Topeka: Jim Yates preview

TOPEKA, Kan., May 21, 2001 - Winning changes everything. It creates momentum, it instills confidence and it allows you to accomplish goals that before didn't seem possible. For Pontiac Grand Am driver Jim Yates, it means being in contention for a...

TOPEKA, Kan., May 21, 2001 - Winning changes everything. It creates momentum, it instills confidence and it allows you to accomplish goals that before didn't seem possible. For Pontiac Grand Am driver Jim Yates, it means being in contention for a third Winston Pro Stock title.

Yates is no stranger to being the top dog. Since 1989 the 47-year-old Virginian has won 23 races and competed in 49 final rounds. But the drought may be over as the two-time Winston champion (1996-97) has seemingly taken the battle to the next level. After eight events in 2001, the Splitfire/Peak Pontiac Grand Am driver has won 13 rounds of eliminations, was the No. 1 qualifier at Las Vegas and has competed in three final rounds. He won his first eliminator since 1999 at the recently completed Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway and briefly spent time in first place. To add to his success in 2001, Yates won the $50,000 Holley Dominator Duel for the second time at Englishtown.

With the introduction of the new Grand Ams and Cavaliers to the circuit this year, the Pro Stock points race is shaping up to be one of the closest in NHRA history. The five top drivers, Warren Johnson (Grand Am), Mark Pawuk (Grand Am), Yates (Grand Am), Jeg Coughlin Jr. (Cavalier) and Kurt Johnson (Cavalier) are separated by just 46 points. The margin between first and third place is just 10 points. Plenty of racing remains before a Pro Stock champion is crowned, but Jim Yates feels that his program is ready for the long haul.

The 13th annual Advance Auto Parts Nationals on May 24 -27 at Heartland Park Topeka is the ninth race on the 24-event NHRA Winston championship tour.

What did it do for you and your team to win Atlanta?

"There are times when you are struggling and not running well, but you're fortunate enough to win a race. You say, 'Wow, that was great but how did we do it?' At this particular point in our career we'd won 22 races before Atlanta and we'd raced in two of the last three finals before that race - we felt we were peaking. We just weren't getting the job done on Sunday. We were there but we weren't winning. We had the potential but we couldn't execute. To put it all together in Atlanta was a tremendous accomplishment for everyone on the team. It kind of takes that monkey off our back and it tells us that we can get the job done."

You didn't qualify until the last session in Atlanta. What did that feel like?

"It's the worse feeling in the entire world. We've been flirting with disaster since Gainesville. We had a miss in the car at Gainesville, but we've been running really well even though it's been missing. We just kept changing pieces, and basically what happened to us in Atlanta was we put a bad piece on the car and it made it worse. Because we were throwing stuff at the car, we didn't know where to go back to change it. We didn't realize exactly where the bad piece was. We were frustrated Friday evening. Then we just replaced everything from the back to the front of the car and went back to what we were running. The good part is the team stuck together. They didn't panic and throw their arms up and do something crazy. We stuck with our basic combination and stuck together as a team. That's the key for us to be successful in the future."

After you made that last run, did that give you confidence that you could win on Sunday?

"We were qualified 14th after that last session, but I knew we had run within a hundredth of the fastest cars. We had to race one of those fast cars during the first round, but I can imagine that anybody that looked at the qualifying sheet after we had run knew that we had the potential to go out and win that first round. You just got to believe in yourself. Basically anything we did on Sunday was a plus coming from the 14th spot. Winning the race wasn't something I laid in bed thinking about Saturday night. We were just going out there trying to get another round and Kurt (Johnson) was our target. We knew we could run with him and we went up there with total confidence. When we go to the plate and we're confident we can hit the ball, we're going to hit the ball. That's probably one of the things we've been lacking the past four or five months. Actually by not qualifying until the last session gave us confidence."

How does being in first place affect your program?

"It gives you the confidence when you look at the scoreboard and you're ahead, and that's where we were after Atlanta. It's easy to pat yourself on the back and say we're the best, but if you're an intelligent person you need some kind of practical reinforcement for that. When you look at National Dragster and your name is on the top of the list, that feels pretty good."

Do you think it's going to be a battle to stay No. 1?

" Oh yeah, but we're looking forward to it. We've come from the back of the pack. We finished eighth in the points last year and we know we've got a lot of opportunity right now in our pits - we're ready for the battle. It's not like we have to win the championship, but we want to win the championship and we think we have the potential to win the championship. We just have to go out there and fight for it. There are some tough cars out there. There's Mark Pawuk, Jeg Coughlin, Warren and Kurt Johnson and a lot of other tough cars out there that could win any race. Look at Greg Anderson, two finals in a row. He's doing a great job, and if he's going to be tuning on George Marnell's car, George is going to be good as well. But we're all in that group together. If you look over the last five races we've run fairly well. I think we're in contention for the championship. I don't think anybody, Mark, Jeg, Warren, Kurt, Greg, or myself is going to run away with it. There's just too many good cars and too many opportunities for disappointment. Everybody would love to be 10 rounds ahead and kicking everybody else's tail, but I don't think that's going to happen based on what I've seen. Based on the lights, reaction times and e.t.'s that everyone is producing, I don't think there's anybody with a big enough performance advantage to make that happen. I do think we're in a position to run with the fastest cars and we've got a team that makes great decisions on race day. Therefore we've got a chance to win some races. And if we can win races we can win the championship. Talking about it is easy, making it happen is the hard part. We've got a lot of power right now. Terry (Adams) and the crew are coming together and we're getting to the point that we can go rounds on Sunday. My driving - I think I'm getting better. There's room for improvement and I'm working on it. You have to continue to strive to be better. That's what we're doing right now."

How good is the new Pontiac Grand Am?

"The new Grand Am is by far the nicest racecar I've ever had. It's everything that our world-championship cars were in 1996 and 1997. It's sleeker and faster compared to the field. But the one thing it does have, and what we tried to imitate when we had the car built, was we went back to the old chassis design. The chassis under the aerodynamic-balanced body compliments the rest of the package. The Grand Am just wants to go up and down the racetrack, and when the track gets bad like it was in Atlanta at 126 degrees, we're out there running down the middle of the track without even spinning the tires. Those are the kinds of racetracks you race on Sunday in the NHRA. Those are the kind you have to win on. It's great to get qualified in that Friday night session when the sun isn't out, but on Sunday afternoon when it's hot, and the fuelers are running in front of you and it's getting slick, you've got to have a car that will go down the track. Right now I don't think there's anything better then our Grand Am."

How has the engine development program progressed over the last five years?

"In the last five years we've had to go through a complete retooling in our engine department. We went from running the Dart cylinder heads to the General Motors DRCE cylinder heads, which is not just a physical change of the aluminum you use to build the motor, but it's a complete change in the engine's configuration. Right now we're running the entire GM DRCE engine block heads which is a complete package. It takes time to get those parts into the system where we've got enough of everything, and it's only been in the last eight months that we've really felt like we've got enough pieces. Now we're doing some research and development with Carl Foltz from CFE who builds our cylinder heads. Carl's built our cylinder heads since I've been running in Pro Stock and he does a great job of finding us horsepower in the manifolds and cylinder heads every week. Now Bob (Ingles) has the ability, because he has the pieces in the shop, of putting it on the dyno and running it rather than waiting a month or two to get a block to put it all together. There's a great working relationship between J&B engines and CFE heads where they are producing parts and running them on the dyno within 48 hours. We're able to get feedback back to Carl so they can do the next step. The beauty of that is Bob can stay at home for some of the races to work on our engines, and while he's doing that we're at the track going to the finals. So we're working on both ends of the program. While everyone else is at the track racing, our engine builder is back home building engines."

Looking ahead to the next couple of months, what can we expect from your race team?

"I think we have all the potential that we need, now we just need to execute efficiently. We're looking for thousandths of a second so I don't know if you will see us making any drastic changes. Even as good as we're running there are some things we need to improve upon such as the clutch, the carburetor or even a little bit on the four link. But I think we're probably going to leave our program sitting the way it is and just try and fine-tune it - just be consistent and race the car we've got. We're going to take the package we have today and nurse it - go run it one race at a time and be conservative yet consistent. Not the fastest car, but consistent. Everyone is just going to work on his or her jobs. If that can happen I think we can win."

Are we going to see a two-car team any time in the near future?

"We're going to run Jamie's Grand Am this summer. Jonathan, my youngest, is finishing up his last few days of school and he'll be full time with the race team within the next few weeks. We've got a new Jerry Bickel car coming that will be painted, wired and tested within the next 30 days. We're building a new motor too. When the time comes when we feel like we can just roll it out and run it, then we'll bring it out and let him make some runs at a national event. One thing I want to do is get that car in the cycle. But we can't sacrifice my performance breaking it in. I would say by the first of July we should see that car going down the track with Jamie in it, in selected races. Then on the basis of success we're having at the time will determine how much we race it."

-GM Racing

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Series NHRA
Drivers Jeg Coughlin , Mark Pawuk , Kurt Johnson , Warren Johnson , Greg Anderson , George Marnell