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."
"Work," answers Yeley. "We'll do a lot of testing. The idea is to try to test at almost every track I'll race at. And I plan to spend a lot of time at the shop. I've always been a hands-on racer, and I really need to learn everything I can about the cars to understand how they work and give the feedback to the crew that they need."
He was pleased with preseason testing. "Everything I felt was confirmed by the data acquisition," he says. "That made me feel good. It was easier than I thought it might be to develop a feel for the car."
Yeley says that compared to Sprint Cars, the sedans feel bulky and react slowly. "If you get used to driving with the tail end hanging out, driving something that is extraordinarily loose, it isn't too hard to stay up on the wheel in a stock car," he says. "The driving style is just so different. It may be a case that we don't know we can't drive 'em that loose, so we do. We just don't know any better. I think the biggest challenge this season will be to find the edge-without finding the wall."
The Other GuysThe USAC immigrants to NASCAR have a driving style and work ethic that has left their impression in stock car racing's top series.
* Four-time Winston Cup Champion Jeff Gordon came up through the Midget and Sprint Car ranks, winning both the NASCAR Busch Series Rookie of the Year title and the USAC Silver Crown championship in 1991, the year after he won the USAC Midget championship.
* Tony Stewart, the 1997 Indy Car champion, was Winston Cup's top rookie in 1999 and took the Winston Cup title in 2002. In 1996 he was the IRL and the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year.
* Last season Ryan Newman, the 1996 Silver Crown Rookie of the Year and 1999 Silver Bullet national champion, won 11 poles with a qualifying setup many veterans said they couldn't drive. He also won eight races in Winston Cup-more than any other driver-and finished sixth in the points for team owners Roger Penske and Rusty Wallace.
Meanwhile, in open-wheel racing, Yeley was tearing up the USAC record book. First to go down was the 19-win mark first set by A.J. Foyt in 1961 and matched by Sleepy Tripp in 1988 and Jay Drake in 2000. Then Yeley went on to nail down four more feature wins before the season ended. "Once I got to 20 and broke the record, my goal was to win as many as I could," he says.
For Yeley, success was simply expected. "When J.J. was just beginning, we'd rent Canyon Raceway for all day Sunday," recalls Jack. "I'd have it watered in good on Saturday so J.J. would learn to drive under different conditions as it dried. We'd take a couple of cars just in case one broke, and we'd have J.J. run 200 or 300 laps. We'd keep him out there until he couldn't sit up in the seat anymore."
It's the way Cactus Jack learned to race, too. His father, George Yeley, owned a Pure Oil gas station in Indianapolis, which served as the home base for his stock car racing efforts. It was a typical neighborhood service station, where mechanics worked on customers' cars when not busy building the boss' racer.
George Yeley sold his station and moved to Phoenix, where he helped build some of the local tracks and Jack learned to drive them under his father's critical eye.
"We're all stubborn as mules," Jack says. He readily admits that he and his dad didn't always get along and he and J.J. have had a rough time of it. "I brought him up to be just like me," Jack says. "Maybe I did too good a job. We can't both be right. But neither of us will admit we are wrong. Judy keeps hoping it's something that will skip a generation."
Getting StartedBut when it comes to racing, Judy Yeley is about as passionate as the men in the family. "I used to be Jack's only crew," she says. "I was the mud scraper, I fixed the helmet, helped change tires."
And when it was time for J.J. to get serious, she fixed things for him, too. "I was president of the racing association," she remembers. "J.J. was only 14, but somehow it ended up being 16 on his birth certificate."
By then J.J. already had a few seasons under his belt because he began racing when he was 10. The Yeleys started their son in a quarter midget, but Jack says that lasted only about six months because "quarter midget is the Little League of racing . . . run by parents who yell at the kids, scream at the officials, and are fighting all the time."
They moved to dirt karts, and by the time J.J. was 13, he was in a midget. By the time he turned 17, he was driving 410 non-winged Sprint Cars on a full-time basis. Those are 1,100-pound cars built on a tube-frame chassis with engines putting out 800 hp and enough torque to do wheelstands down the front straight.
When the field hits a track for warm-up, it looks like somebody opened the gate to racing's Jurassic parking lot. "They're monsters," says Jack. "With that power-to-weight ratio, you have to learn throttle control and to feel what the car is doing. You have to stay ahead of it or you are going to get into serious trouble. They teach you how to drive, and they teach you how to run side by side, racing close."
"He started out good," Jack says of J.J. "He should have won a lot more races, but he was hard on equipment, and most of the stuff he had was pretty worn out."
But the advantage of racing worn-out equipment that breaks often is that you learn to fix your own cars-to make them better-and you begin to understand what makes cars fast.
"He's the hardest-working person I know," says Jack. "Even in high school. He'd work for me at the construction company after school, come home and work on the cars until 10 at night. Then he'd go on the weight bench before doing his homework and going to bed. He graduated high school in three years. I didn't even know he was on the honor roll until graduation day."
Bound For NascarAt 21, Yeley finished in the top 10 at the 1998 Indianapolis 500, his only appearance at The Brickyard. "Everyone figured I was looking at a career in open-wheel racing," he says. "The intention all along has been to move to NASCAR."
He was being courted last summer by teams in NASCAR and the Indy Racing League, but passed on the offers when, last June, Gibbs asked Stewart to talk to Yeley about moving to his operation. "This is the type of opportunity you may get only once in your career," Yeley says.
He tested in stockers for Gibbs during late summer, and the announcement that he was signing with Gibbs put an end to one of the worst-kept secrets in the NASCAR garages.
"I went to Gibbs' shop and was really impressed," Yeley says. "But it wasn't the assembly-line fabrication shop, the stack of engines, or the gleaming transporters that sealed the deal. The thing I was most struck with was the number of people who have been there season after season.
"In racing, everyone moves around so much, always looking for something better, but I met guys in the shop who have been there for years and years. That, to me, says a lot about an operation. When people want to stay there, you know [Gibbs] is doing things right."
Yeley's Track RecordJ.J. Yeley showed early in his career that he was capable of winning in anything he buckled into. Here's a quick look at his record book.
* 2003: Only the second driver to win the USAC Triple Crown with titles in the Silver Crown, Sprint, and Midget divisions. He also compiled 24 main event victories last season in the open-wheel cars* 2002: USAC Silver Crown champion* 2001: USAC Sprint Car champion* 1999: Second in non-winged Sprint Car points* 1998: Finished ninth in his rookie start in the Indianapolis 500, driving for John Menard* 1997: USAC Sprint Car Rookie of the Year* 1995: Became the youngest driver in USAC history to win a main event, taking the checker at Chico, California, at age 18* 1994: Named Sprint Car Rookie of the Year by the Knoxville Sprint Car Museum and the Sprint Car Racing Association* 1992: At age 16 (well, maybe) was the youngest driver to get a USAC license, and was named the Arizona Midget Racing Association's Most Improved Driver* 1991: Arizona Midget Racing Association's Rookie of the Year
C.B.H. YeleySo, what does J.J. stand for?
"Nothing," says his mom, Judy. "His real name is Christopher Beltam Hernandez Yeley. I was going into labor and I already had names picked out, and suddenly in the delivery room I realized I didn't like either of them. I'm in labor and yelling, 'I don't like the names! I don't like the names!'
"So now we have this baby, and it took us days to figure out what to name him. By then it was too late. Everyone started calling him J.J. And it stuck."