Race Weekend Central

Beyond the Cockpit: JJ Yeley on the Indy 500, USAC Glory & a Nickname

Not only is JJ Yeley one of the top drivers ever to grace the track in a USAC open wheeler, he’s made a name for himself in the Sprint Cup Series as well, first as an up-and-coming rookie with Joe Gibbs Racing and now as an older, wiser veteran helping to strengthen the fledgling Whitney Motorsports organization.

Amy Henderson caught up with Yeley at Charlotte just in time to see the final laps of the Indianapolis 500, where JR Hildebrand was leading on the white-flag lap until he lost it coming off turn 4 and hit the wall. Yeley spoke on the heartbreaking finish at Indy, his past glory in USAC, his team and how does a guy named Christopher Beltran Hernandez Yeley gets a nickname like JJ anyway?

Amy Henderson, Frontstretch: Can you imagine anything more heartbreaking than JR Hildebrand’s last lap in the Indianapolis 500?

JJ Yeley: I see alcoholism in his future. (laughs) To lose it off [turn] 4, that’s got to be bad.

Henderson: Talk to me a little about 2011. You have a new teammate in Scott Riggs. Has that been beneficial?

Yeley: So far, obviously the season’s been going really good. We’ve made all the races, which obviously for a team as small as ours is a huge accomplishment. I think we’re one of the only teams [in our situation] who have done that so far. As we continue through the year, we’re purchasing better cars; we’re working towards the goal, which is being able to race at least more on a consistent basis.

We’re not full time yet, but for a team that’s only been around for two years, to accomplish what we’ve done so far has been pretty good. The team is growing. We added the [No.] 81 as a full-time second car with Scott Riggs. It’s been a little more difficult for Scott, getting used to the equipment we’re running with the bump stops the way they are. Obviously, these CoT cars have changed so much over the past two years, it’s going to take some time I think for him to get the feel he’s looking for out of the car.

Henderson: Does that speak to how hard it is to come into Cup as a new team?

Yeley: It definitely does. If people saw the conditions the guys that my Whitney Motorsports team work out of compared to some of these other Taj Mahals that some of those other guys work out of, they’d have a lot more respect for the go or go homers. They’re doing a lot more with a lot less. You don’t have the manpower, so they have to spend a lot more time at the shop working on things. I’m very proud of the work these guys are doing on a weekly basis. It’s a thrash and they work twice as hard as some of the other people in the garage.

Henderson: You also have to do more with less in terms of equipment. How does that strain on the equipment effect the team?

Yeley: It definitely does. We have to stretch everything we possibly can: the brakes, the engines. We’ve had a few engine failures this year. We’ve been working with Ernie Elliott, trying to get more power with these engines and at the same time make sure we keep the longevity in them. It’s a situation that every week, you need to look at what you have in the bank and what you need to go replace and then go with what’s the most important.

Henderson: What do you do as a driver to keep your name out there in NASCAR. Have you been getting attention from bigger teams or teams in other series as you continue to qualify well?

Yeley: This is a very tough sport, just NASCAR in general. I learned the hard way by not being around a whole bunch at the beginning of 2009, and if you’re not around, you get forgotten and quickly. I hate having to be in the position I am where we don’t get to run all the races. We’ve only run a couple (full races) this year. But it’s more impotant to be here.

It shows team owners – it doesn’t matter if it’s Nationwide, Trucks or Cup – that we’re able to go out and qualify for every race. We’re talking a lot less equipment, less horsepower and still qualifying and outqualifying teams that have bigger budgets. At the end of the day, there’s got to be something to that, but at the end of the same day we’re still working on trying to get sponsorship so we can go racing.

Henderson: You came into Cup with Joe Gibbs Racing. Now you’re with a smaller organization, but you are the guy. Personally and professionally, what are the differences and is it necessarily a bad thing to step back from an organization like JGR?

Yeley: It is, but only for the fact that the equipment’s not as nice, and we don’t have the ability to go run all the races and try to win. It’s a lot of fun being the underdog. Everyone wants to root for the underdog, and that’s definitely us. The time I spent at Joe Gibbs Racing was great, but here I have a lot more input as to what I feel with the cars and some of the changes that go on versus some of the larger teams.

Being a rookie at Joe Gibbs Racing not having enough experience, now having experience there are a lot more things I can define that I want out of my racecar, so I can get that now when I didn’t have that ability back when I was there.

Henderson: A lot of fans might not know about your background in open wheel. You’re a USAC Triple Crown winner and were only the second guy to do that at the time. That’s a big deal. Tell me a little about that stage in your career and what it has done for you now.

Yeley: My 2003 season obviously catapulted me into the opportunities I had. I had numerous opportunities to go into NASCAR. Joe Gibbs Racing was the best. I’m a dirt track racer at heart. That’s where I learned to race. My dad was a seven-time Arizona Midget champion. That’s my love. I still love watching them, I still love working on (dirt cars). It’s a lot of fun.

That part of my career was very hectic. You race 100 times a year. You don’t have a home life; you spend all the time either at the shop or off racing. That is my life, that’s always been my life, and I don’t know anything other than racing. It’s really the passion I have for racing in my family. It’s a lot easier schedule doing NASCAR compared to what I used to do, but I still enjoy it every minute I can.

Henderson: If the right opportunity did come up, would you ever go back to open wheel, or is NASCAR it for you now?

Yeley: I still go play occasionally on some of the dirt tracks, but to me that’s the past in my career. I’ve accomplished a bunch there, there are a lot of things, the records that I set that I don’t think anyone will be able to break. I don’t want to be the big fish in the little pond. I want to take my ability and put it up against the best in the sport and that’s here in NASCAR.

Henderson: One last thing: how you got your nickname is a great story. A lot of fans might not realize that there is not actually a J to be found in your name.

Yeley: (Laughs) Yeah. JJ is actually a nickname from when I was born. My dad wanted me to be AJ after AJ Foyt, but there was no way my mom would let that happen. So JJ is Jimmy Jack, which is just initials from my dad, Jack, and his friend – he’s almost my uncle – Jimmy. They took turns with my mom when I was being born. I was a cesarean and it took a really long time. Ten hours, or however long I took coming into this world, they were taking turns keeping my mom company.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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