Yates readies Grand Am for 2003 title run

DETROIT, Jan. 15, 2003 - Two-time NHRA Pro Stock champion Jim Yates is prepared to aim his Pontiac SC/T Grand Am at the 2003 POWERade title. After two consecutive seasons in which the 49-year-old Virginian has finished second in the points ...

DETROIT, Jan. 15, 2003 - Two-time NHRA Pro Stock champion Jim Yates is prepared to aim his Pontiac SC/T Grand Am at the 2003 POWERade title. After two consecutive seasons in which the 49-year-old Virginian has finished second in the points standings, Yates is hoping recent changes to his program, including the addition of Donnie Gardner as team engineer, will help him capture that year-end first-place prize.

Success was no stranger to Jim Yates in 2002. The Splitfire Pontiac driver advanced to the first of three finals with a runner-up at the season-opening Winternationals in Pomona, Calif. He was runner-up to eventual series champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, bolted to his lone win of the year two weeks later at Reading, Pa., and spent numerous weeks throughout the season first in the points standings. Yates placed his Pontiac Grand Am in the No. 1 qualifying position seven times in 2002 including a five-race streak that ran from Englishtown, N.J., through St. Louis. He qualified fourth or better at 16 events and in the top half of the field 19 times. Yates' 33 round wins resulted in a .623 victory percentage, and at Englishtown, his Pontiac pushed him to career-best numbers in e.t. and top speed with a run of 6.752 seconds at 203.71 mph.

Entering 2003, Yates has 24 career victories in 55 final rounds and 28 No. 1 qualifying spots. He has finished in the top 10 of the points standings 11 times including the last nine years in a row, and has been in the top five of the standings eight times. The Pontiac Grand Am driver has accumulated 346 round wins during his career in Pro Stock for a lifetime victory percentage of .620.

What are some of the changes you made over the winter? "We felt like we had a real strong program at the end of last year, so over the winter we just worked on fine-tuning our Grand Am a little more. I also hired Donnie Gardner to be on the team full time as a team engineer. Donnie brings a wealth of knowledge to the program - he's real computer savvy and will be handling the motor duties at the race track. Bob Ingles will spend more time this year at his shop in New York working on finding horsepower. We'll try to use Donnie to fill in for Bob at the track. Donnie also has a shop in Indianapolis and we'll be using it when we're out that way. It will serve as a second headquarters for the Splitfire team when we need it. Jamie (Yates) is still going to be the crew chief with Donnie's assistance, and Jonathan (Yates) will also be a part of the team all year."

How's the search for more horsepower coming along? "It's slow and tedious. You have to remember that with a program like this, the Winternationals isn't when we stop making horsepower, it's when we start. We've got some stuff in the works that won't be ready in Pomona, but hopefully by the time we get to Phoenix or Gainesville, we'll have some of that on the table."

Have you done any testing yet? "We went to Bradenton (Fla.) and ran a couple of cars. We're changing cars for the first part of the year. I'm going to be racing the white Grand Am that Mark Carter was driving at the end of last year - it's a newer race car with something like 50 runs on it. It's our latest Jerry Bickel-built Pontiac which we had painted with the Splitfire colors. I've got another new car that will be done after Phoenix."

What are the advantages of focussing on one race car. "Running two cars helped us a little bit with track setup, but it also took something away. Maintaining motors for two cars, and maintaining the clutches, rear end, tires, etc., is twice as much work. We're hoping that by having to focus on one car at the track, Bob (Ingles) and the guys at the shop will have more time to work on research and development, and we can pick up a couple thousandths of a second. You have to keep it all in perspective. We're not looking for the world. We're not in the back of the pack trying to figure out what's wrong with our program. We're one of the lead cars, so what we need to do this year is continue that slow, gradual, uphill grind. If we can keep our eye on the ball, our Pontiac Grand Am can once again be one of the top two or three cars."

What are you looking forward to the most this season? "Starting over from scratch. I'm excited about having a new car. The Grand Am we ran last year had approximately 800 runs on it. I felt like we wore it out. We were comfortable with it because it ran good - it was like an old pair of shoes. But looking back, staying with the old car was probably hurting us in performance there towards the end. We looked at a lot of other areas in our program and actually questioned everything from the carburetors to the engine, etc. We tried to blame our lack of performance on a lot of different things, but when we went to the newer Pontiac, we picked up like five hundredths of a second. We may start off a little slower this year since we have a newer car, but I think we have more potential and a large part of that is due to having a guy like Donnie Gardner. Donnie's a thinker and doesn't mind looking outside the box. Just having conversations with him and Jamie together, I've realized already that this is a good move. You take Jaime's ideas and Donnie's ideas, put them together and good things are going to happen. I'm really excited about where we may be able to take this program with the additional help."

Will changing to a new car be one of the first things you consider the next time you're struggling? "It won't be the first thing that I look at, but it will be right up there in the top two or three. I've always had the attitude that when we run slow the last thing I look at is the engine. You always look at the ignition system, carburetors, rear end or something else. Bob Ingles has done a great job building engines forever for us, and if Bob says the motor will make power, then it will run fast. Unfortunately at the end of last year we started questioning the engine, which we should never have done. Now we're just going to be smarter about it. We're going to have two Pontiac Grand Ams ready to run at all times. Our plan is to go out and test two cars side-by-side, back-to-back with the same engines in them and make sure they are the same. Then we won't be afraid to make a change if we have to."

As a driver, what are you doing to get ready for the season? "I'm working out a lot. After getting back from skiing with the family in Utah, I was in the best shape I've ever been. We skied hard for 10 days, and trying to keep up with Jamie, Jonathan and Melissa was rough. They're young pups and they ran me through the ringer, that's for sure. I'm going to try and keep up that pace. I've also been working on the practice tree a lot."

Can the competition get any tougher? "I see no indication of it getting any less competitive this year. The way the rules are right now it's grouping everybody closer and closer together performancewise. Unless someone breaks away from the field then it's going to come down to still being a driver's race. It's up to the driver to win because all the cars are going to be running the same. The teams that can adapt better to the conditions will probably do a little better. The driver is going to have to cut good lights every round."

How important is it to qualify for every race? "Qualifying and losing first round is only a 20-point difference when you really get down to it, so you have to keep it in perspective. Failing to qualify doesn't have the stigma that it had in the past. Obviously for our sponsors and ourselves we want to qualify for every event, but based on what we saw last year, if you don't qualify you have to just suck it up, go on and not get down on yourself. We're not supermen, everyone is going to have a bad day, and if you have two bad days in a row, you might not qualify. Then you just have to go out and win the next race. Winning rounds is so important and you have to have the best program out there to do that. Qualifying at every race is something we shoot for, but it's not as imperative as it used to be."

What are some of the things you are most excited about? "The addition of Donnie, the maturing of Jamie and his continued education as a crew chief is going to be great. Concentrating on one team, or one car, is going to be exciting. We're going to try that approach for awhile and see how successful we can be. I've continued to evolve as a driver and I need to keep doing that. I'm excited about the progress I've made. We've been right there fighting for the championship the last two years. I don't see any reason why if we continue to move forward, we won't be competing for the POWERade title in 2003. That in itself is exciting. We've got the equipment, the people and the budget. Now all we have to do is go out there and execute, and we'll be a factor for the championship."

-jfromack-

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Series NHRA
Drivers Jeg Coughlin