Racers remember legendary car owner Vance

Johnny Vance

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Johnny Vance

It’s perhaps one of the best compliments a driver gave to Johnny Vance, the legendary sprint car owner from Dayton.

Troy’s Jack Hewitt was known for his hot temper and colorful language, among other things, as a driver. Firing Hewitt from a sprint car ride might not have gone as well for other car owners. Hewitt, though, couldn’t hold a grudge against the friendly and likeable Vance.

“He fired me and I still couldn’t get mad at him. He was that good to you,” Hewitt said. “He gave me a shot (at racing) so I didn’t care.”

Vance, who held several roles with the United States Auto Club before becoming a team owner, died Thursday morning. He was 79.

The second-generation car owner fielded sprint cars and Silver Crown cars on the USAC circuit starting in 1981. The list of drivers who piloted a sprint or Silver Crown car for Vance reads like a who’s who of USAC racing.

Three drivers — Tracy Hines, Rich Vogler and Hewitt — ranked among the top 10 in career USAC sprint victories. Tony Elliott, Dave Steele and Steve Butler are among the top 18. And that list doesn’t even include drivers like Kenny Irwin Jr., Ryan Newman, Steve Kinser, Joe Saldana and Jac Haudenschild, among others, who drove the Aristocrat Products-sponsored cars.

“He was a pleasure to drive for. He always gave you top-notch equipment and was a real nice guy,” said Wooster’s Haudenschild, who has more than 300 career feature victories. “If he had an opening he’d always give me a shot to drive his car. Johnny always treated me good and he gave me a first-class car every time out.”

Vance purchased Don Siebert’s racing operation in 1981. In June he won his first Silver Crown feature with Vogler at Knoxville Raceway in Iowa. A month later the duo won their first national sprint feature at Eldora Speedway. Vogler and Kinser helped Vance win his one Silver Crown owner title that season.

Vance won two national sprint car titles as an owner in 1990 and 1998. His 44 career victories ranks fourth all-time in USAC history. Ryan Newman scored Vance’s final USAC sprint car victory at Anderson Speedway in Indiana in 2000.

“Anderson, if I remember right, we were kind of OK all night long and got it woke up in the feature,” Newman said. “We ran a 50-lapper and won it. We almost got passed by Kasey Kahne on the last couple laps.

“Johnny always had the best equipment. He always had a good understanding of the race cars. When we went to the race track we knew we were going to compete for fast time, we were going to be shooting for a track record and our goal was to win the race.”

Vance won eight Silver Crown features, the last coming at Lucas Oil Raceway in Brownsburg, Ind., with Hines behind the wheel.

As for Hewitt, he won two races with Vance in 1981. The first was a non-sanctioned, 150-lap feature at Paragon Speedway in Indiana. It was the first time Hewitt sat in one of Vance’s rides.

“I think we tore up more of Johnny’s stuff than we ever won in,” said Hewitt, whose 46 career USAC sprint victories ranks fourth all-time.

“He just had great equipment,” said Hewitt. “I probably crashed too much. But he hired me back. We remained friends through the whole time. … I was a Johnny Vance fan and to drive for him was a big feather in my hat. I’m glad to have my name on his list.”

Prior to owning a sprint car team, Vance served as a chief steward and a supervisor and technical chairman of the sprint car division for USAC starting in the early 1960s. He also served as steward at the Indianapolis 500.

Vance also helped form one of USAC racing’s crown jewel events, the 4-Crown Nationals at Eldora Speedway. The event, created with Eldora founder Earl Baltes, brought together USAC’s four national divisions (Silver Crown, sprint, midget and defunct stock cars) at one track on a single weekend for the first time.

“I think he’s had an impact on so many people’s careers,” Newman said. “You look at the names of the drivers that sat in his seat and it’s a special list. He knew how to win.

“I was fortunate to win with him at Winchester Speedway. An all-around great guy. Just an overall fun part of my career. He’ll definitely be missed as a friend but also in the garage area.

“A lot of people had a lot of respect for him.”

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