- Bill Stephens
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Jim Yates remembers 1996 and 1997.
Why wouldn't he? For those two magical years, he and his crew chief/engine builder at the time, Richard Maskin, were the undisputed pacesetters in the NHRA Pro Stock category. In those two dominant seasons, Yates & Co. won 17 national events, qualified No. 1 13 times, and came within a single round of sweeping the Western Swing, losing to Mike Edwards in the 1997 Seattle final. Yates was as hot as a drag racer can get.
And then, at the second event of the 1998 season in Phoenix, Yates and Maskin were involved in a bitter disagreement that led to the dissolution of their partnership. Yates won a single race that year, finishing fourth in the points, and since then has won only four more races.
The good times have been slow in coming back.
In 2001, while qualifying for the Mid-South Nationals in Memphis, Tenn., Yates nearly suffered a heart attack and underwent life-saving angioplasty surgery at a Memphis hospital. He has continued to race thanks to the financial resources provided by the sale of his Virginia-based auto parts chain and a series of primary and associate sponsors. But it's clear that the 51-year-old veteran whose wife, Toni, and sons, Jamie and Jon, are integral members of his operation, isn't ready to throw in the towel.
This week, as he prepared for the 17th O'Reilly Summer Nationals at Heartland Park Topeka, Yates and his B&W/Wiley X Pontiac team spent a day testing at Gateway International Raceway in Madison, Ill. as they trucked to Kansas. For Yates, his winless streak that extends back to Reading 2002 has been haunting him.
"We were testing clutch and car combinations for the race track conditions to see what it takes to get the car up and down the track," Yates said. "The weather looks good for Topeka and should be the same all weekend. That will give us an opportunity to sort through the combinations on the track."
This weekend's event wraps up a three-race-in-three-week stretch for the NHRA tour, and with Yates sitting sixth in the POWERade standings, a strong showing at HPT could move him up in the tightly-bunched top 10.
"We want to capitalize on what we learned testing, have an error-free weekend, win rounds on Sunday and get that win," Yates said. "The three races in a row gave us the opportunity to get comfortable with the car and the changes we're making."
This year's NHRA Pro Stock battleground has already been a gasoline-fueled volley of hard-hitting body blows between such racers as Warren Johnson, Greg Anderson and Dave Connolly. Yates will have to pull together an extraordinary program that can run with not only those drivers, but a formidable roster of other capable teams if he hopes to contend for the 2005 POWERade championship.
And it's been a long time since he was the man to beat on race day.
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.