J.J. Yeley has been going to race tracks since he was barely two weeks old.
That’s what happens when your dad, “Cactus” Jack Yeley, is a seven-time Arizona Midget Racing Association and two-time World of Outlaws midget champion.
At 40, J.J. Yeley is in his 13th year of competing in NASCAR. Yeley, who has also raced in the Indianapolis 500 and is a USAC Triple Crown winner, got his start racing midgets in his home state of Arizona at the age of 16 … actually, make that 14.
“I started racing at an age than I was legally allowed to, I guess,” Yeley told NBC Sports. “I had some very fancy documentation that showed I was older than I really was and that allowed me to start racing two years earlier than I was supposed to.”
Did any of the proper officials become aware of his “fancy documentation”?
“Well, it is funny because my mom was actually the president of the midget association. She was aware,” Yeley said. “My parents made sure we had the insurance that was going to be necessary so the tracks or someone wouldn’t be held liable for me obviously not being of age. I think I was the first minor to be emancipated in the state of Arizona, again just to make sure we were doing everything we possibly could knowing I was younger than I was supposed to be.”
Now Yeley, a former Joe Gibbs Racing driver, is one of the grizzled veterans on the Xfinity circuit. Heading to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course this weekend, he and his TriStar Motorsports teams are 14th in the points two weeks after he placed his No. 14 car sixth at Iowa Speedway for their first top-10 of the season.
The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.
NBC SPORTS: You made your first Xfinity start on March 6, 2004 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Since then you’ve made 555 total NASCAR starts. Could you have imagined back in March 2004 you’d have been able to be in this sport for 555 starts across all three national series?
Yeley: Probably not. That’s not one of those things you look forward to. It’s still hard to believe I’ve been racing in NASCAR for I think this is my 13th year. I know I hear some drivers complain about the schedule and the things that come along with it. Luckily and thankfully I’m still not to that point. I’m 40 years old. I feel like I’m in better shape now than I’ve probably ever been. I spend more time focusing on my health and what I eat vs. probably what I used to. … I look forward to every week getting to the race track and getting behind the wheel of a race car. I’m not thinking about how many starts I’m going to have as man, I want to win one of these dang races. I’ve finished everywhere but (first), I’ve had some fantastic opportunities that I unfortunately had slip away and I think to some of those events, those guys wanted it more than me.
I can remember back to getting beat by Clint Bowyer at Memphis and it was a matter of we kept having restarts and he kept doing everything in the world that was crazy that according to a rule book that he should have been punished by. But he still did them and he didn’t get penalized and he won the race and I lost by a car length. David Gilliland moved me out of the way at Kentucky when I had a car that was dominant. Even those are events that happened years and years ago, those are races I should’ve won, that I could’ve won and for whatever small reason, I finished second. To think, especially now that you’ve told me I’ve participated in so many races and to not have won, I still have that drive to go out there and do that.
NBC SPORTS: I know this has probably been a difficult couple of weeks with the passing of TriStar’s owner, Mark Smith. How close were you with him after two years of racing for him?
Yeley: We weren’t overly close. Mark had been battling some back issues before I had come to TriStar. I knew Mark was heavily involved with his team being a family-run program. He was basically at the race track every week and if it was taking care of his race team or overlooking his engine program, having some of those issues kept him very limited to where if usually I needed to see him or talk with him it was either done over the phone or I go up to the engine shop and talk with him. He was just such an easy guy to get along with. He just wanted to do whatever was going to be best for the team and always wanted to be fair. As a race car driver having an owner like that, it’s hard to ask for anyone other than that to be in that type of situation.
NBC Sports: Was it important for you and the team to get that sixth-place finish at Iowa in the wake of his death?
Yeley: Absolutely. Mark always had a saying, ‘Let’s end this day on a high note.’ That was something we heard quite often. We have it now in the trailer above my locker and to know again that something like that would happen and everyone would push on and to get the finish and kind of have the breaks and luck and things go along, it was almost like he was up there looking over us. Obviously, would have loved to be able to win that race but there at the last restart, I had a fender rub and kind of put it into protection mode just to make sure we didn’t cut a tire and ruin what was going to be a great finish. It meant a lot for the team and obviously a huge push for the program and then unfortunately we were knocked back into reality with that part failure last weekend in Watkins Glen.
NBC Sports: What was your first car?
Yeley: My first vehicle was a 1980 Chevy pickup truck that my dad painted Corvette yellow. It had a 383 small block and it was loud and fast. You could hear me coming from a mile away, which I’m pretty sure that was by design because you could tell when I came home and when I left home.
NBC Sports: Why yellow?
Yeley: At the time my race cars were Corvette yellow. It was actually an old diesel pickup truck that we had kind of rebuilt as a father-son (project) in the driveway. I believe it was a matter of we had some leftover paint, so that was a reason. If it wasn’t loud you could definitely see it coming from a couple of miles away.
NBC Sports: Have you ever named a street car or race car?
Yeley: Actually, this year was probably one of the first years we’ve done that. When we have unsponsored races we’ve been calling the car ‘Black Betty’ after the old song. A friend of mine, that’s his favorite tune. We have a little decal that goes in the car for every time that we run it flat black. ‘Black Betty’ was alive and well there in Iowa.
NBC Sports: What’s the weirdest piece of merchandise you’ve ever had your face or name on?
Yeley: A gentleman had a photo of me flipping in Las Vegas in a sprint car of all things and it was on his forearm. He wanted me to sign it because he wanted to have my autograph tattooed into the photo. I can’t remember if it was just a cool picture of me flipping but that was something where there’s one gentleman roaming around the world that (has a picture) on his forearm of me flipping a sprint car violently at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
NBC Sports: What does JJ stand for?
Yeley: It stands for Jimmy Jack. … It is initials from my dad, Jack, and his best friend, who is basically my uncle, Jimmy. My real name is Christopher. When I was born in 1976, I was a Cesarean (birth), so obviously that took awhile. My mom wanted me to be Sean Michael, my dad wanted me to be Anthony Joseph after AJ Foyt. Obviously, there was a point there where my mom was pregnant and they hadn’t figured this out. They were at odds with each other, so while I was in the process of being birthed, my dad and Jimmy would take turns to see my mom while the other would go back out into the lobby. They would change hats and they had some glasses, they were always pretending to be the other. So that’s where I got the J.J.
NBC Sports: Who actually calls you Christopher?
Yeley: Realistically, the only person in my entire life that’s called me Christopher was my grandmother. She passed away last year. Or when I was in grade school, I went by Chris. Other than that, anybody that knew me outside of school, if it was a friend, anything, I’ve been J.J. my entire life.
NBC Sports: If you could have a one-on-one race with any driver, past or present, on any course and in any type of car, what would be your dream arrangement?
Yeley: I’ve always been a huge fan of the racers back in the 60s, mainly because that’s when race car drivers were real race car drivers, you know. T-shirts, leather helmets and unfortunately a lot of great race car drivers lost their lives almost on a weekly basis. To get to back and race on dirt against the likes of an A.J. Foyt, a Parnelli Jones, Jud Larson, I don’t know that I could just pick one. But to get to participate against a field of drivers that ultimately raced the same way I feel now, where they gave 100 percent and if they gave their life doing it, then so be it. It would be a dirt race somewhere back in the 60s.
NBC Sports: What’s the last song you got stuck in your head?
Yeley: It would be a Cody Jinx song. I think it’s “Thunder and Rain.” (“Loud and Heavy”) … It’s more like country (music). He would be like a Waylon Jennings, a newer version. … Good friends with my crew chief, Wally. They have some pretty catchy tunes if you’re more an older type of country guy. It’s more like a Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings kind of era.
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