Cactus Jack may be the only midget driver that J.J. Yeley never passed. "He tried it once," says Jack Yeley. "I crashed him. Boy, was my wife ticked."
Even today, Jack Yeley says he's not sure if his wife was more angry because he put his son into the fence, or because J.J. didn't pass his old man. And Judy Yeley won't say.
More than a dozen years later, it doesn't much matter. What does is that driving hard against his father-trying to live up to Cactus Jack's expectations and reputation-helped create one of the most successful drivers in open-wheel history and one who promises to be an emerging stock car star.
J.J. Yeley was hired by Joe Gibbs Racing last November for the A-B-C plan, with races this season in the ARCA series and in NASCAR's Busch and Nextel Cup.
"He's ready," says his dad, a seven-time Arizona midget champion who twice won the World of Outlaws midget title. At 27, J.J. will hardly be a "young gun" as he makes the transition to stock cars.
"It's taken a long while," J.J. says. "Sometimes it was frustrating because we were doing so well in open-wheel, but it seemed like no one noticed. One of the problems is that we race every weekend, and it is hard to get to a NASCAR event and meet people when you are in the race car somewhere else."
That changed last year when J.J. became only the second driver to win all three USAC championships-Silver Crown, Sprint, and Midget-in one year. The only other driver to do that is Tony Stewart, in 1995.
"There really haven't been that many drivers of J.J.'s caliber who can go out in three different divisions and have the equipment to reach such a milestone," says Stewart. "He has a lot of talent."
Stewart will go from owning Yeley's Silver Crown and Sprint Cars to becoming his teammate at JGR. The addition of Yeley gives Gibbs three former Silver Crown champions on his payroll. Busch driver Mike Bliss-the 2002 Craftsman Truck champion-won the Silver Crown title in 1993.
"The guy's got tremendous talent," Bliss says. "It is going to be exciting to see him make the transition to stock cars."
Changes In StoreOne of the major changes for Yeley this year will be the luxury to concentrate on his driving rather than living like a wrench-swinging gypsy.
The nomadic USAC road show fills a calendar with races-sometimes three or four in a week-as it moves from one short track to another across the country. The teams are small, and the racing is physically tough on both drivers and cars. It's common for teams to race one night, then drive to the next town and spend the afternoon fixing damage from the previous evening in a motel parking lot.
"I think I did 88 races last year," Yeley says. "Some of that was self-inflicted. I'm a racer, and if you get a weekend off, well, you find someplace to go racing."
And if you don't race, you don't get paid.
The checks in USAC are modest. Yeley won three championships and $421,185 last year, but with that (and money from sponsors) he had to build and maintain his own cars and pay for two crewmembers. The three men and Yeley's wife, Kristen, made up the entire operation. (In comparison, Scott Wimmer won $479,504 last season by starting six Winston Cup races, scoring one top 10 finish, and ending up 48th in points.)
"Last year J.J. did everything from driving the cars to driving the truck," says his dad. "I'm not sure what he'll do with all his free time."