Dan Yamnitz is in the Pole Position

Jason Bennett,

August 26, 2020 7:14 PM

After claiming an unprecedented four world records on Namco's classic arcade sequel, he's looking for his next checkered flag


67,310.

On its own, the number is meaningless, random, maybe even unimpressive.

But context changes everything.

Take six million for example. While it’s not a towering figure compared to the fortune of today’s tech billionaires, for anyone that grew up in the 1970s it was the magic number that made injured NASA astronaut Colonel Steve Austin into the world’s (and television’s) first Six Million Dollar Man, forever immortalized by the phrase, “gentlemen, we can rebuild him.”

Dan Yamnitz also does rebuilding for a living, although his vocation doesn’t involve engineering superhuman bionic enhancements. As project manager for an Illinois-based construction company, Dan’s focus for the last several weeks has been a bridge replacement for an existing 60 year old structure. When it comes to managing the entire project, from drive piling and deck beams to grading ditches and seeding, 67,310 hasn’t appeared in any measurements or calculations.

That’s not to say that the number is meaningless to Dan. In fact, he’s probably one of the best placed people in the world to know its significance.

His family is also well-aware, too. So after 12 hour days out in the field, after Dan and his wife Karen have juggled Austin’s baseball and Addison’s dance, after everyone seems occupied at the end of the day, he’ll slip downstairs into his basement arcade. Walking past 17 other arcade machines, Dan will often head straight to his only cockpit racing game, which permits the player to sit down inside the cabinet. After powering on the machine, Dan coins up and settles in.

“Prepare to Qualify,” intones the electronic announcer.

The game is Namco’s 1982 release Pole Position, and the world record to beat is 67,310 points.

Since starting his pursuit of high scores 18 months earlier, Dan has earned four world records on the game’s 1983 sequel, Pole Position II. Now only 100 points stand between Dan and a fifth world record, but they may be the hardest 100 points that anyone has ever tried to get on an arcade game.

ELECTRIC YOUTH

Like the country roads leading to his latest construction site, Dan’s path to competing on a 40 year old video game had its share of twists, turns, and even detours along the way.

Dan Yamnitz racing on the concrete Alpine Slide near Breckenridge [Source: Dan Yamnitz]

Born in the late 70s, Dan had an active childhood that checked off all of the hallmarks of growing up during that era - Saturday morning cartoons, playing outside from dawn to dusk, cub scouts, building model cars, and baseball.

“But when I wasn’t doing all of that,” he recalled, “I loved video games.”

Though like many others of his generation, his affection for coin-ops wasn’t universally shared by parents.

“Other than the five or so games at the local pizza place, or our skating rink, I wasn’t allowed to really go to the arcade,” Dan said. “But that didn’t stop me from spending my dollar for snacks at Skate Night at the 8 Wheeler Roller Rink.”

Beginning in 1985 after trying his first game on the recently installed racing game, Pole Position was often the recipient of that dollar. After a year passed, the cabinet was replaced by a namesake sequel that inherited Dan’s proceeds - Pole Position II.

“I could qualify but never got good enough to finish a race,” he offered, “but I always thought with enough practice I could do it.”

A RUNAWAY RACING HIT

Dubbed by video game historians Bill Loguidice and Matt Marton as “arguably the most important racing game ever made” and regarded as one of the most influential video games of all time, Pole Position was a huge hit for Namco after its release in 1982.

Drawing on the company’s experience with producing coin-operated mechanical driving games in the 1970s, Namco set out to extend that tradition into the burgeoning video game industry. Tapping designers Kazunori Sawano, Sho Osugi, and Shinichiro Okamoto to lead the project, the trio created the first video game to feature a track based on a real-life racing circuit - Fuji International Speedway in Oyama, Japan.

A Pole Position promotional campaign for North American distribution [Source: The Arcade Flyer Archive]

Built around a pseudo-3D view just behind the player’s car, Pole Position redefined the genre and quickly became the most popular arcade game of the year. Licensed to Atari for release in North America, Pole Position’s success was quickly followed by the release of a sequel in 1983 that featured three additional tracks: Test, Seaside, and Suzuka.

But as interest in a new hit game invariably waned, Pole Position was eventually supplanted by more advanced arcade offerings. The fact that Pole Position cabinets were notorious for suffering from frequent component failures didn’t help matters, not to mention the economic downturn that saw the closure of thousands of arcades across the United States by 1986.

Time moved on, for both the industry and Dan.

“Over the next 30 years I probably played [Pole Position] a dozen times max,” he said.

THE RESTORATION

As the classic arcade scene receded from view, Dan’s path led to college where ‘higher learning’ and ‘fun’ sometimes didn’t mix until well after classes were over. But between the pub crawls and frat parties, sometimes you cross paths with a fellow traveller. In Dan’s case, her name was Karen.

No stranger to arcades, Karen had played all the classics, and her family had an obligatory 8-bit home console - in her case, the Intellivision.

The pair began a rivalry on Star Wars Episode I: Racer for the Nintendo 64 by podracing on Tatooine. Later, Karen continued to flex her muscles when playing Donkey Kong Country at her girlfriend’s apartment, establishing a Yamnitz tradition that continued on the PlayStation and Nintendo consoles.

“With Mario Party 4 and 5, it’s cut-throat,” he confirmed.

So when Dan was looking to outfit the basement bar he was installing in their new house, Karen wasn’t completely surprised to find a Golden Tee arcade game in their garage one afternoon.

“In trying to learn how to fix it,” recalled Dan, “the door was opened to the fact that there was an entire community dedicated to selling and restoring games.”

The first arcade game - Golden Tee - to grace 'The World Bar and Classic Arcade' circa 2013 [Source: Dan Yamnitz]

Thus began a passion in rescuing and restoring neglected and worn-out arcade games. From the scores of cabinets that passed through his hands over the years, Dan would set aside a few favorites for his ever-expanding basement arcade bar, named ‘The World.’

By 2015, with the garage filling up again, Dan spied a Pole Position cockpit on Craig’s List. It turned out to be the same one that he and Karen played occasionally a few years back at a local pizzeria. So after a phone call and drive, the two of them were discovering all the contorted ways a 200 pound sit-down cabinet can be turned, twisted, and balanced down a basement staircase.

“It’s never leaving,” confirmed Dan.

THE CHASE

For the next four years, Dan casually played Pole Position and eventually Pole Position II with no other ambition but to experience the game he first came across at the roller rink.

"About two or three times a month I would sit and play for a few hours,” he said, “it was just fun trying to get better...how to do corners, when to shift, how the game scores.”

Then in the summer of 2018, he became curious. What was a good high score on these games? A brief search brought him to Twin Galaxies and in short order he was reviewing the high scores on Pole Position II. He was eventually drawn to the record for the Test Track held by Brian Roemer.

“I was immediately hooked. I knew I had to try and get that record,” he remembered.

Dan got down to work. After a few months of false starts and steady improvement, the big day finally arrived.

“I had gotten a real arcade world record! It was freaking amazing,” marvelled Dan, remembering the excitement and enthusiasm of that moment.

But it didn’t last. Ten days later, Brian reclaimed his world record position.

“I was shook. Bad,” Dan declared. “It literally hadn’t even entered my mind that the same person would come right back and beat me again. And so quick, too.”

A modern day racing rivalry was born.

Over the last four months of the year, Dan and Brian traded positions for the top score over a dozen times, sometimes on the same day. When the dust settled after the last change of positions, Brian conceded and wrote a congratulatory message to Dan on his world record.

That formative experience spurred Dan to compete on the remaining three tracks for the game. After countless hours of grinding out faster times and high scores, Dan surpassed world records held by classic arcade champions like John McAllister, Jeff Peters and Mike Klug, records that dated back to when Dan first sat down at the game thirty years earlier. And like Brian, his competitors shared celebratory words and encouragement.

Dan graces card #3319 of the Superstars of 2020 [Source: Walter Day Trading Card Collection]

His feat - the first person to hold world records on all four Pole Position II tracks - drew the notice of Walter Day, who called Dan personally to tell him that he would be recognized as part of his Superstar of 2020 trading card series.

“He posted a pic of the card on his Facebook page announcing I would be on one,” said Dan. “It was very cool.”

In retrospect, it seems inevitable that after Pole Position II, Dan would return to the original.

“After I got the PP2 Fuji track world record I really wanted to see the difference with Fuji on Pole Position. I started to look up Pole 1 stuff and ran across [world record holder] Richie Knucklez,” Dan said. So he tracked down a repaired Pole Position Printed Circuit Board or PCB to try it out.

“Once I got 66,510 in about a week I was sure I could get [the world record] and it would take no time at all,” he added wryly, acknowledging his shift from unbridled optimism to a practice-worn realism.

BIRTH OF A WORLD RECORD

Every classic arcade game has a story behind it. In rare cases, a few of these stories transcended time and place to become part of the gaming scene’s competitive lore for that title.

Pole Position’s history has grown up around the rivalry between Les Lagier and Mike Klug, two players out of California who regularly competed in arcades throughout the San Jose area during the early 1980s. Outside of Les, Mike, and the small circle of top competitive players from this period, this history was generally unknown until the early 2000s. The re-emergence of Twin Galaxies, the rebirth of classic gaming tournaments, and the proliferation of on-line gaming forums combined to provide fertile ground for classic gamers to reconnect and share.

During this renaissance of competitive gaming, the general contours of the Pole Position saga emerged - a classic showdown between the two top players at the 1984 Video Game Masters Tournament (VGMT) in San Jose, culminating with a come-from-behind victory for Les thanks to an extra car that was passed on the final lap during the closing hours of the event that eked out the victory.

The 1984 tournament was held at 8 arcade locations across North America [Source: Victoria Times-Colonist]

Under the leadership of Walter Day, Twin Galaxies held the first VGMT in 1983 as an anecdote to the challenges of weeding out false scores submitted through TG’s regular witness-based submission process. As the crown jewel of player achievement, the VGMT was supervised by participating arcade owners who coordinated with Walter to ensure proper game settings, common rules, and transparent adjudication of players’ scores, which were reported to Walter via telephone. Importantly, the VGMT was the only avenue that players could compete for the opportunity to be immortalized in the Guinness Book of World Records, which would print the tournament results.

Early in the course of the three day tournament, Mike drew first blood by driving his way to a new world record. Over the next two days, Mike held his lead and was en route to a VGMT victory when Les pulled out an epic race in the final hours of the tournament: by overtaking an unprecedented extra car on his way to the finish line - taking the tally of cars passed in the game from 141 to 142 - Les eked out an extra 50 points and secured the highest score of the tournament and a new world record, thereby ensuring that his name would be printed in Guinness with the tournament results.

The following year, Les’ name was published in the Guinness World Book of Records as Pole Position champion with a score of 67,260 points. Although Les retired from active competition after the 1984 VGMT, he continued to enjoy fame as his score also appeared in the 1986 and 1987 editions as well since future competitors weren’t able to surpass his score to earn their place in the record book.

When Walter officially retired from the gaming scene in 1986, Steve Harris and Jeff Peters purchased the TG scoreboard and established the Amusement Players’ Association International Scoreboard. The APA solicited score submissions from gamers and updated the scoreboard with new records on classic games as well as new releases.

Between 1986 and 1989, Les’ VGMT/Guinness score of 67,260 would be featured on the APA scoreboard in a range of gaming publications, including those established by Steve such as the Top Score Newsletter and Electronic Gaming Monthly or EGM.

By late 1989, the APA scoreboard was rebranded the United States National Video Game Team (USNVGT) Top Score Club and branched out into covering console high scores although it continued to print a small selection of scores on new arcade releases. During these months, classic arcade titles rarely appeared.

EGM Top Score! Special Issue, February 1990 [Source: Retromags]

In February 1990, EGM released a special theme issue called Top Score. Unlike recent issues, the magazine opted for a large 5 page spread of high scores, including 31 arcade high scores from mostly early 80s arcade games such as Cheyenne and Star Wars. In this issue, Les’ name appeared with a Pole Position score of 67,310 for the first time.

Eight years later, Walter Day oversaw the release of the Twin Galaxies’ Official Video Game & Pinball Book of World Records. The book’s 1998 debut coincided with the widening popularity of the World Wide Web and the burgeoning resurgence of classic competitive gaming. Given TG’s ten year absence from the scene, Walter turned to a range of third-party sources to fill the book’s 936 pages with scores for arcade, pinball, and console games. One of the sources for the book was EGM, which “contributed 50 to 75 video game high scores which appeared in their 1989 to 1991 issues.”

Following its appearance in the TG Book and later the TG database, 67,310 has been variously described by gamers in forum posts as an impossible score to beat. Walter Day predicted that no one would beat the score because it “may actually be maxed out.” That said, both Mike and Les have calculated theoretically possible higher scores for the game, albeit by differing intervals.

On the subject of Les’ 1984 score as it was recorded in Guinness and subsequent publications until 1990, both Mike and Les attest that the’ 67,310 score was achieved during the 1984 VGMT and believe it was properly submitted to Walter Day at the time, although they don’t have insight into what happened from there as they weren’t directly involved in reporting to Guinness. Further, they aren’t aware of the circumstances that ultimately prompted the reporting of the score in the February 1990 issue of EGM.

RENEWED RIVALRY?

Over the last 15 years, several talented gamers made a concerted bid to surpass the Pole Position world record. But try as they may, no one was able to do so or even breach the 67,000 threshold. As a result, there was some grumbling in classic gaming forums that maybe the scores from the early 1980s were perhaps too good.

More recently, Dan’s YouTube channel bears evidence of his steady climb through the rankings. In February 2019, Dan posted his first Pole Position video with a score of 66,060. Three days later, he hit a new high of 66,510. After another month, Dan pushed his score to 66,710. For the rest of the summer, Dan hit 66,710 several times but improved on his overall race time. Then in September, Dan broke the 67,000 point barrier by achieving a score of 67,010. It was a significant milestone for the community, demonstrating that a score over 67,000 was possible and documenting such a feat on video for the first time.

Dan hits 67,160 points in November 2019 [Source: Dan Yamnitz YouTube] 

Two months later, Dan drew even more attention with a videotaped score of 67,160.

“You are going to inspire a lot of players to start playing this game again,” wrote John McAllister on Dan’s YouTube channel. “We’re gonna have to throw a parade for you when you tie or break the record.”

The buzz around score made its way through the community, eventually finding its way to the incumbent record holder who made his introduction with a rare post to mark the occasion.

“It seems that the majority of the opposing race cars are unusually closer to the centerline of the raceway allowing for easier passing between the bricks of the raceway and the opposing race cars,” Les began. “I counted at least 13 in your first lap alone. Highly unusual.” He continued, “I do know that the placement of the cars can be manipulated with a simple flick of the on/off switch at the back of the machine, and I am sure there are more ways to manipulate them as well. If I raced on this particular machine back in 1984 I would have scored much, much higher.”

With the gauntlet thrown down, whether or not this indicates a possible return of Les to active competition, time will tell. Whatever happens, Dan has his sights fixed on the record and on fostering great racing competition, whether virtually or in-person when conditions allow.

“You have an absolute open invitation to come play on my machine any time,” replied Dan.

THE HOME STRETCH

Dan now has the third highest score for Pole Position at 67,210 points. Just 100 shy of 67,310.

100 points.

Given where the score is now, and assuming the cars break Dan’s way, the margin of error is practically non-existent.

“For two minutes you have to be exactly perfect,” he offered. “Miss one turn, and it’s game over.”

Earning 50 points would tie him with Mike Klug at 67,260, creating a possible repeat of the 1984 event where Dan would be looking for that extra car.

Could he pull it off?

Dan is still uncertain whether a single game that combined his fastest lap times would still be enough to pass #142.

“I’ll know once I make the final turn and see how far ahead the car is from my racer,” he determined.

If passing an extra car to clinch the world record isn’t possible, Dan has calculated that putting together a race that combined his fastest times for each lap would theoretically grant him enough extra points for time saved to achieve the same end.

THE ROAD AHEAD

Undoubtedly, Dan is a long way from where he started with his first quarter drop back in 1985. As to be expected, there’s a trade-off between ‘pure fun’ gameplay of years past and the attention to detail required for a world record run today.

To bridge those competing impulses, Dan nurtures a deep-seated curiosity about the game and a willingness to rethink his entire strategy and start over, even if it means reassessing long-employed tactics.

“I learn something new almost every time I play,” he explained.

That’s not to say that Dan obsesses about Pole Position. While he’s proud of his records and his arcade restorations, their real value is being able to share them with others, whether inviting friends to experience the 1980s over drinks in ‘The World' basement arcade or when the games are turned off so he and his family can cheer on their favorite baseball team, the Chicago Cubs. Through sharing, Dan draws inspiration to keep things fresh, and to keep things moving.

When Dan isn’t playing video games, he’s relaxing on the Millennium Falcon [Source: Dan Yamnitz]

To further maintain momentum in his bid for the world record, Dan has already plotted out some plans that he hopes to use in the near future.

“I have looked into some arcades in Chicago that have a Pole Position cockpit,” Dan said, “and when I get time and the virus calms down I’m going to head up to see what it’s like playing live.”

To listen to Dan talk about Pole Position is to be simultaneously impressed and overwhelmed - there’s knowledge born from playing a game well, and then there’s the knowledge from virtually staring into the code itself, wisdom forged from scrutinizing the very way a game functions, looking for a more efficient turn, starting pattern, or race line over the course of a game.

To be sure, Dan’s journey has been marked by unprecedented gaming achievements as well as opportunities to share with friends, family, and the classic arcade gaming community. Regardless of where his Pole Position journey takes him next, it’s safe to say that Dan will make the race a memorable one.


For additional reading, check out Trading Card Spotlight Interview with Dan Yamnitz

You can also visit Dan's YouTube page to see more Pole Position action



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