Sears Point: Yates preview

SONOMA, Calif. (August 1, 2000) - If history has a tendency of repeating itself, then Jim Yates will be a strong favorite when racing begins on August 4 at the 13th annual Autolite Nationals. The Splitfire/Peak Pontiac Firebird driver...

SONOMA, Calif. (August 1, 2000) - If history has a tendency of repeating itself, then Jim Yates will be a strong favorite when racing begins on August 4 at the 13th annual Autolite Nationals. The Splitfire/Peak Pontiac Firebird driver is a three-time winner at Sears Point Raceway chalking up victories in 1995, 1997 and during last year's event. Returning to California, the two-time Winston Pro Stock champion (1996-97) will be looking to end the three-race western swing on a high note.

The 13th annual Autolite Nationals at Sears Point Raceway on August 4 - 6 is the 15th race on the 23-event NHRA Winston championship tour. Qualifying highlights can be seen on ESPN2 on Saturday, August 5, beginning at 9:30 p.m. Eastern. Same-day coverage of final eliminations can be seen Sunday, August 6, starting at 9:30 p.m. Eastern.

Where is the two-car team heading? "Right now we've decided to park Jamie's car for a period of time until we get a handle back on my car. With me as the crew chief on both cars, we were, truthfully, just a little short on talent and we were missing some opportunities. So what I thought we should do was to let Jamie's car sit for a period of time until we got my car running the way it should. We have a new motor that we've developed, and we're trying to get an opportunity to put that in my car and see what the true potential of it is. Then we'll have two engines that we feel will be competitive, and then we can bring Jamie's car back. But for right now, through the western swing we're just going to be a one-car team."

How difficult has it been administering the two programs? "The two-car theory brings a lot to the program. It gives you an opportunity to try different stuff in the new car, and it gives you some opportunity to do some testing. It helped us early in the year, around Houston, but when you get real busy and things start to deteriorate, it really speeds things up and makes things happen bad in a hurry. I think it was a smart decision to make. As good as Jamie's been driving and as hard as he's been working, it's a difficult decision to make, but it's something that we needed to do to get one car to run good. If we can't get one car in the top-half of the field, we don't need to run the other car."

How much have you enjoyed racing this year with Jamie? "In fact, because it's been so gratifying, and I've enjoyed the opportunity to have him out there, its been really hard to park his car. I think we over stayed our welcome at a couple of races. We probably should've parked the car three or four races ago. But I just wanted to make it work. It was just taking a little too long, and now I think we've made the right decision by pulling the plug on it for awhile. "

Is there anything else that you wish you would've done to increase your performance? "I think losing Rickie (Smith) as a crew chief early in the year hurt us. But I don't know what else I could've done. Hiring a crew chief was probably one of the smartest things we did, just picking one that didn't last any longer then he did probably hurt us quite a bit. You spend all winter testing to develop a program so you can go out in the beginning of the year and run well when the chips are down. You spend a lot of time developing a program and a combination that will work, and then you lose one of the key elements in that combination right at the beginning of the year and that throws you for a loop. We've been behind the eight ball ever since, and truthfully we should've parked the second car as soon as that happened. But it looked like we had everything under control, and we were going to do fine but it just took awhile to catch up to us."

What have you done since Denver? "After Denver we took the engines back and did some testing on the dyno with the engine. That proved to be pretty good. I think we found some more power back there and worked on some things that we think can help the program. The idea now is to just get some runs on the track."

What do you expect from the remainder of the season? "We basically think that going back to the sea-level tracks will help us. We were running very well in the beginning of the year when we were at the low-altitude tracks down around sea level. It was only when we got to the high-altitude tracks that we started having performance problems. We're hoping that going to the sea- level tracks will cure the largest part of our performance problems. We just have to get back in sync and put some good runs together. That's what it looks like to us based on what we've seen on analyzing the data. We should be able to run with the top three or four cars and then just put together a good weekend. I think that is going to pull us through. Historically, we usually begin to peak right about now and we've got a lot depth in our team. Plus, Jamie has gained a lot of experience by racing his own car, and now having him help me on my car he'll learn even more. Hopefully we'll get everything back on track and when we go to Indianapolis for the U.S. Nationals, we'll be able to try and run both Splitfire/Peak Pontiac Firebirds. We're going to take our time and work our way back slowly and not commit to anything until we are sure we have performance to support it. "

Explain the significance of the Pro Stock class becoming a part of PRO. "In NHRA Professional Drag Racing there are only three classes that travel coast to coast to all 23 national events. That's Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock. We share a lot of problems that are only unique to us. Not that there isn't other classes that race in NHRA, but there aren't any that race as many events as we do. We've got a lot of things in common, whether it be the track conditions, parking, traveling, etc. Giving NHRA one solid target to talk to is the biggest thing we are trying to accomplish. When there is a problem, it's very hard for NHRA to talk to 30-35 different Pro Stock drivers. But what we try to do is consolidate ourselves so that NHRA can talk to one representative and get the feeling of all the Pro Stock racers. NHRA cares and wants to fix the problem, but they just don't know what solution to take because they talk to 30 different racers and get 20 different ideas. Now what we've done is followed in PROs footsteps. It's a very good organization. They have a very good structure with an owners committee, a tech committee, etc. What we've done is duplicated that. We have a Pro Stock owners group, a tech committee, and what we do is have meetings within those groups, present one thought to the Board of Directors and then they take that to the NHRA. We're doing a lot better job at communicating with the NHRA. Sometimes as racers we forget that NHRA has so many different classes out there racing. By adapting PRO's communication skills, their ability to get NHRA's attention and to sit down and present our ideas in a controlled form, then NHRA has an opportunity to correct it. So far I've been really impressed with the relationship that PRO has with the NHRA and the respect that NHRA has for PRO. We're trying to fit into that relationship. PRO has opened their arms up to us and helped us in getting good results."

How has the response been from the other Pro Stock drivers? "I'd say about 95 percent have been supportive. There's always one or two that don't see the forest for the trees, but I think we've accomplished more in the last three months than we've accomplished in the last five years. It's not that we are making large changes, it's just that NHRA is hearing what's going on and we're having conversations about it. As a group the Pro Stock drivers and owners are communicating much better than we ever have. We've got a real big effort here by everyone. The TV package that NHRA has put together is great for the sport. You can't give NHRA enough credit for what they've done because we're all going to benefit from it. We're going to have a lot more TV coverage and that will make NHRA better."

What does it mean to have your family involved in your racing program? "A lot of people, when they get up in the morning, have to leave their family and can't wait to get home. In our situation we all work together. Toni (wife) works in the office with me, and when the kids are home from school they work with me, too. Now with them being so involved in racing, they're all on the West Coast swing with us. Jonathan, Melissa and Jamie are in Denver right now with the motor home, and they'll be going on to Seattle and Sonoma. It gives you an opportunity to be at the track together so you aren't in a hurry to leave. With them with us we can spend more time testing and being at the racetrack. It's been a very important part of our success over the years. We try to bring the family along so we're together, and it helps us to enjoy the racing a little more because we have incorporated our family time in it. Plus they appreciate the things we go through. If I'm having a tough day at the track and they are there with me, and they know what's going on in my head with some of the problems we may be having, so they can be a little more sympathetic to my attitude at the end of the day. Plus they all see how much we want to succeed. Everybody is more in touch with our goals and problems and helps out wherever needed to carry some of the load. Ever since I was bracket racing back in the late '80s we've all gone racing as a family in the motor home. It's just a plan that has worked out well and we've never stopped it."

What's the long-term, five-year plan for Jim Yates Racing? "Right now we've agreed in principle to a three-year program with Splitfire. We're finalizing the contract this week. The plan over the next two or three years is to try and find Jamie a sponsor to get him behind the wheel that will allow him to have the kind of funding to have his own crew chief and program. Fortunately for me, we've had good sponsors to make racing possible. I feel pretty confident with Splitfire and Pontiac, and that we're going forward in the right direction. The idea is to expand the operation to include a second car, but we have to have the funding to do that and do it properly. This winter we're going to be looking for another crew chief to help me out -- obviously that's a good time to do that. Right now, in the middle of the season it's hard to go out and find good help because they're all working somewhere else. We've got a couple of candidates that are working for other teams right now that as the season ends, I think they'll become available. We've had some preliminary discussions. The key is to add some help, especially on the management side, then try and come up with enough funding to run a second car with the proper help and parts to make it competitive. Then we can help develop Jamie into the driver that I think he can be. He does a good job driving the car, but we need to get the team around him that will give him the kind of success a lot of the two-car teams are having."

Do you see the competition level getting even stronger over the next few years? "I think that if you look at it carefully, there are the haves and the have nots. There are some teams that are very well developed and are doing a great job. Then there is the rest of the field, and in order to compete in the front being a multiple-car team is a major component. But then obviously the whole field seems to be moving forward in the development of their engine programs. The level of performance is becoming more equal. We're getting a 16-car field qualified within six or seven hundredths of a second and even faster than that at some races. The difference in the top qualifier and the bottom qualifier is very small. If you look at the trucks, they are in the same situation. Because there are so many good cars, and then to see the field moving closer together makes it tougher to win on Sunday. Right now the idea is to try and keep pace with the faster cars. That means spending more money, and doing more research and development. There's not going to be the big gains we used to see. You just have to look for consistent gains and work hard all year long. We need to keep the engine program focused, keep working on trying to get some better car programs to get the chassis to work a little better, and come up with a program that works on the different tracks we encounter. The more consistent the car is the better the performance gets because you get more opportunity to improve. You go out there and make that decent baseline run, and then you can fine tune it and make another run. I watch the Fuel cars and they pick up two tenths of a second on a run and that's good. We have trouble picking up two-hundredths of a second. That puts a lot of pressure on you as a Pro Stock racer because the cars are so close together that you just can't take a chance on making the wrong call on a qualifying run because if you do, you aren't going to be qualified after the session. If you aren't qualified going into Saturday, and the weather gets real hot, no matter who you are, you aren't going to get in because the air and track conditions just won't support the kind of performance gains you need to jump into the field. You really have to be consistent with it. I think that's been one of our downfalls this year, with not having a good strong crew chief we haven't had the kind of consistency to win."

What are some of the things that you've learned this year? "I've learned that it's very hard to be the crew chief of two cars, drive one of them and keep up with the public relations demands of a professional driver. It used to be that I could drive the car, do the PR and be the crew chief. But I've learned that I'm only one man and that I'm only capable of doing so much. The good teams are just that -- they are a team. It takes more than one person. You've got to share the workload, find good people to delegate the responsibilities to and then make consistent moves with the car. "We've seen that this new Splitfire Pontiac Firebird is a pretty good car. You've got to pick a combination and stay with it. We won two championships, ran for two years and never changed the four-link on the car. This year I've had six or seven different four-links on the car. We're searching for something and in that process we've become lost at times. Sometimes it's better to settle on a combination that's not 100% by nature, but the more you race it the more you can refine it. Rather than searching for the optimum, take what you have and make the best of it. We go to chapel and one of the ministers there said that his plan for the day is 'to start where you are, use what you have and make the most of it.' That's what we have to try to do. Start where we are, use what we have, and make the most of it. At times this year we've jumped out and tried something magical, and there isn't any magic out there. We have to use what we know has worked for us and fine tune it to get where we want to go. We'd use one combination at one race and it wouldn't work. Then we'd change it completely for the next race, and so on, and so on instead of using what we have and developing it into a combination that could work. By going back to a baseline hopefully we'll find the optimum performance of the racecar and try and manipulate it slowly. The key to that is to go out and make a good qualifying run in the first session.

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Series NHRA
Teams Yates Racing