The Cockpit and Beyond · Becca Gladden · Friday June 30, 2006
It was almost 110 degrees outside, but nothing short of a natural disaster could have kept hundreds of devoted desert dwellers away from Phoenix International Raceway last week and an opportunity to meet two of NASCAR’s most popular young drivers.
Third year NEXTEL Cup driver Kasey Kahne and rookie J.J. Yeley manned the windows at PIR’s main ticket office in Avondale for two hours on June 22nd, delivering a sweet midsummer’s treat to a crowd of enthusiastic fans who had begun lining up hours ahead of the noon starting time.
In particular, Yeley was a polished sales person and crowd pleaser, congenially welcoming fans to the booth, suggesting seat locations, signing autographs, posing for photos, and even chatting with one woman’s disbelieving spouse on her cell phone.
Frontstretch’s own Becca Gladden had an opportunity to meet one-on-one with Yeley after his hectic shift at the ticket counter. Among the topics discussed were J.J.’s take on growing up in Phoenix, the goals of his rookie season in the Nextel Cup series, and his recent visit to St. Jude Children’s Hospital.
Becca Gladden, FS: J.J., how did you get chosen to participate in today’s ticket sales event at PIR?
J.J. Yeley: I’m from Phoenix, so I’m sure that had a lot to do with it. “Hometown boy makes it to the big scene” is always a good story. It’s nice to come back here to PIR. When I was a little kid, I used to play in the infield at the racetrack while my dad was racing here, and a lot of my time racing was spent here.
Gladden: You have a lot of good memories of PIR. Were you born in Phoenix?
Yeley: I was born in Phoenix, but I don’t live here any more. I live in Charlotte, North Carolina. I lived in Phoenix until I was 21. I moved out to go racing professionally. It’s hard to do it as a profession here.
Gladden: You mentioned your dad. How instrumental was his background as a racecar driver in helping you get where you are today?
Yeley: It was tremendous. He taught me everything that I knew up until the point that I started racing professionally. He raced for 30 years, and was a multiple time champion in Arizona and other states. He taught me that nothing is ever handed to you. You have to work one hundred percent all the time, and in order to win, you’re going to have to give that extra effort. Because of that, it makes you strive to be a better person and a better racecar driver. I owe a lot to him, and now he gets to watch me on Sunday knowing that he pushed me hard enough to get to the top.
Gladden: Father’s Day was a couple of weeks ago, and I know you have a little girl. How old is she?
Yeley: She just turned one in the end of May. My wife actually surprised me and flew in to Michigan [where he was racing]. I thought they were still in Charlotte. I talked to Kristen in the morning, not knowing that she was already in the motor home waiting for me. After the driver’s meeting, I was going to call her before I got changed and they were already there.
Gladden: Did you get any cool gifts for Father’s Day, or was the trip itself your present?
Yeley: Well, the trip was, but I got a “Best Dad in the World” T-shirt and some cool stuff. I had a rough day at Michigan – I got taken out early, and it might have been a more disappointing day if they hadn’t been there. They definitely eased the pain of getting taken out.
Gladden: What about the Busch race in Kentucky? Have you gotten over that disappointment yet?
Yeley: I did until you just brought it back up (laughs).
Gladden: Sorry about that.
Yeley: It’s been that kind of season for me. When you’ve got that kind of lead, I was just counting the laps until the caution came out. I knew that I wasn’t going to be lucky enough for that race to go green all the way. It would’ve just been too easy to have a four-second lead with 20 laps to go and not get a caution.
Gladden: Did you and Clint Bowyer talk after the race?
Yeley: I did talk to him after the race, and he apologized for getting me loose there. With fresher tires, he was just a little bit faster than me. Unfortunately, I think it cost me the race, but at the same time you can’t take anything away from David Gilliland. They had an excellent racecar and he was very fast. He did everything he needed to do to win the race.
Gladden: But it must have given you and the team confidence knowing what a great car you had and how close you were to the win.
Yeley: Well, we already had the confidence with the way that car handled. It was definitely very disappointing. That’s not the first time I’ve been in that situation, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. But I would have definitely rather been in his position in Victory Lane spraying champagne and enjoying myself.
Gladden: Let’s talk a little bit about how you’re doing so far this year. At the start of the season, did you sit down and do some goal setting for your rookie year?
Yeley: Of course I did. You can’t succeed if you don’t have goals.
Gladden: What were your goals, and where do you stand on them now?
Yeley: Our main goal this year was to try to win Rookie of the Year, which to me, of all the goals was going to be the hardest one because of the rookie class being so talented. I’m not out of it by any means, but the way they do the rookie standings this year it’s your 17 top finishes, so we’ve got to get busy in terms of finishes.
Gladden: Rookie of the Year was your main goal?
Yeley: Trying to win Rookie of the Year and winning a race. If it’s Busch or Cup, it really doesn’t matter, but I want to win races. That’s why I’m here. There are some people who are here probably for different reasons. To me, the popularity of NASCAR and the money in NASCAR isn’t what is important. I want to win races. That’s all I’ve ever done. I could have continued racing sprint cars and open wheel cars and been the big fish in the little pond. But I want to explore racing against the best there is and see if my talents are capable of doing so.
Gladden: You had so much success at an early age that winning is something you were accustomed to – winning almost everything you entered.
Yeley: It makes it difficult. Obviously, you have to keep in mind that a lot of these guys have been doing this for a very long time, and the competition level is tremendous. But when you go from winning every week to having a shot at winning, it’s a huge difference. It’s easy for it to wear on your confidence, but I just have to keep things in check. I can only control things that I can do, so I just go out there and do the best I can and hopefully with a little bit of luck, we’ll see what happens.
Gladden: This is an interesting stretch in the schedule, going from a track like Michigan to a road course at Infineon, and then a plate race at Daytona. Do you find it exciting or stressful to face those different kinds of challenges every week?
Yeley: It’s exciting to know that we’ve been to Michigan, which is a very fun track, then to Sonoma where I’ve never been, and then to go back to Daytona. I think most of the drivers probably dread restrictor plate races the most, just because there are so many things you can’t control.
Gladden: You can easily get caught up in something there.
Yeley: Absolutely. But it’s part of the schedule. There are certain race tracks that I don’t like, but unfortunately for me, some of the race tracks that aren’t my favorites are fan favorites, and they’re not going to come off the schedule, so I better get used to them.
Gladden: When you go to a track that you haven’t been to before, or where you have limited experience, is there one driver in particular that you look to for advice?
Yeley: Obviously, having Tony Stewart as a teammate is the best thing in the world for me, because he’s a guy who came from open wheel cars just like me. He knows the feel and sensation that I am having, so he can best understand the feelings that I’m struggling with at a certain race track.
Gladden: Have you gone to him a lot for advice?
Yeley: I try not to bother Tony, because he’s got his own car that he’s focused on. I think the only place this year where I really struggled and I went to him after practice and said, “Hey, you need to tell me what I’m doing wrong because I have no clue,” was at Martinsville. It’s such an easy track to overdrive because you feel like you’re going so slow in a stock car there.
Gladden: What did Tony tell you?
Yeley: He told me that everything I was feeling, he was struggling with, too, so it wasn’t something that I was doing wrong as a driver. It was just something that as a team we needed to fix in our race cars.
Gladden: On a lighter note, when you do get back to Phoenix like this, do you have any favorite places that you like to visit?
Yeley: I visit all the Mexican food places (laughs).
Gladden: Do you have a favorite?
Yeley: There’s a good place that’s called Taste of Mexico that used to be by my house at 35th Avenue and Northern. I try to go there quite a bit.
Gladden: And you went to high school here?
Yeley: I did. I went to Apollo High School.
Gladden: Were you a good student? Did you have a favorite subject in school?
Yeley: (Laughs). Yeah, when the bell rang and we got to leave.
Gladden: I thought you might say something like that.
Yeley: I graduated high school in three years. I took correspondence courses to graduate early so I could go racing. My biggest problem was that they allowed you so many days that you could miss per semester, and I maxed them out every semester. It was always difficult traveling and keeping up with school.
Gladden: You’ve been racing for a long time now, so maybe you know how the green car superstition got started.
Yeley: I don’t know how it started. I don’t know why peanuts are bad luck either. I’ve eaten peanuts on race day and won before, so I don’t really believe in that superstition. Green isn’t an unlucky color. It’s the color of money, so I can’t think that green is so bad. Bobby Labonte won a championship and he’s won over 20 races with a green race car, and Dale Jarrett won the Daytona 500 in a green race car.
Gladden: Do you have any superstitions on race day?
Yeley: Not on race day. The only real superstition that I believe in, only because I’ve experienced it, is black cats. If a black cat crosses my path, I will turn around and go the other direction. I had the worst week in my life racing because of a black cat.
Gladden: I’ve also noticed on rain delays that you are one of the drivers really having a good time with the other guys. Do you enjoy that sort of down time around the track?
Yeley: You have to have fun with rain delays because they’re horrible. The majority of the guys would rather get the race over with and go home and see their families, but that’s not always the case. But I always enjoy having fun. If you stop having fun it becomes a job, and you spend too much time away from home and your family to make this a job. We try to keep it fun and keep it fresh every week. The greatest thing about NASCAR is that it is just one big family.
Gladden: I want to ask you about your recent visit to St. Jude Children’s Hospital. It was your first time there, right?
Yeley: Yes, it was.
Gladden: Can you tell me about that experience and what it meant to you?
Yeley: It was an eye-opening experience for me. I knew about the hospital. I knew kind of what they did for children. But to go there and see how excited the kids get who are fighting an uphill battle – I met with a little fan whose grandfather had told me that I was a guy that his grandson liked to watch on TV. He’s 2-1/2 years old, and he’s been fighting for his life for the last two years with cancer. He’s had 20-some chemotherapies and several major surgeries. Unfortunately, he was sedated, but he opened his eyes and I got to see him, and to know that this kid is fighting for his life and so many other kids like him are doing that…St. Jude’s is making it possible for families to try to save their children.
Gladden: Over the years, they have really improved the survival rates of kids with those types of illnesses, haven’t they?
Yeley: Yes. It’s amazing. If I remember correctly, in 1962 when they opened, the likelihood of a child with leukemia surviving was 5%, and now it’s 90%. In 40 years, they have given so many children the opportunity to go on and live their lives. I hadn’t realized that there was no cost to the families and that St. Jude’s goes to such an extent to give them a place to stay while their children are fighting to survive.
J.J. Yeley is a second generation driver. He was behind the wheel of a quarter midget at the age of 10, later raced go karts, and at the age of 14 began racing midgets. Three years later, he was in a non-wing sprint car setting track records. One of the highlights of J.J.’s career was being the “youngest” driver at age 21 to qualify for the 1998 Indianapolis 500. He finished 9th in the 500, and went on to complete five Pep Boys Indy Racing League Events. In 2001, J.J. claimed the USAC Sprint Car Championship, finishing 3rd in the Midget standings and 4th in the Silver Crown. J.J. was the only driver to finish Top 5 in all three series. In 2003, J.J. set a new USAC record of 24 wins in a single season and broke A.J. Foyt’s USAC record of 19 wins, set in 1961. He is the second driver in history to win the “Triple Crown”, by winning all three USAC open wheel divisions in one season. (Source: www.JJYeley.com)
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