This Week in Ford Racing - 2002 champion interview

This Week in Ford Racing October 15, 2002 USAC Silver Crown Series J.J. Yeley, driver of the Team ASE/Ford Beast, captured his first USAC Silver Crown Championship last weekend by capturing the final race of the season in Syracuse, NY....

This Week in Ford Racing
October 15, 2002

USAC Silver Crown Series

J.J. Yeley, driver of the Team ASE/Ford Beast, captured his first USAC Silver Crown Championship last weekend by capturing the final race of the season in Syracuse, NY. Despite starting 14th, Yeley worked his way through the 30-car field and led the final three laps to clinch the victory and the title. The victory also clinched the USAC Silver Crown Car Owner's Championship for car owners Bob East and Tony Stewart, as well as for Ford Motor Company, which only began its participation in USAC's Silver Crown Division this season.

J.J. YELEY - Team ASE/Ford Beast

WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR YOU TO CAPTURE YOUR FIRST USAC SILVER CROWN CHAMPIONSHIP? "It means quite a bit. A lot of guys that have won this championship have gone on to have successful careers in NASCAR, like Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon, the list goes on and on, and hopefully this will open some doors for me. The Silver Crown cars are probably the closest thing USAC has that can be used as a springboard into NASCAR."

HOW DIFFICULT IS IT TO WIN A SILVER CROWN CHAMPIONSHIP? "It's probably one of the more difficult USAC championships to win because the drivers that participate are the best of the best as far as the open-wheeled stuff is concerned. The schedule is fairly short with just 14 races so every race is very important and not finishing a race can hurt you a lot. Luckily for us we ran at the front most of the time and we only had one DNF (did not finish) and that was at Pikes Pike, but normally there's not more than one guy who will win one race and we won three this year. The main goal for this year was to go out there and win races for Ford, especially with this being their first season in the Silver Crown Division. The engines ran great, even better than the engines we had last year, and I think that helped us accomplish what we did this year."

CAN YOU TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH FORD AND HOW THE CHAMPIONSHIP WAS RECEIVED BY YOUR COMPETITORS? "You know, it was great, especially with Mopar Parts having a presence this year. For Ford to jump in - the engines ran great and they did everything they needed to do as far as development. We tested the engines before the season ever started and the baseline package was great. I know we had a couple of problems with some internal parts at Pikes Peak and I know the folks at Ford worked very hard to get those solved and we never did have any other engine problems after that. You have to be able to finish races to win this championship and we were able to do that."

DID THIS CHAMPIONSHIP TAKE YOU AND YOUR COMPETITORS BY SURPRISE, ESPECIALLY WITH THIS BEING FORD'S FIRST SEASON IN SILVER CROWNS? "I don't think it really took people by surprise. Bob East and Tony Stewart Motorsports have always fielded great race cars and their cars have always won a lot of races. Bob won a championship before with Jason Leffler in 1998, I believe, so to run up front wasn't a big surprise. But we won all three races on dirt, which isn't normally Bob's style because he usually wins all the pavement races, but we had our chances to win on pavement and we ran up front all the time and that's what's important."

DID YOU APPROACH THIS SEASON ANY DIFFERENTLY FROM THOSE IN THE PAST? WAS WINNING THE CHAMPIONSHIP ONE OF YOUR GOALS? "Actually my goal this year was to win all three of the USAC Championships, which has only been done one time before in one season and that was by Tony Stewart. We were pretty close all year long - unfortunately I had some bad luck in the Midget that hurt me in the points, but I finished second in the Sprint Car championship by 13 points, obviously I won the Sprint Car championship and right now I'm second in the Midgets. Part of the goal was accomplished, just not the entire goal."

BECAUSE YOU KNEW WHAT YOU HAD TO DO TO CLINCH THE TITLE, HOW DID YOU APPROACH THE RACE? "The previous race at Eldora (Speedway) we took things pretty conservatively and it backfired on us pretty badly. The car was way too loose and we turned in probably our worst finish of the season. So we decided to head to Syracuse to try and win the race and not hold back. As far as the driver points were concerned, I only had to finish within seven positions of the guy in second to win, but the car was not leading the points because I didn't drive that particular car all year long. So we had to beat Dave Steele (championship runner-up) by three positions for the car to win the championship and that was really my goal. It wouldn't be as exciting for me to win the championship unless the car and Ford won it too, so the goal was to win the race. We took things pretty easy and everything just worked out right for us and we were able to win the race and the championship."

WHAT DOES IT SAY THAT ABOUT BOB EAST AND HIS OPERATION THAT HE CAN PUT TOGETHER CHAMPIONSHIP SEASONS IN BOTH SILVER CROWN AND MIDGETS? "It says a lot. He's a great mechanic and he's a great teacher. He spends a lot of time watching what I do and what the rest of the drivers that drive for him do on the race track and he helps critique what we need to do to make the cars go faster. He gives me a lot of confidence as a driver so when I go out on the race track I have the most ability to win the race."

NOW THAT YOU'VE WON THE SILVER CROWN CHAMPIONSHIP, WHAT'S IN YOUR FUTURE PLANS? "Well, hopefully I can get something started in NASCAR. I'd like to do some tests and my ultimate goal would be to try and get a ride in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series just so I can get the experience without being thrown into the Busch Series. If an opportunity came about with a great team I'd jump at it, but the Busch Series seems to be just as tough as the Winston Cup Series. I think it would be difficult to go run in the Busch Series and do very well as a rookie without a lot of experience. I've been told by USAC that the 'Super License' winner from this season, which is the highest points accumulated from all three divisions (Silver Crown, Midgets, Sprints) might be invited to participate in IROC (International Race of Champions) next year, which would be a lot of fun."

ED PINK - Ed Pink Racing Engines

CAN YOU TALK A LITTLE ABOUT THE SILVER CROWN ENGINE PROGRAM AND HOW IT CAME TO FRUITITION? "Back in 1995 a customer of mine named Steve Lewis who has been a long-time Midget Car owner, came to me and said he'd like to have a Ford engine to use in his Midget. We were preparing engines for him at the time but unfortunately there weren't any Fords out there for him to use. So he asked me to look into it and see what it would take for him to have an engine that would be unique to what everybody has got in that it would be a Ford. What we did was design and build him a new Midget engine using a Ford Winston Cup cylinder head and a lot of other Ford components in it. Once it hit the track that thing ran better than any of the stuff that was out there, was way ahead of its time, helped him to win most of the races and Ford got a lot of publicity out of it. Steve had some sponsorship from Ford and they helped me with the program by keeping it competitive through all the development that we did. Then one day Hank Dertian from Ford Racing Technology noticed that nobody in the USAC Sprint Car Division ran Fords, so he went back and spoke with Dan Davis (Director of Ford Racing Technology) about it and he asked me to build a Ford V8 engine for Silver Crowns. We basically used the (Robert) Yates Ford (cylinder) head with the Winston Cup block but designed and built everything else for the engine. About a year after we started on the project we ran it for the first time at the Copper Classic in Phoenix (Arizona) in March of this year. Needless to say, we had a great season, won a few races and captured the championship last weekend in Syracuse in the first year of the engine."

HOW GRATIFYING WAS IT FOR YOU TO SEE THIS ENGINE WIN THE CHAMPIONSHIP IN JUST ITS FIRST YEAR OF COMPETITION? "It was very gratifying. A lot of times when you build a new engine for a particular class you run into problems and we certainly had a few of those. But we were able to work through them and the engine was a good strong engine because the cylinder block and the cylinder heads provided a good strong base. To win the championship the first year out with a new engine doesn't usually happen because the first year you kind of struggle and the second year you do a little better and sometimes it's two or three years before you get close to winning a championship. We didn't plan on winning the championship this year - our mindset was to have a durable engine that made good power and hope that everything else, the driver and the car would come together. As it was, the engine ran good for most of the year, the car and the driver had a strong season and we enjoyed a great season."

HOW MUCH DID THE DEVELOPMENT WORK YOU DID WITH THE MIDGET ENGINE CONTRIBUTE TO THE SUCCESS OF THE SILVER CROWN ENGINE? "I would say 50 percent. We didn't want to re-invent the wheel in the development of the Silver Crown engine because we had areas of the Midget engine that worked so why should we try to find something else? The Midget engine served as a great baseline for us."

DO YOU PLAN ON OFFERING THIS ENGINE TO OTHER TEAMS NEXT YEAR OR IS THIS AN EXCLUSIVE ARRANGEMENT WITH BOB EAST? "No, no, we want to see some other teams use it next year. What we'd like to do is what we did with the Ford Midget engine. When we started in Midgets there was one Ford engine. Now I'd say that 75 percent of the field uses Ford engines and we'd like to see that happen in the Silver Crown Division. Whether or not we can accomplish that, I don't know, but that is what our goal is. We want to make this a dominating engine in the class so that every serious racer who wants to win will want one of these engines."

BOB EAST - Owner, East/Stewart Racing

TALK A LITTLE ABOUT THE USAC SILVER CROWN CHAMPIONSHIP THAT YOU WON LAST WEEKEND WITH DRIVER J.J. YELEY AND HOW IT CAME TOGETHER. "It was pretty remarkable. As a car owner we missed the first couple of races because we were putting the Ford (engine) in and trying to learn about all the changes that we made, but in the end we really hit paydirt and won the final three dirt track races."

WITH THIS BEING FORD'S FIRST CHAMPIONSHIP IN USAC'S SILVER CROWN DIVISION, WHAT WERE THE CHALLENGES ASSOCIATED WITH TRYING TO WIN A TITLE WITH A PREVIOUSLY UNPROVEN ENGINE? "We felt like the Ford gave us an advantage, although it took us a little while to get accustomed to the changes we had to make for the power and the torque curve. What made it even harder was the fact that this was Ford's first year in the series and we had no background information to use as a baseline so we actually built another car to help us out and it worked out well."

CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THE RACE AND HOW THINGS PLAYED OUT? "The race was a nail-biter. J.J. (Yeley) was ahead by I think 14 or 15 points in the Drivers' Championship and the car was actually behind by nine points in the Entrants' Championship and we wanted to win both of them if possible. We ended up being the quickest car during practice and about five cars before we were set to go out and qualify it rained, which slowed the track down about two seconds and we ended up starting 14th. I told J.J. before the race that we tried being conservative in the race before at Eldora (Speedway) and we ended up running bad so let's just go out there to win the race and we'll see what happens. Well, he had a great drive, moved right to the front and ended up winning the race."

HOW IMPORTANT HAS THE SUPPORT FROM FORD BEEN IN HELPING YOU AND J.J. TO WIN THIS CHAMPIONSHIP? Since Dan Davis (Director of Ford Racing Technology) came on board he's helped us to find drivers and worked extensively with our Midget Program where we had the only Ford-powered cars until recently. Dan has always been behind us and his support has really helped us out."

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About this article
Series USAC
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Tony Stewart , Ryan Newman , J.J. Yeley , Dave Steele