Interview with the Pros: Jim Yates
By NHRA Communications
Jim Yates, driver of the Splitfire/Peak Pontiac Grand
Am, is one of three drivers chasing the NHRA POWERade Pro Stock
championship in what has developed into one of the most competitive
seasons ever for the 200 mph factory hot rods. The 49-year-old veteran
racer, who is in his 14th season, is battling a pair of the category's
young guns in Jeg Coughlin and Greg Anderson for the $200,000 POWERade
series title. Following his first victory of the season in Reading, Pa.,
Yates has claimed the points lead with five races remaining on the
schedule. Prior to the event in Reading he was in third place, only nine
points behind the leader. With experience on his side by virtue of
back-to-back series championship trophies earned in 1996 and 1997, Yates
feels like he's in a great position for the stretch run. He says his
team's chemistry is at an all-time high, with son Jamie calling the
shots under the hood and a cast of dedicated crew members doing whatever
it takes to make the team competitive. Yates, who was briefly sidelined
by a heart condition during last season's event in Memphis, Tenn., feels
certain he could've claimed his third title last year if not for the
health situation. In this Q&A session, Yates talks about his team's
progress toward a third NHRA POWERade championship, the incredible
competition he faces each weekend and his health problems in Memphis,
Tenn., one year ago and how he has changed his way of life to become
more focused on his goals.
Q: Has this been the most competitive season that
you've ever seen in Pro Stock?
YATES: To have the number of cars that are involved in
the chase right now that are so close together, it's definitely the
closest I've ever seen. Before Indy (August) there were four cars that
were within three rounds of each other. After Indy, we had three cars
that were within a half-a-round of each other. That's pretty close. The
two guys that are battling me for the championship have come from pretty
far back in the field from earlier this year, so that makes it
interesting. It has been a competitive year just because of the number
of cars and then because of the number of competitive cars that are
there at the top.
Q: Prior to the event in Reading, Pa., there was only
nine points separating the top three positions. Is this the closest
racing you've ever seen?
YATES: Nine points is virtually a tie. That's really
close racing. It's less than a round. It's just a matter of who wins the
next round as to who takes the points lead. You have three cars tied for
first and then there's four or five more cars that are within striking
range to make an impact on the points race. It doesn't bother you when
you are in third place and only half-a-round out of first because you
know you can get back there. We've had some tough outings this year,
especially during the Western Swing. I was real proud of the team at
Indy and Reading. We made some big changes there by taking Jamie out of
the second car and allowing Mark Carter to drive that car. That gave us
the ability to focus more energy on my Splitfire/Peak Grand Am. It paid
big dividends, especially with the win in Reading. Hopefully we can
parlay those two finals into a few more wins along the way. We're
getting down to the end of the year and it's tight. There's still 20
rounds of racing left in the season, that's quite a bit of racing. With
the difference being only a few rounds, it's anybody's ballgame. The guy
that stays tough and runs these last five races like a champion is going
to be the champion.
Q: How does it feel to finally get a win this season?
YATES: We didn't just get a monkey off our backs (at
Reading), it was more like a huge gorilla. I'll tell you, the longer you
wait to win a race, the sweeter it is when it finally happens. Believe
me, we're thrilled to be up by three rounds in the points lead, but we
really just want to not worry about that for a day or two and just savor
the feeling of winning an NHRA national event. It's an awesome feat and
it's plenty hard to do because in this class anybody that qualifies can
win it all. It was nice to see Jeg and Greg go out early because then
I'm not so tense. I figure it's all gravy from that point forward and I
really just tried to have some fun. My son, Jamie, did a splendid job.
He made the decision to get out of his own car to concentrate on tuning
mine and that was a sacrifice for him, but it's worked.
Q: Do you think you have the edge in experience having won two
YATES: Jeg has won a championship and you've got to
give Greg credit, because he's been on a team that's won a few
championships. He was a vital part of some of Warren Johnson's
championship teams, as have two of his crewmembers -- Mike Stryker and
Pat Barrett. There's a lot of championships on that team over there.
There's a lot of experience there and they know how to keep their heads
cool under pressure and not panic. Greg's got good people with his
program and I think the Jeg's team has proven that they can win a
championship. I think as far as experience goes, it's spread around
pretty well. It's probably a toss-up between the three teams that
are in the running for the title. It's going to be a matter of who
doesn't make the mistakes. Everybody can make mistakes. You are going to
make a lot of decisions between now and Pomona (Auto Club NHRA Finals,
Nov. 7-10, Pomona (Calif.) Raceway). If someone makes one little miscue,
then that can be the difference between being the champion and being in
second or third place. I think the team that makes the proper decisions
and doesn't get caught up in head games and looking at somebody else's
program and pay attention to their own stuff, I think that's the team
that wins the championship.
Q: What is your strategy going to be over the course
of the final five races?
YATES: For the next two races we are going to relax
and act like we know what we're doing and pretend that we are capable of
winning this championship. Based on past experience we have done it.
We're not going to try and put too much pressure on ourselves. We're
going to go back to knowing that we have the capability of doing it and
all we have to do is execute, relax and believe in everyone on this team
and let them do their jobs. Hopefully everything will work out and we'll
get a few more wins. That's what we have to do. To win this
championship, you don't have to swing for the fence every time you come
to the starting line. We don't have to try anything stupid. We don't
want to go out there and get caught up in trying to beat this guy or
that guy. We just want to go out and run our program and believe in
ourselves. I think after Chicago is over and we're finished with this
three-race swing, we'll see where we stand.
Q: Having 12 different winners this season in Pro
Stock and 15 last year shows that many teams are relatively close in
performance. There's been a lot of holeshot victories this season. How
much have you worked on your driving and reaction times knowing that
it's so close that you could decide the championship behind the wheel?
YATES: You certainly don't want that pressure on your
shoulders. I've been beat a lot this year on holeshots but that's easily
done when you have the fastest car. When our car has been slow, I've won
a lot of rounds. I've won two or three rounds on holeshots this year,
some big rounds. It's hard to get a holeshot win when you've got the
fastest car in the category. You can leave on someone and out-run them
and it's not going to be a true holeshot win. Right now, I've got really
good confidence in my driving. I can drive with any of these guys out
here. We just have to get up there on the starting line and do it.
Hopefully this car will give us a little bit of a cushion. It was fast
at Indy and Reading. The driver has to take himself seriously when he
gets up there. You really have to pay attention to what you're doing
because you can make the difference in winning or losing. You can't get
overwhelmed with it. You can't go up there thinking you are going to do
something that you can't do. If you can cut a .450 light, that's what
you need to focus on. Hopefully that's good enough. If it's not, then
you go home and come back next week and try again. You have to go up
there and do the best you know how. You can't be guessing or you have a
good chance of red-lighting and going home.
Q: Do you take into consideration that a lot of the
guys you race come to the starting line with the mentality of cutting a
.420 light just to have a chance to beat you?
YATES: I think that was the curse of us the first five
races. The only lights that could beat us were .414 or better. A lot of
guys were doing that. They would go up there and swing for the fence and
connect with a .405, .410, and .415 and beat us. Recently we've been our
own problem. We've been getting up in the .470 range and you just can't
win with that kind of light. If I can stay in the .450 range every round
and the car runs as fast as it can, we're going to win a lot more rounds
than we are going to lose. I can't get into my competitors' heads. I
need to run my side of the race track. If we do that, I think we have a
good chance of being in this game when we get to Pomona.
Q: Does it surprise you that Greg Anderson (currently
second in points) is in the mix?
YATES: Greg has showed a lot of promise for the last
eight to 10 races. You could see him coming on from way back. He was
good last year when he drove and went to a few finals. He did a good job
in that second car for George Marnell. To see them put it all together
in their first year as a team is a real tribute to them. I think they've
done a great job. You know they have the potential, but to execute as
well as they have, you've got to give them credit.
Q: How close do you think this championship is going
YATES: I see the championship being won and lost at
Pomona. I don't think anyone is going to clinch it in Dallas or Vegas as
it has been done in years past. There's just so many tough cars out here
right now for one car to go off on a winning streak. Even when Jeg won
so many in a row in 2000 to start the year, he had a dry spell where he
didn't make a final for five or six races in a row. Jeg has kinda got
hot like that again and won three of five, but can he keep that pace up
for another six races? I doubt it, very seriously. Greg has done really
well too. I think it's our turn to come back, turn that corner and have
our streak and get some more wins out of this season. I think if we can
do that then they'll have to come back after us and that's what we're
striving for. You've got to look at the three cars in the points chase,
but not forget there's six or seven cars out there that can win a race
any Sunday. It's so tough that the first round is not a given. It's hard
to build any momentum when you've got those kind of assassins out here
that are coming after you. With the talent level in Pro Stock these
days, anybody that qualifies can win the race. When you are running good
and your name is Jeg Coughlin, Greg Anderson or Jim Yates, there's a
bunch of guys who qualify 14, 15 and 16 who would just love to beat you.
They're going to go for a .420 light and make the run of their life
because they've got nothing to lose. You have to survive those rounds if
you want to win the championship.
Q: At mid-season you had a nice points lead and you
hadn't even won a race. What happened?
YATES: We didn't qualify at Denver. If we would have
qualified at Denver that would've helped us a bunch to have a bigger
lead right now. We got beat in the first round on a bad run at Sonoma
and screwed up there. So on the Western Swing we had one DNQ and a first
round loss. It's hard to keep the points lead when you stumble that
hard. We made it to the semifinals at Seattle and a runner-up at Indy,
and then won at Reading, so we've had some good races to get back on
track, but we've had a couple of bad races. You've got to keep having
good races. You can't get beat first round. A win is only one more
round. At Memphis we want to focus on qualifying this Splitfire/Peak
Grand Am and then the second thing we are going to try and do is win
first round and keep winning until we get to the finals. If we can do
that, we'll increase our points lead.
Q: Physically how are you feeling these days?
YATES: Better than ever. Last year when I had that
heart issue I felt totally 100 percent healthy when I got to Memphis. I
had no indication that anything was going on. I was working really hard
doing a lot of things that were stressful on my heart. I never felt any
pain, never had any symptoms, and never knew that there was a pending
problem. That's why they call a heart attack the silent killer because
you never know they're there. They just pop up and get you. I was very,
very fortunate. I had an artery that got severely blocked with a clot on
Saturday at Memphis. It darn near took me down. I was lucky because the
doctors were able to put a stint in there and fix it. I never really had
a heart attack. I didn't have any heart damage. My heart never stopped.
Mentally, though, it gets in your head a little bit. Not when it's
happening. At that time you are saying, 'I'm alright, I can think
clearly, I've got this little pain in my chest, but I'm OK.' Afterwards
when you look back and look at the statistics a lot of people don't pull
through that initial attack. Now, it really doesn't seem like it
happened just a year ago. I am out running four miles a day now, getting
a lot of exercise and trying to eat healthy and keep my cholesterol
down. A year ago I was lying in a hospital with a heart problem and now
I'm running as hard as I can and really pushing myself to the limit. It
was almost like it was in another lifetime. It's like I have a second
chance to make sure it doesn't happen again.
Q: At that time you were the No. 1 qualifier at
Memphis and in the points chase and things seemed to be going so well
for you. When did you start to feel like things weren't exactly right
with your body?
YATES: On Friday afternoon I got in the car and put my
seatbelts on and I felt this pain in my chest. At that time, I thought
it was just my seatbelts. I was wearing the HANS device and it pushed on
my chest really hard and I thought it was just a cramp or a pain from
that. When I got out of the car at the finish line, the pain went away
and I never thought another thing about it. I never mentioned it to
anyone because I just thought it was a symptom of the seatbelts being
too tight. On Saturday morning, I had to run beside Warren Johnson. When
I got in the car I was excited and was talking to myself, 'OK, this is
race day. You've got to run Warren and go out and do a good job.' My
heart was really pounding. I put my seatbelts on and I got this tingle
in my chest, but I was getting pumped up. I knew we were the No. 1
qualifier and I didn't think the track was good enough for anyone to
bump me out of the spot. We had a really fast race car. I was just
preparing to go up there and drive and pretend like it was race day. In
the process, I noticed that I was a little short of breath and my chest
was hurting pretty bad. I thought maybe I was hyperventilating or
something. Maybe I had some acid reflux or an anxiety problem. I did the
burnout, backed up, and was getting ready to race. I was talking to
myself and thinking, 'Wow, I've never had this problem before.' I was
having a lot of trouble catching my breath and I had this really severe
ache in my chest. I ran Warren, had a .430 light and set low E.T. of the
round and beat him to the finish line by a good margin. I put the
parachute out and turned off the track and when I took the seatbelts off
my chest was still hurting. I knew that wasn't right. I got out of the
car and I couldn't lift my arms up. I thought 'Oh crap, this isn't
good.' I went around in front of the car and just laid down. Then the
ESPN camera crew came over to interview me for being the number one
qualifier. I jumped up and did the interview and as soon as they left I
laid back down on the ground. My crew got down there and said, 'What in
the world is wrong with you?' I told my wife (Toni), 'I've got a real
pain in my chest and I don't know what's going on.' By the time I got to
the scales, I was sweating like I had run three miles and I was very
pale. When I got back to the trailer, I had my crew go get the NHRA
doctor. He came over and hooked me up to a monitor and looked at me and
said he thought I was having a heart attack. I was like, 'No, you don't
understand. I am the number one qualifier, I am three rounds out of the
championship, I can't be having a heart attack. I've got to race. I've
got to be here, right now.' He said, 'That's great, but right now you're
going to have to go to the hospital.' They took me to the hospital and
all the time I thought it was just indigestion. At the hospital they did
a bunch of tests and put me on some nitroglycerin and the pain went
right away. They told me that was a pretty good sign that it wasn't my
stomach. They took some X-ray's and ran some enzyme tests and felt
that's what it was. They admitted me, did the stint, and released me on
Thursday. I was driving to Chicago on Friday. To be in the hospital when
the team is out there racing is scary. Especially when you are racing
for the championship. You feel like the whole world is passing you by.
Q: How were you able to jump right back into the car?
YATES: You kinda think you are invincible. That it was
no big deal. I felt fine and the doctor said I was fine. No problem. I
am going to race. I got to Chicago and I had been on quite a bit of
medicine, so you kinda believe that you aren't having any pain or any
problems. After I started to settle down from the medication on Friday,
I was a little nervous. I told Toni I was going to get in the car, strap
in, start the car, and do the burnout. Then I may not go down the race
track depending on how I feel when it's time to run. I told her if I am
not feeling comfortable I may just drive down the race track and get my
10 points for being here. I was strapped in that car when the first pair
went down the track and I was the last pair. I was sitting in that car
for 45 minutes trying to decide if I had enough guts to go down that
race track. It wasn't that I really didn't feel good, but you are just
concerned. Finally I went around the corner and started the engine and
was OK. I went straight to the finish line and didn't think twice about
anything. It was a big relief. It was like someone had lifted the weight
of the world off my shoulders. I was so worried about how I was going to
drive the car and handle the stress and how I was going to feel. I made
the run, qualified third and went back to the motorcoach and went to
bed. I slept the entire time between the first two sessions. Toni came
into the lounge and said that the next session was getting ready to
start. I told her I thought I could do it. I went out there and made the
run and ended up number two or three qualifier. On Saturday morning, I
set the record and then Kurt Johnson came out behind me and was a little
quicker and took the record away. We were back in form, but were missing
by a little bit. I wasn't driving as smooth as I could, so it did cost
us a little bit. If I was a little more cognizant, I think I could've
got the record. I am an important part of this program as far as tuning
the car. In Chicago, I wasn't involved in tuning the car. It was all
Jamie, Rickie Smith, and Terry Adams. All I could do is walk out, get in
the car, and drive it down the track. I wasn't capable of looking at the
notes and trying to come up with a combination and changing the jets or
thinking about what to do with the timing. I was doing OK with driving
the car, but as far as handling any complex mental thoughts, I couldn't
Q: Your team is a little different than most, as your
family makes up quite a bit of your crew. How difficult was the
situation in that regard?
YATES: Looking back at what Jamie went through, I am
really proud of him. A lot of my friends at home that saw him do
interviews on TV about it, said he did a great job and they couldn't
believe how responsible and calm he was. You have to realize that here
he was at the track taking care of the racing. Racing is important, but
he loves his dad. Here I am laying in the hospital with a problem. I
told him to stay at the race track and handle things. He's smart enough
to know that his priorities weren't at the race track. But he knew he
had to be there so I could relax in the hospital. If we would've just
shut the rig down and everybody would've gone to the hospital, I
probably would've had a heart attack. I feel really bad for putting him
and Toni through that. I really feel bad for the heart-wrenching pain
that they had to go through knowing that I was laying in a hospital and
I looked pretty bad. Knowing that they had to come to the hospital and
see me and then go back to the race track and race, it was tough for
them. Thank God nothing happened and I pulled through it and we're all
here today. If something would've happened and I wasn't around today, I
think they would've regretted their decision not to be there with me
from their standpoint.
Q: Are you going back to Memphis looking to pick up
where you left off last season?
YATES: I've definitely got a score to settle in
Memphis. You come full-circle and it brings back memories. It's just
like Sept. 11. When that date comes back around it brings back all those
feelings. It's something about the anniversary that makes you go back
and remember that day. When we go back to Memphis, we're going to be
remembering that weekend last year. We know that track owes us one and
we're going to collect. We've got a score to settle and that's a good
attitude to have. I really think we're going to make something of it.
Last year Memphis was the straw that broke our camel's back. We were in
a really good position to spring and do something with Warren and
Memphis took the wind out of our sails. This year I hope Memphis is the
kick-off point for our third championship.
Q: When did you decide to bring Mark Carter on to
drive the second car so Jamie could become the full-time crew chief on
YATES: We talked with Mark earlier in the year about
driving the second car. He has some other businesses like a restaurant
and a farm. He has a lot of things going on so we didn't know if he had
the time to do it. We were bouncing the idea around a little bit but
Jamie was doing a great job driving the second car. When the car wasn't
qualified, it was fine. The problem was when he ran well at Brainerd I
ended up running Jamie in qualifying and was right behind him in another
session. Then on Sunday morning, I had to run him in the first round.
That was three rounds out of five where I had no crew chief. My crew
chief was in another car racing and my crew was there helping him too.
We were dividing our opportunity to win by spreading the team thin. We
decided that we couldn't win the championship if we didn't focus the
main part of our energy on my car. We made the decision on the way to
Indy for testing to call Mark and make the change. We brought him into
Indy during testing so he could get his license. We made the switch
because Jamie is so important to my program. When he's driving that
other car and his head is in that other car, it's really tough for him
to go back and forth, especially on Sunday. If he runs well then he's
going to be at the starting line in his car, so he doesn't have any time
to devote to my car. In Pro Stock, we make a lot of decisions from the
time we pull into the water box until the time we let the clutch out. It
was a critical decision and I think it paid dividends because we made it
to the final at Indy and won in Reading. Hopefully we can improve on
that in the final five races and get another win.
Q: Has selling your auto parts franchise helped you in
your racing pursuits?
YATES: I am still a consultant for CARQUEST and I have
some real estate that I own and have to tend to. So, I am still somewhat
involved in the auto parts business. But it has been a help. I really am
happy with the way racing has gone. Two years ago I was eighth in the
country when I sold the auto parts business. Last year we were number
two and had a legitimate chance to win the title. We were right there.
This year we've led the points for eight weeks and been number one
qualifier a bunch of times, won a race and have had a pretty good run
this year. No matter how hard you work at this you can't expect to run
away with this thing. We're leading now, but that could change if we let
up. Earlier this season I had a six-round lead and was pretty
comfortable, but that slipped away. It's hard to get in that position
and it's easy to lose that position. To maintain the level of
performance we've had over the past two years it is a function of
devoting all of our energy to the race team. It has definitely improved
the way we perform out here.
Q: If you can win the championship this year, how
would it compare to your other two?
YATES: The first championship we won was with Richard
Maskin (engine builder) and it was great because it was the first. The
second championship we won with Bob Ingles (engine builder) and that was
great because no one believed we could do it based on all of the
controversy surrounding Richard leaving the team. It's hard to imagine
anything beating that year. Richard was a big part of our program, no
question, but it really was important to us to show everyone that we
could do it and show what a good job Bob Ingles did with our engines. It
was very fulfilling to come out and win a championship after everyone
said that we were done when Richard left. That's not Richard's fault.
It's the media hyping it and the people in the class talking. It was
nice to prove that we weren't a fluke. To come back from where we've
been over the last three years and to come this far and be in the
position we're in is very gratifying. As awesome as it felt to win the
championship in '97, winning the championship now after everything we've
been through, it would be the best. Winning the championship would be
the ultimate reward for making all of the sacrifices that we've made and
making this our number one priority. I think we've matured to the point
where we've kinda earned an opportunity to race for a championship.
Q: Speaking of Maskin, he recently left another team.
He's been with three teams in five seasons. Do you think he's ever going
to find a situation that works for him?
YATES: Richard is a very driven individual and that's
what makes him so good. He's a lot like Warren Johnson. Warren is
totally focused on what he's working on. That's why he's so successful.
Richard is in the same nature as Warren. Richard is very focused on the
goal at hand. He wants to win the round at all costs. He's not going to
say please or thank you when he's in that mode of trying to win a round.
JR Carr is a young and upcoming driver. That's a young team. Richard
probably didn't have the patience to wait it out. He probably thought he
did when he took the job. He thought it would come around quicker. It's
not JR Carr's fault. It's not Richard's fault. They knew what they were
getting involved in when they started the program, but I think they
thought everybody would have a little more patience. Richard is hard on
himself. He judges himself by how he did last week. If he didn't do
well, he will come back and burn himself out working on the dyno. He's
hard on himself and hard on the people that work for him because he
wants to win and he won't accept anything less. You can't go without
success for so long without wanting to make a change. It's unfortunate.
I think if he could've stuck it out over there for a period of time, and
waited it out over the winter and went testing and let the team develop,
I think they would've had a really strong team and been a threat next
season. Richard will be OK, he'll find a home.
Q: Any chance he'll come back to work for you?
YATES. No. I like Richard and we get along fine now. I
love Bob Ingles. He's like a brother to me. The only guy who has ever
built an engine for me other than Bob is Richard Maskin. Bob has been
there from day one since I've been in Pro Stock. I want that to be the
way it is when I end my career, with Bob Ingles as my engine builder.
Bob is really smart and does a great job. Bob cares about this program
and wants to see me do well more than anything. That's nice to have. Our
problems this year haven't been because of a lack of horsepower. We have
plenty of steam under the hood and if we make the right decisions on
race day and let the clutch out on time we can win a lot of races and
are in position to win a championship. That's where we want to be. It's
unfortunate that Richard can't find that kind of security because he
deserves it. He puts a lot into this sport. He's put this sport in front
of a lot of things in his life and it's really bad that he hasn't been
able to find the right chemistry with a team. Hopefully he'll be able to
find the right situation.
Q: Do you think your team's chemistry is better now
YATES: Beyond question. Right now, we are together.
Win or lose there's no finger-pointing, anger or hostility. We work
really hard and we've got good people. Everybody on the team fits into
place and knows their role. We've only been together as a complete unit
this year, but everybody on the team has been on the team at one time or
another for the last three years. Everybody on the team really cares
about how we do. There's no one out here who's just collecting a
paycheck. Everybody here wants us to win so bad that they would
sacrifice anything to make it happen. That's what makes the chemistry so
good. Sometimes we may not like the results of our efforts, but the
important thing is that we all believe in each other and we like what
we're doing together.