Jim Yates Sonoma Preview

JIM YATES Splitfire/Peak Pontiac Firebird SAN FRANCISCO (July 15, 1998) -- It's not every year that a driver has the kind of season that Jim Yates had in 1997. The popular Virginian won nine national events in eleven final rounds, advanced to no...

JIM YATES Splitfire/Peak Pontiac Firebird

SAN FRANCISCO (July 15, 1998) -- It's not every year that a driver has the kind of season that Jim Yates had in 1997. The popular Virginian won nine national events in eleven final rounds, advanced to no less than the semi-finals 17 times, compiled a 58-13 won-loss record (the best in the professional categories) and captured his second straight Winston Pro Stock championship.

Halfway into the 1998 season, and with 20 career wins safely in his pocket, the two-time defending Winston champion sits in third place in the points standings, still confident that a third championship is within his grasp and less than eight rounds out of first place. At the season opener in Pomona, the Splitfire/Peak Pontiac Firebird charged to the winner's circle, and then followed that with two consecutive runner-up finishes at Phoenix and Gainesville. Yates' bid for another Winston title was hampered with DNQ's at Richmond and Chicago. Refusing to give up, he responded with a runner-up performance at the Pontiac Excitement Nationals in Columbus, and a semi-final appearance at St. Louis. Those back-to-back efforts have ignited a blazing fire of momentum in the program that Yates hopes will propel the team back to the top.

The 11th Annual Autolite Nationals on July 24-26, at Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., is the 13th race on the 22-event NHRA Winston championship tour. Last year, Yates set an elapsed time track record of 6.997 seconds on his way to the No. 1 qualifying spot and his fifth win of the season, a turning point on the road to his second Winston Pro Stock title.

How would you grade your season at this point of the year?

I would give the Splitfire/Peak Pontiac team an A for perseverance. So far we've just had a couple of bad episodes and overall it's been a good year. Not qualifying at those races had kind of dealt us a bad hand in our pursuit for the points championship, but we're right there and we're clos A couple thousandths of a second here or there and we would have won some more races.

Do you still feel that you can win the championship?

Without a doubt! Right now, as strong as our Firebird is running and based on the competition out there, no one's going to run away with it. There's a lot of parity and that's going to even things out.

What's been your biggest challenge this year?

Struggling to redevelop a baseline has been 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.

How did testing go at Denver?

We ran very well out there. We tested some new combinations, and we were running right with the fastest cars--within a hundredth-of-a-second of Warren (Johnson), and Kurt (Johnson). For the engine we had in there that was really good. We're looking forward to going out there to race.

How difficult is the adjustment from Denver to Sonoma?

It's not difficult at all because we just pretend that we didn't go to Denver. It's hard to go there because you go from a base altitude that you race at 22 events a year to a place where you go just once. When we leave Denver, we put all the stuff we used there in a box, and we never use it again. Then when we go to Sonoma we just go back to the baseline combination we used at St. Louis. The hard part about going to Sonoma is getting the driver used to the gear changes. You have to reprogram yourself to race at Denver because of the way the gear changes come about. We have to gear the car differently, and the motor sounds entirely different. We made 10 runs in testing, and hopefully, we'll make another eight runs in qualifying and competition. That's 20 runs we'll make under these new conditions. Now you go back down to sea-level and set the car up with the right gear ratios, carburetor setup, and tune-up on the engine. But it's hard to re-program the driver for the change so that he remembers when he has to shift. You know us drivers, we're a little shaky sometimes.

How do you prepare for the Western swing?

For our program, it's always been the best three weeks of the season because we don't have to divide our time between racing and business. When we go on the Western swing I become a full time racer and that's all I do. I don't have to come back and run the parts business. We're out there racing every weekend, working on the car all week, and we tend to run better because we're focusing 100% of our effort in running the car. It helps us to fill in the blanks a little bit.

Why has your team traditionally done so well at this time of the year?

In the beginning of the year we run real strong because we test all winter, and then for the first five or six races that helps us. By then the other racers are up to speed to where they're running really good. When we get into this time of the year though, everyone's kind of worn their parts thin, and they've developed probably as much as they can. When we go into the Western swing we go in there fully loaded, and we try to have as many parts behind us as we can. We treat the season as two half seasons. We're done with the first half and now we're reloading our guns for the second half. We recommit ourselves as a team to what we're doing, and race the Western swing as full-time racers. It's a one month long program where we think of nothing else but racing. And generally, that focus helps us to run better.

What would you like to see done about the one-shot qualifying on Friday night?

I think we need to run on Friday night to satisfy the fans expectations of seeing fast cars run. The way we can fix the problem is to run a little earlier on Friday night, let's say an hour earlier, and an hour earlier on Saturday morning. What that would do is even out the two runs a little bit. The Saturday morning session is probably the next fastest run after the Friday night session as far as yielding the highest performance potential. If we could run around 10:30 a.m., then that would be more equal to a Friday night session run at 6 o'clock. At Denver, we're going to be running at 8 o'clock, so it's going to be exceptionally fast. The sun's going to be going down, the track will be really good, and we're going to have some pretty big numbers for that session. Then we come back out on Saturday and run at noon. If we could run a little earlier, that would even things up quite a bit.

Should the 16 car field be expanded?

I think a 24 car field would be the way to go. We've talked with the NHRA before about doing that where No. 9 through 24 would race on Saturday night. Then when you come into Sunday, you have a 16 car field where the top eight from Saturday eliminations come in to race the top eight qualifiers that are fixed. It would give the fans a show and it would be great for NHRA. We usually run the Pro Stock cars around 3 p.m. on Saturday. Then after Top Fuel and Funny Car runs, we could come back out and run the first round of eliminations for the bottom 16 cars. It would be under the lights and there would be fast ETs. Let's face it, the No. 9 guy is going to be racing the No. 24 guy, and that guy's going to be a little off the pace. But when we get to the No. 16 guy racing the No. 17 guy, that could be a real race. It would be good side-by-side racing.

What can we expect from your team during the second half of the season?

We're trying to take it one round at a time. Every race that we've gone to for the last two races, we've been picking up a round on Warren. That's the key. Warren's the leader right now and he's the guy everyone's shooting to catch. We would like to try and pick up two or three rounds during the Western swing. That would put us right back in striking range. I've led the points race the last two years, been seven rounds ahead of Warren Johnson going into the last three races, and been scared to death. I'm going to tell you, I don't like sitting back seven or eight rounds, but I know how fragile that lead is if you don't have momentum. Holding onto the lead comes down to three things; you've got to have performance, you've got to have momentum, and you've got to have the lead. You can be 10 rounds ahead, and someone can come and catch you. Warren lacks momentum right now. He has pretty good performance, but he lacks consistency. So you can't give him a plus for performance. And he has absolutely no momentum. We have performance, and we have momentum, but we can't get the wins. We went out in the semi-finals at St. Louis where we lost on a holeshot. Before that, we lost in the final to Jeg Coughlin when we lost lane choice by three-thousandths of a second. And then we lost to Kurt (Johnson) by a thousandth-of-a-second. Those are all critical thousandths, and if we can fine tune our program to pick up those three or four thousandths, then we can win a race. If we can do that, then we're back on track. Believe me, this season is so young, and we've eaten up three or four of Warren's rounds since the DNQ in Chicago. We've come back on him pretty good. If we can go on this Western swing, have a good solid performance, win a race or two, and just pick up two or three rounds on Warren, then hopefully by Indy, we can be just four or five rounds behind him. Realistically, if we're within five rounds by Indy, we're still in the hunt, and that's just three rounds from where we are now.

Do you like being in the position of chasing the leader?

I think our team performs better as the leader because it gives us a little room to think. We can go into an event and race conservatively, and generally, when someone gets too close, we start swinging for the fence again. Our team has always worked better from being out in front. Trying to catch somebody as strong as Warren Johnson is a tough job. He's a great Pro Stock racer, and he does a good job, so trying to catch him is even harder than trying to stay ahead of him.

Do you feel that you're a better driver now than you were three years ago?

I think I'm a better driver today than I was last year. I think that driving is something you improve upon every time you let the clutch out. I think I'm a lot better driver getting from the starting line to the finish line than I ever was. Where I lack some focus at the present time is on the starting line, and I think that comes with complacency. I'm older, so you wouldn't expect my reaction times to be as good, but I'm as good on any particular run as I've ever been. It's just that being good on every run on the starting line is harder for me. It's not a physical thing or a mental thing, it's a matter of focus where you're up there so much that some days you don't remember that this is what you're supposed to do. Some days you can go up there, and let the clutch out, and not remember that the starting line is the most important part of the race. You just go up there, go through the motions, and do your job.

What do you enjoy most about being a Pro Stock racer?

I enjoy the thrill of competition. I enjoy going against another guy on Sunday. That's why I race. That's the No. 1 thrill when you're beside somebody at the starting line, whether it's Warren Johnson, Jeg Coughlin, Pete Williams, Rickie Smith, Tom Martino, anybody. When there is somebody sitting beside you, that's the biggest thrill. Other than that, I think I enjoy testing more than anything because that's the other side of the spectrum where you're just out there tinkering on the car, trying to make it go fast. You can do whatever you want--put it in the car, shake it up and let it go. A number pops out and you can see whether it worked or not.

Then you come back to the pits, try a whole new combination, put it in there, go down the track, and see what it does. Trying to make the car go fast is the second greatest thrill when there's no pressure of qualifying.

How is the engine program progressing?

Pretty good. We're building some depth in our program. We're up to six full motors and we're real happy with the way the program's coming around. Trying to develop more horsepower is a never-ending job. Trying to keep up with the big dogs and staying ahead of everybody else is a constant effort.

We're spending a lot of time, money and effort to get that done.

If you were to quit racing today, would you say that your career has been a success?

Certainly. 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 time we've accomplished it. We won two championships back-to-back and have only been in the sport eight years. That's difficult to do when you're racing against guys like Warren Johnson.

Is it tough to maintain a high level of excellence after the success you've experienced in the last two years?

I think that every year you have to have a battle cry. 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 a battle cry, something to get us motivated to go out there and do the job. Basically, we have to find a reason to go out there and win it again. 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. You have to beat the guy right then. Maybe that's hurt us a little this year. We haven't had that battle cry. We haven't had that motivation. We'll find that edge again, and when we do, this Splitfire/Peak Pontiac will be one tough car to beat.

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About this article
Series NHRA
Drivers Jeg Coughlin , Warren Johnson , Tom Martino , Rickie Smith
Teams Williams