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Drag Racing Story of the Day!

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 championships?

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 to be?

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 do it.

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 your car?

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 than ever?

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.

NHRA Communications

 

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