Every time I travel on I-75 near Dayton, Ohio, I crane my neck to catch a glimpse of the distinctive Aristocrat Products office building that rests a few miles north of downtown.
Like a good open-wheel fan, I don’t think about the true nature of the business but turn my thoughts to the late Johnny Vance’s racing operations. Vance’s widow Fadia Vance has since relocated to California to be closer to her son Jonathan, but still oversees her late husband’s business.
Luckily, with the help of some racing friends the Vance Silver Crown car still makes an occasional appearance prompting a tidal wave of memories about Vance and the host of Hall of Fame drivers who wheeled his immaculately prepared race cars.
The Vance family’s contribution to open-wheel racing has stretched for decades. John Vance Sr. fielded cars at California’s legendary Legion Ascot Speedway during the 1930s providing rides for, among others, future three-time Indy 500 winner and Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Wilbur Shaw. For all he accomplished over years of involvement Vance Sr. was inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame.
Young Johnny Vance followed his father to the track and marveled at the exploits of sprint car ace Travis “Spider” Webb. On occasion he was allowed to warm up the car and naturally wanted to try it. Did he have a future behind the wheel?
Johnny was far too hooked to stay on the sidelines. Upon a recommendation, he became a USAC official and ultimately rose to the rank of steward at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It worked well. He had taken over the family business upon the death of his father in 1963 but still carved out time for racing.
Vance might have remained in this capacity except for the unfortunate death of car owner Don Siebert just before the start of the 1981 season. Rich Vogler had just captured the USAC sprint car championship and now was out of a ride. Vance family friend and longtime official Russ Clendenen had a solution. He called Johnny and coaxed him into car ownership. Vance took over Siebert’s program.
From that pivotal 1981 season on, Johnny Vance was a steady presence on the USAC scene for more than three decades. The drivers who sat in a Vance-prepared car, are truly a who’s who of the eras short-track stars. They include Jim Mahoney, Gene Lee Gibson, Joe Saldana, Tracy Hines, Steve Butler, Dave Steele, Steve Kinser, Jack Hewitt, Kenny Irwin Jr., Cole Whitt, Tony Elliott, Jimmy McCune, Brian Tyler, Jac Haudenschild, Tyler Walker, Ryan Newman and Damion Gardner.
Sprint car titles came in 1990 with Steve Butler, and in 1998, Vance and Jeff Walker teamed up to help Tony Elliott win his first of two USAC titles. All told, as an entrant Vance won 44 USAC sprint car races and eight in Silver Crown competition.
For his entire body of work, including his time as an official, he was inducted into the USAC Hall of Fame. In the face of all of these notable achievements, it could be argued that his most-enduring contribution has yet to be mentioned.
In his role as a USAC official, Vance began discussions with the irrepressible Earl Baltes about staging a premier USAC event at Eldora Speedway. According to some, Vance had to use all of his interpersonal and business skills to get the job done. After the deal had been settled Johnny and USAC media ace Dick Jordan were travelling to Paragon Speedway when they decided to kick around names for the event. It was Jordan who produced the idea of the 4-Crown Nationals.
Oddly enough the inaugural race was staged in 1981 and Vance was there in his new capacity as car owner. By the time the USAC stars had signed in to compete at the big Ohio oval Rich Vogler had already taken a Silver Crown victory for Vance at Knoxville (Iowa) Raceway.
With one race left in the season, Vance had a chance to win the Silver Crown entrant’s point chase, but things looked bleak when Vogler was injured at the Hut Hundred midget race at the Terre Haute (Ind.) Action Track. To fill the empty seat, Vance turned to a young and promising second-generation driver from the outlaw ranks named Steve Kinser. Kinser first the sprint car portion of the event and then topped the field in the ground pounders to secure the series title for Vance.
If Johnny Vance could have walked through the gate for September’s 40th running of the 4-Crown Nationals he would have been utterly amazed. Eldora Speedway always had a rugged elegance and years ago when one stared at the frontstretch wall and saw the hand-painted proclamation that this was “the home of the sprint” your hair always stood on end.
It’s a different place in 2022. With an ultra-modern scoreboard, pyrotechnics galore, a top-flight sound system and drone coverage to boot, it is a true short-track marvel. However, the mystique remains.
What really would have commanded Vance’s attention on this weekend was the need to use the overflow pit area on the hill and a crowd that would make any promoter smile. No one disputes Eldora gets a larger attendance for other signature events. Nonetheless, this felt like the biggest 4-Crown throng in years and there was a discernable buzz to the proceedings. And man was it fun.
All of us can tick off the biggest short-track, open-wheel races in America. We might quibble on the edges and even debate the relative importance of each race. I understand that the 4-Crown Nationals may not make everyone’s list. I think the time has come for that to change. Let’s start with the basics.
Here you get the World of Outlaws, the All Star Circuit of Champions and all three of USAC national divisions on the same weekend. It means you can sit back and enjoy the blinding speed of the best winged sprint car racers in the land, watch the traditional sprint cars back it into the corners, catch the darting and exhilarating midgets and top it all off with the finesse of the big-bottomed Silver Crown cars.
This year fans were offered a real treat. Rico Abreu got to victory lane with the World of Outlaws for the first time in four years, Tyler Courtney broke a dry spell with the All Stars; with a midget victory, Chris Windom was back in the winner’s circle for the first time all year; and Logan Seavey, who raced in all four events, took the finale in the big cars. For Seavey, this was a weekend where he showed a diverse audience just how good he is.
Unnoticed stars were the normal behind the scenes people who prepared the track, pushed cars, cleaned up on-track messes and worked the concessions. I can tell you this, when it came to the preparation and appearance of his race cars Johnny Vance was meticulous.
Trust me, he would have been impressed with Eldora Speedway and the performance of the three racing organizations. If this event hasn’t been on your bucket list, it is time to put it there.
I don’t know if Vance could have foreseen how big this race would become, but it is past time to salute him for his vision.