure on him. That's because momentum and performance mean more than having the points lead --if you have momentum and performance then you can overtake the points leader. What Brainerd did to us from a momentum standpoint is that it just crushed us. We had been to three finals in four races, had won two of those events. We were really feeling strong, but then went to Brainerd and failed to qualify. That stopped us dead in our tracks. We had all of these expectations of catching Kurt and then going after Warren trying to win the championship. Realistically, we were looking to win each race as we went along and if the numbers added up then we would get the championship. But we definitely felt like it was within reach. When we didn't qualify at Brainerd, it made us look in the mirror and reevaluate our program. Which was wrong because we're human and every one has struggled this year to qualify not just us. Warren barely got in during the last session at Sonoma, and Kurt has not qualified this year; every racer in Pro Stock with the exception of Warren has failed to qualify at least once. That shows that we're all human. We took the DNQ at Brainerd in stride just knowing that we had a bad race, probably a lot better than we did last year when it happened because we knew why it happened. We excepted that we're not perfect, that we just had a bad weekend and we went on. But it did put a wrench in our plans to take that momentum from the Western swing and carry it through to the end of the year, and that's where you have to be strong."
You didn't hesitate to lend Mike Thomas a racecar when he crashed his at Indianapolis. Is that an indication of how close knit the Pro Stock competitors are?
"I think that 75 percent of the Pro Stock competitors racing today are close knit. There a few standouts that don't have a lot to do with everybody, but as a group the Pro Stock racers have become very, very close over some of the business matters that effect us his past summer. When you work together on other things then it's easier to reach out and help someone when they have a problem. Mike (Thomas) is a good businessman. I've never rented a motor from him but he has one of the best programs out there for Pro Stock. He does good business, he treats people fairly, and you very seldom hear someone say anything bad about Mike. I've raced Mike a lot over the years; he's beat me, I've beat him but he races fairly. When we go up there to race each other we're going to go at it like it's the last race on Earth. But when we meet in the pits we can talk about our kids, or our business or our wives, or football and we can get away from the racing aspect of it. When you have that kind of relationship outside of racing it makes it a lot easier to step up and help somebody even though you may have to race him on Sunday. You're going to have to race somebody on Sunday and whether he's driving my old car or somebody else's old car, he's either going to win or he's going to lose, and you can't let that interfere with doing the right thing. We'd do it again in a heart beat."
What are some of the good things the NHRA has going for it that the sport can build on in the future?
"NHRA's strongest asset today is its fan base. We have excellent, loyal, dedicated fans that support our sponsors and that's our No. 1 asset. Our No. 2 asset is that we maintain that fan base by allowing them access to the stars in the pits. Unlike any other racing venue in America, the fans can come into the pits and have access to their favorite racer, get an autograph, or just interact with the mechanics and watch us work on the cars from less than five feet away. That's something drag racing has that no other sport has. No. 3, we have outstanding competitive racing especially in Pro Stock. Pro Stock is one of the most tightly contested classes in all of motorsports today where the level of parity between the No. 1 qualifier and the No. 17 guy that doesn't qualify is very tight. That gives us good side-by-side racing, round after round, and race after race. That has now spilled over into Pro Stock Truck. Their fields have tightened up quite a bit because some of the guys who race in Truck are ex-Pro Stock Car racers, or Top Eliminator racers who tried Pro Stock Car and moved onto Pro Stock Truck. Nobody likes to go to the racetrack, whether it's Winston Cup, or Indy Car and watch one guy lap the whole field. The fans don't want to see one guy win all of the races and in Pro Stock, and the NHRA in general, we don't have that problem because the winning is spread around quite a bit. The worst example is probably John Force in Funny Car where he's been dominant most of the year, but right now there have been a lot of guys who have stepped up and won races and that gives us a nice mix. In Pro Stock there have been a lot of different winners this year. Warren is obviously the leader in performance but he doesn't win every race. There have been a lot of different winners this year and I think the fans like that. They don't want to see one guy or one car brand completely dominate the sport. You can't go to a Winston Cup race and see Chryslers race. Recently the Pontiacs, the Chevrolets and the Fords have been competitive, but in NHRA you get to see a lot of that and more. In fact, at one of the recent Pro Stock races we had a Ford, a Chevy, a Pontiac, an Oldsmobile and a Dodge that were the top-five cars. Five different drivers, five different cars. That's good for the sport and it's good for the fans. Everything we do has to support our No. 1 asset and that's our fans. There are fans that want to root for Warren Johnson and John Force, and there are fans that want to root for Al Hofmann and Jim Yates. As we saw at Indy, the underdogs can win and that's something the fans always like. We give them a variety of things to root for including the ability to have numerous brands and racers competing at the same level and that's a major plus that the NHRA at this time. In a nutshell that's why we have so much more to offer than the competition whether it's NASCAR, Indy Car or whatever else. When you see it in person it's a fantastic show that comes off very well. There are some negatives with the television package and the oil down problems that we have to get worked out, but as long as we can identify them, put them out in front of us and work on them, we can make it better."
How long do you want to continue to race, and how soon before we see Jaime (Yates) racing on a more permanent basis?
"Right now my plan is to continue racing for as long as I'm competitive. I've got a proposal out now that would put Jamie in a Pro Stock car next year with a sponsor and we're waiting to hear back on that now. If that comes together, which we should hear something back in the next 30 days, then Jamie will be a full-time NHRA Pro Stock racer next year and 2000 will be his rookie season. That is the plan at this point in time, but we can't do it out of our own pocket. We just don't want to have him out there in another Splitfire Firebird. In order to do it correctly, to compete for the championship and rookie of the year, Jamie needs to be driving his own car with his own sponsor where we can bring more revenue to the program that will allow us to race at the level we need to compete. Hopefully, if we can get Jamie in a car next year, then in two or three years he'll be able to drive at the level where he can compete for a championship and I can ease out of it a little bit."
Do you actually want to get out of competition in three or four years?
"No. The only reason that I would want to back out of it is if Jamie would develop into a better drive than me. I would then gladly step back and be crew chief and do everything I could to help him win. I've got to get to the point where I feel like I've lost my edge driving and there's a better driver available. Right now I'm 46 years old, and I have plenty of time left to drive. But if it got down to it and he was capable of winning and I were struggling, I wouldn't keep racing just to go up and down the racetrack."
What do you enjoy most about Pro Stock competition?
"I have a mechanical degree in engineering and that's what drove me to Pro Stock in the beginning - my desire to try and make a racecar go faster. With the engineering background, I look at the car a lot differently than someone who is a mechanic or just races. I look at it from a lot of different angles. Warren (Johnson) has that same thing going for him. I look at the car from a very technical aspect, and I enjoy tuning the car and trying to make the car run fast. That is probably the most enjoyable aspect of racing to me; to be able to manipulate the machine and refine it to the highest level that it's capable of performing. I have to admit, I enjoy racing on Sunday. I enjoy the side-by-side aspect of competitive racing; of putting all that practical experience that we learn by testing the car to use by trying to beat the guy next to me. I could do without the qualifying. There's so much pressure right now because the fields are so tight and the sessions are so diverse that you can't really swing for the fence in qualifying. If you make a mistake, then you might not make the field. I enjoy testing quite a bit because it allows us to try a lot of different things on the car and come up with a combination that will go fast. What I enjoy most is tuning the car, and trying to make it perform better. No. 2, which is right there behind No. 1, is getting out there on Sunday and racing door to door with another good driver and a fast car. "