September 6, 2013 – (Penn Yan, NY) Story by Steven Ovens – These days, doing something for 30 years is rare. Marriage, holding the same job or even playing a sport for that long seems to be the minority instead of the majority. But for 360 Sprint Car racer Lance Yonge, 30 years has been a racing journey. A journey that Lance hopes will bring him home the Inaugural ‘Cole Cup’ at the Utica-Rome Speedway on Saturday night.
Before you can discuss Yonge’s chances to win the Cole Cup, you have to first step back and realize that 2013 marks a feat for the Penn Yan, NY driver that many racers in the Northeast only dream to accomplish.
Lance Yonge comes from a small town in the heart of wine and farm country in the Finger Lakes Region of New York State. After completing his high school studies, he pursued an education in Williamsport, PA. A place where he was often a patron of the Little League World Series. During our sit down interview, Lance and I enjoyed a few innings of the 2013 LLWS.
When he was done with school, “I came home in 1984 and wanted to buy a race car. So we bought an old Roger Schoonover street stock.” Yonge competed in the ’69 Chevelle at the Dundee Raceway Park (now known as the Black Rock Speedway). “I raced the last 4 races of the ’84 season and decided I’d rather be in a Modifed.”
1985 would start the DIRT Modified journey for the Yates County hot shoe, but success would come after a steep learning curve. “We ran 4 races that year and lost an engine. That really set us back that year but we kept plugging away at it.”
1987 brought on the success that he had strived for. They purchased a Howard Conkey Show Car from the Show Car Speed Shop in famous downtown Waterloo, NY. An area that groomed drivers like “The Hurricane” Steve Paine, “Magic Shoes” Mike McLaughlin and now former DIRTcar Modified Series Champ “Super Matt” Sheppard.
“We won 4 races that year, each win being 4 weeks apart. In fact, two of those races were Syracuse Super DIRT Week qualifiers. We beat out Lin Hough to get both of the Syracuse qualifiers.” Lin Hough, a DIRT Motorsports Hall of Famer who was enshrined into the Weedsport, NY Hall of Fame in 2010.
What may have been even more impressive was Yonge’s accomplishment in 1988. Lance was only one of two drivers in 1988 to take home small block (320ci) and big block track championships at the same track. Who was the other driver to also accomplish this? Maybe a guy you’ve heard of- 7-time Super DIRTcar Series Champion Brett Hearn. “That was really cool to be at the DIRT banquet and be up there with Brett knowing we were the only two guys to win both titles at our tracks.”
1992 was the season where everything changed for Yonge. In the years between his ’88 titles and ’92, they struggled with wrecked race cars and blown engines. But in the beginning of that year, they flipped and destroyed another big-block modified.
Lance was done with racing, “I decided right then and there I had had enough of spending money fixing race cars. But we had been watching Mal Lane race the sprint cars and have some success with them. So I talked to my wife Krissy and we decided we were going to save up the money and build a sprint car.” They sold everything that had anything to do with DIRT Modifieds, purchased a sprint car and as they say- the rest is history.
In 22 years of sprint car racing Lance Yonge has put up Hall of Fame numbers. And trust me on this one; the man will be a first ballot Empire Super Sprint Hall of Famer. You compare Lance’s numbers to the legendary “Mr. ESS” Malcom Lane (36 wins/6 Tour Championships-in a row) and well-known names like Mike Woodring (59 wins/8 Tour Points Championships).
What you have to remember is that Yonge was able to rack up 39 wins and 2 Tour Championships while running against drivers like Lane and Woodring. Even while running against these drivers, Yonge was always there in the Top-5 in points. He finished 2nd in points to Woodring 4 times. In his 22 years with the Empire Super Sprints Lance has finished in the Top 10 in points every year. The even more impressive number is that he has finished in the Top-5 in points 20 out of those 22 years.
From 1998-2003, Yonge had the opportunity to race for his friend and long-time competitor Malcom Lane in his famous Chevy Orange Lanes Yamaha No. 5. Although they weren’t able to win a championship together, they did win the last competitive sprint car race at the New York State Fairgrounds. That trophy sits in the ESS section of the DIRT Motorsports Hall of Fame.
“I had 6 good years with Malcolm. It’s good driving for someone who knew what it was all about. He never put any demands on me. I really wanted to win a championship for him, but unfortunately that never worked out. He was the car owner, but he was an even better friend and still is to this day.”
After Lance went back out on his own driving the Johnson Farms 17J, he caught fire. The 2004 and 2005 ESS championships found their way to Penn Yan, NY. 1 win and a season of consistency brought Yonge his first ESS championship. Something that he spoke about fondly during our sit down, “It was so special. We were always right there on the verge of winning it and finally did it.”
Come 2005, Yonge set the ESS tour ablaze. He repeated as ESS champion and won 6 A-Main events. “2005 to repeat, meant a lot more to me to be able to back it up and do it again. That was a great year.”
As though he doesn’t have enough accolades to put on the mantle at home, Yonge was even able to conquer qualifying for the 360 Sprint Car Nationals in 2006. He competed against 137 of the top 360 sprint drivers and was the first New Yorker to qualify for the 360 Sprint Car version of “The Big Dance” in Knoxville, IA. He was the 10th fastest car to qualify that night.
Fast forward to 2012. Lance found himself battling “The Cobra” Chuck Hebing for the ESS title. He hadn’t won a championship since 2005 and was poised to add another championship. Hebing was going for back-to-back titles. At season’s end, Yonge won the last race of the season at the Fonda Speedway and found himself atop the points standings. But a rule voted in at the beginning of the season by the ESS drivers allowed for a driver’s two worst finishes to be dropped from the final point standings. After this rule was applied, Hebing was declared the champion over Yonge by 35 points.
That was a tough pill to swallow for the 21-year ESS veteran. “It was a bummer. I was really bummed out at the end of that year. You go into Fonda leading the points, you win the race and you still lose the championship. That just didn’t set real well with me. I came this close to retiring.”
But through his disappointment over losing the 2012 title and thoughts of retirement creeping into his head- it was Lance’s daughter Brienna who gave him that extra push to come back out on the ESS tour in 2013. “She said, ‘Dad you can’t quit now. Next year is your 30th year, it’s ESS’ 30th year. You have to do one more year.’ She was the major influence that made me come back.”
2013 has been a struggle, to say the least, for Yonge. “We’ve had a good car, but we’ve only been maybe a Top-10 car. We’ve been searching all year for the setup and just haven’t found it. We are looking at a new chassis for the end of the year to run at the big money shows. I would love to go back to Utica-Rome and get the win at the Cole Cup.”
Come Saturday at the Inaugural Cole Cup 360 sprint car race, Yonge will be sporting that new GF1 Chassis. The purchase was made almost immediately after our interview and Lance had it out for competition last weekend when the ESS tour made it’s annual Labor Day Weekend stop at the Utica-Rome Speedway- site of the Cole Cup $7,000 to win race.
“I certainly haven’t forgotten how to drive. It’s just trying to get the car to feel the way I need it to feel.” But a win in the Cole Cup could, in one day, completely turn around a season that Yonge would rather forget. “If you can hit on one of those big money races at the end of the year, it really gives you a boost going into the next year.”
But even if he is able to win the Cole Cup, the question will still come up during the offseason. ‘Lance, will you be coming back to race in 2014?’
“One of these years I’m going to have to cut back. Brienna is getting older and playing high school sports, and I don’t want to miss out on that. There isn’t enough time to do both so I’m going to have to pull back at some point. Right now we’re just playing it year to year.”
Lance is a racer’s racer. He has seen and done it all when it comes to local short track racing and particularly in the Empire Super Sprint ranks. He’s also a guy that hard-working folks can relate to. Lance goes out and races on the weekends, but come Monday morning he is back out in a loader or a snowplow working for the Yates County Highway Dept.
Come Saturday night, the Johnson Farms 17J will be one car to keep your eye on. Utica-Rome Speedway and Cole Cup competitors take notice- Lance Yonge is coming to win the Cup. A cup he hopes makes it’s way back to wine country in Penn Yan, NY.