Jim Yates on rookie Camrie Caruso: “She’s a student of Pro Stock and she’s passing with flying color
***STORY FROM NHRA/NATIONAL DRAGSTER***
Things happen quickly in the rough and tumble world of Pro Stock and no one knows that better than Jim Yates. Out of the blue late last year, the two-time world champ got a call from Marc Caruso on a Friday; less than a week later he was named as the crew chief for Caruso’s daughter, Camrie, as she prepared to embark on her Pro Stock career.
For 68-year-old Yates, it was an opportunity that was simply too good to pass up.
“Look, the biggest reason I still come out here is to work with my son, Jamie. He works on Kenny Delco’s car, and I enjoy working with him and figuring stuff out. I was happy doing that but once I saw the team the Carusos were putting together, it was hard not to get excited.
“I flew to Charlotte and met with Marc and his father, Papa Joe, and Camrie. We toured their place and looked at everything they had. It was all good stuff.”
While Yates was impressed with the Caruso operation, he wasn’t exactly sure he’d get the job, mostly because of his brutally honest assessment of life in the Pro Stock class.
“When I got back home [wife] Toni said, ‘How’d it go?’ I told her. They may hire me, or they may never speak to me again. That’s because I told them the truth. I told them just how hard Pro Stock was. I told them what they’d have to spend and how much work we’d have to do. They had great stuff, but they needed more of it; more transmissions, more clutches, more rear ends. To their credit, Marc and Papa Joe never questioned any of it. They were prepared to do what it takes to be successful and that’s why I wanted to be a part of this. My mission was to make sure they understood fully and completely what we needed to do.”
Yates got the job in early December, which means the fledgling team had about two months to prepare for the season opener in Pomona. Given that Camrie had never so much done a burnout in a Pro Stock car, that was a tall order.
For Yates, the first order of business was testing, lots of it.
“I told them is that if we’re going to do this, we need to go testing every week before we go to Pomona. I told them we need to make lots of runs. I figured we’d need to test four or five times before we went to Pomona. Camrie had driven a clutch car before, but she had never driven a fuel injected Pro Stock car. Pro Stock is a different animal than even Pro Mod or an alcohol car. Nobody has ever just walked in, gotten behind the wheel of a Pro Stock car and said, ‘Hey, this is easy.’
Spending most of the winter at Bradenton Motorsports Park, Yates laid out a game plan for testing that include a measured step-by-step approach. He started with burnouts and progressed to staging, and the shifting, and all of the other finer points of Pro Stock.
“We were in no hurry to get to the finish line,” Yates said. “To drive a Pro Stock car there is probably 150 steps from the time you start the motor until the time you stop on the return road. The thing is you can’t do step No. 78 until you do step No. 77. If you think about step No. 83 when you’re supposed to be doing a burnout, then you won’t do a good job. We worked on step one, and then step two and so on.”
During testing, Yates quickly found that Caruso was attentive, open-minded and committed to the process. More importantly, she was willing to own up to her mistakes, an increasingly rare commodity among race car drivers.
There were good days and bad days, but at the end of each week, the progress was evident.
“The biggest problem was getting her comfortable in the car,” Yates said. She’s 5-2 and 120 pounds so trying to get the pedals right was a challenge. Once we got her comfortable, it got better. She just didn’t know what she didn’t know.”
Caruso qualified in her debut in Pomona and then scored the first of what promises to be many round wins in Phoenix when she defeated Cristian Cuadra. Ironically, her second win also came against Cuadra in Gainesville. At that event, she also logged a personal best 6.491, a run just four hundredths shot of the current elapsed time record.
That’s a lot of progress in a short time, but Yates refuses to take all the credit. He points to the horsepower of the team’s Titan Engines and the fact that each member of the Caruso team has committed themselves to achieving the desired result.
“We didn’t got to Pomona with the intention of being fast,” Yates said. “We haven’t even worked on this car to make it faster. Our goal to get to finish line under power.
Yates also admits that he’s not just the guy making the tuning calls on Caruso’s Camaro; being a mentor also means being a coach and a motivator.
“I have to be honesty and sometimes I have to be critical,” he says. Never been a question of who’s in charge. Marc said from the beginning that if he could do this, he wouldn’t need me, so when we’re at the track I’m the boss. It’s okay because Camrie is smart. She can look at things and know what’s wrong. Sometimes I have to explain things to her, but she understands. You just can’t just say that everything is great because you’ll never get better. You have to be honest.”
Caruso’s reaction times are still a work in progress but she and Yates both know that will come in due time.
“I’ll take the blame for that,” Yates said. “When we were testing this winter, she was really good. She had a bunch of .00 lights but I told her not to focus so much on the Tree. I needed her to learn how to drive the car; how to hit all the shifts and keep it in the groove. All the .00 lights in the world aren’t going to help if you don’t qualify.”
When it comes to goals, Yates insists that he’s not going to rush Caruso’s development. He knows that Pro Stock is a lot like poker; it takes a shot time to learn and a long time to master.
“We’re in a marathon,” Yates said. “Our mission is to be competitive at Indy and run with the best of them. I know it could all go wrong today. I understand that but right now, we’re good. We are 100-percent committed to whatever it takes.”