Q & A: Leroy Van Conett

 Leroy Van Conett at the wheel of a vintage tribute sprint car, owned by Gary Silva.  

Leroy Van Conett at the wheel of a vintage tribute sprint car, owned by Gary Silva.  

Interview + Photos: Saroyan Humphrey

Feature | It’s a cool sunny December morning in Galt, California, and the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame driver is sitting in the living room of his ranch-style home watching cable news. He’s a youthful 82 years old. On one wall there’s a modest collection of photos, plaques and commemorations from his years of racing. Christmas is a few days away and family members are busy in different parts of the house, preparing for holiday guests. “We like having people here,” Van Conett says with a smile. 

Van Conett’s commemorative “hero card” for his induction to the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Iowa, 1999.

Leroy Van Conett is an eight-time Northern Auto Racing Club (NARC, now known as King of the West) sprint car champion. Other than Brent Kaeding, with 11 championships, nobody has won more since the series started in 1960. After winning his final title in 1984, Van Conett retired from full-time driving. These days his pioneer presence is still known at Northern California dirt tracks where you’ll often find him checking in with friends and offering sage advice to young open-wheel competitors. He’s truly a walking legend. 

Van Conett started racing at 20 years old in 1955. He began driving jalopies, modifieds and eventually super modifieds. By the mid-’60s he was racing open-competition sprint cars on asphalt and dirt. Van Conett built and maintained his machines and was among the best in the early days of modern sprint car racing, slinging dirt with fellow open-wheel greats such as Jan Opperman, Gary Patterson, Doug Wolfgang, Jimmy Sills, Jimmy Boyd and Johnny Anderson. He won the prestigious Gold Cup Race of Champions at the long-gone West Capital Raceway in 1976 and finished second in 1977. These days, the Dirt Track at Stockton holds an annual tribute sprint car event for Van Conett where he signs autographs and chats with fans. “It’s an honor,” he says with a chuckle, “but sometimes I just feel embarrassed. I don’t want people to think I’m trying to show off or something.”

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At home, Van Connet stays active working on antique cars and hot rods. He has plans to modify a 1927 Plymouth with a late-model Cadillac chassis and engine. He also rebuilds and sells assorted forklifts and tractors. “I’ve got all kinds of things going on,” he says without showing signs of slowing down. Surprising, since just a few months ago, he suffered a heart attack. With the support of family and friends, he’s made a strong recovery. “The doctor told me that I come through it better than most people,” Van Conett says, “so, I guess I got lucky.”

First things first, how are you feeling?
I’m doing pretty good, feeling good. I got healed up from that (heart attack) but that knocked the crap out of me. The operation wasn’t bad, it’s just trying to get your energy back. But it’s getting there. The trouble is, I wasn’t feeling bad before it. I was just getting ready for bed and I started feeling bad and I was trying to figure out what the hell is going on. .... I got up and thought I had pulled some muscles and then, shit, I thought, ‘this ain’t going away.’ So, at 3 o’clock in the morning, I said, 'Man, I better head for the hospital.’ I told ‘em, ‘I think I’m having a heart attack.’ They took me right in and by God, I did. I got there at the right time. I’ve got a lot of friends so it’s been good, real good, yeah. 

How far away from here did you grow up?
Probably a mile, maybe two. I’ve lived in the same area since 1946. I’ve never moved away. Back then the population was only like maybe 800 and everybody knew one another. You couldn’t do nothing without someone else blabbing their mouth about it. It’s grown quite a lot. It’s probably like 25,000—might even be more than that, probably closer to 30.

There used to be a half-mile dirt track right here in Galt. I saw them race here but that was before my time (as a driver). They had those old-track roadsters and the hardtops. It probably would have been a pretty good track if they’d left it there, but it’s gone now. It was Galt Raceway. It was a horse track, really. It had them old wood posts around it for a fence. You wouldn’t want to get tangled in that. ...

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You started racing at Stockton 99 Speedway, correct?
Yeah, that was such a good place to learn. It would teach you to keep the car straight. I raced with Johnny Brazil, Charlie Sanchez, Joe Giusti—he was a good racer—Joe Pombo, Mike Sargent. And one thing led to another, getting faster cars and then I finally got a sprint car and I went in another direction. 

How did you get the nickname “Dragon from Galt?” 
Early on, I had a sponsor on the car, it was Bruce’s Racing Tires, and they said their tires had ‘alligator bite‘. Well, this guy (sign painter) tried to paint an alligator on the car and everybody thought it was a dragon, so everybody started calling me ‘the dragon.’ (laughs)

You built your super modified, right?
Yeah, and then I finally blew the engine in it and I had it for sale and Lyle McCray came by and bought it. He ran it for a while and crashed it. I went over to their place to see what they were doing and they had another car and they were having troubles with it, too, and I said, ‘How come you have so many cars?’ And he said, ‘Nobody here knows how to repair ‘em.’ So, shit, I says, ‘Why don’t you let me take that car I sold ya’ and repair it?’ So I did—and I started racing for him.

You were racing and running your own business… 
I always held a job down, I did a lot of racing but I had other things that I had to do, too. I had a forklift business in Sacramento, off 47th Avenue, at a place called Auto Circle. I had that for 20-some years. That was long enough. I liked to race and I liked to win but I didn’t have no help behind me to speak of other than when I got going pretty good. 

Bailey Brothers was real good to me. They were the first competitive team that I drove for in a sprint car.

 Driving the Ted Hunting-owned sprint, Van Conett in 1972.

Driving the Ted Hunting-owned sprint, Van Conett in 1972.

Do you remember your first time in a sprint car?
It was a good-looking car but it was a piece of junk. It had a 292 Ford in it and these guys wanted me to drive it. Hell, the throttle was so messed up, it would go three quarters of an inch and would go from nothing to wide open. But it didn’t have a lot of power. So, we took that 292 Ford over to San Francisco, to Champion Speedway (near Candlestick Park) and we made the semi (main). I caught the leader and I was passing him and he took me out. That was the end of that and the next day we went to Sacramento and ran it on the half-mile. The steering had sheered the keyways in it from the wreck the day before. So, I was going down the straightaway and I kept turning the steering wheel and it kept going toward the wall. I pulled it in and told the guys there was something wrong. And the guy said, ‘There ain’t nothing wrong with it,’ and he started wheeling the steering wheel. I said, ‘It’s slipping somewhere,’ and he went to put it on the trailer and it wouldn’t turn. (laughs) That was my first ride.

You were racing all over the West Coast; what other tracks were you racing in California?
We raced in Anderson. It was dirt at that time. We raced at Eureka (Redwood Acres) Raceway once or twice. It was dirt then. And we’d come down this way and race Chico and then there was a track outside of Marysville, up in the hills. It was an asphalt track. We only raced it once or twice. They had seats that were from a train for grandstands. It was kinda neat. We raced at Dixon and there was Champion Speedway. Sacramento, Roseville and Placerville… and we’d race in Lodi in a football stadium. That was in the early days and you could do about anything you wanted. ... They had an old wood fence about two foot high and nothing in front of the grandstands to protect them. But then, they weren’t going that fast and if you hit the wall you wouldn’t go too far. I remember Hanford, Oildale and I remember racing at another track in Bakersfield: Mesa-Marin. It was a brand new track when I raced there. Clovis in Fresno, that was another good track. We raced once or twice at Ascot in L.A. I wish I’d lived closer to that track; that was a great place. There was El Cajon, Chula Vista, and El Centro. We’d race over in Carson City, Nevada, and Salt Lake. Shit, I don’t remember all of ’em.

…because living out here in Galt, there ain’t nobody who knew anything about racing.

There was another track, and a lot of people don’t remember it—Marchbanks Speedway—near Hanford. It was a mile and a quarter and they would run the Indy cars and NASCAR stock cars. (J.C.) Agajanian promoted a race there—a run-whatcha-brung deal (February 1969). It was a 100-mile race. There were super modifieds, sprint cars ... I went down to it. And, it was a funny thing—they were using the big, wide-profile tires—and a lot of them had power steering. I pulled in there with those old, skinny tires on my car. Guys said, “Shit, you can’t run them things.” And I said, “Shit, that’s all I got, so, I got to.” I didn’t even know they made them other tires … because living out here in Galt, there ain’t nobody who knew anything about racing. We went out there and qualified 10th fast out of over 100 cars and ended up fifth in the main event. (Johnny Parsons Jr. won.) The car handled really good. I think if I had those wide tires, I coulda won it, but didn’t. It was kinda fun.

How many nights a week were you racing normally?
We’d race probably twice a week normally but there were a few times we’d race every night of the week. West Capital and Calistoga is where we raced mostly. Those were my home tracks. Capital was a good track. It’s too bad it went upside down. Calistoga in those days was about once or twice a month. In those days the lighting at Calistoga was really bad, and if the track was heavy (with mud), it’d blacken the walls and you couldn’t see where you were going. We’d come down there and we couldn’t tell where the corner’s at because it was so dark. And they’d have guys bring the push cars and shine their headlights in the corners. But, shit, that didn’t do no good. Finally, I come up with a suggestion, “Hey, take a shovel and make some stripes on that wall (to remove the dirt).”

Driving the Bailey Brothers 01, Van Conett leads Pat Hughes and Ron Simmons at Santa Maria in 1978. (John Monhoff photo)

But they made a lot of improvements to Calistoga over the years. They used to have a wood crash wall and shit, I flipped on top of that—as I was passing for the lead. It was all 2x12s. All that wood was busting up as I was going end over end into it—on top of it—and through the trees. That wood beat the crap out of me. I can still hear them tree limbs breaking off as I was crashing through the trees. (laughs) I was upside down and some guys were going to release the seat belt and I said, “Hey, just let me hang here until I decide what’s wrong and what’s going on with me.” Finally I said, “OK,” and they held onto me and let me down and pulled me out. They had the ambulance there and I said, “Shit, I’m all right; I just had the shit beat out of me.” I was sore. I felt like I had been riding around in the back of a cement truck tumbling all day. I got home and I couldn’t even lay down. I just sat in an easy chair and set up. And then a few weeks later we came back to Calistoga and won the race. I guess you just forget what happened. 

You have 31 wins at Calistoga; you must’ve liked racing there.
I don’t remember how many it was. I never kept track. I kinda disliked the track but it was pretty good, you know. It used to throw a lot of rocks and then some nights it wouldn’t throw no rocks and those rocks weren’t small ones. Man, I had ‘em hit me in the helmet and it tore the shield off the thing and it sounded like a gun went off when it hit. 

What year did you help introduce the roll cage to NARC sprint cars ?
1970. I raced in ’68 and ’69, without a roll cage. (During a NARC meeting) I voted for it. I raised my hand. Guys came over and said, ‘What the hell are you doing? It ruins the looks of the car!’ I said, ‘Get your ass in that seat and let me know what it looks like from there.’ I mean, how stupid can you be not to add safety? When they had the cars without roll cages it made you nervous. If somebody said it didn’t bother ‘em, he was lyin’. It sure as hell did. You wanted to stay out of trouble. But shit, once you got it going, you’d forget the roll cage wasn’t on there—and that wasn’t good. 

I was telling somebody the other day, on today’s roll cage they oughtta have an x-bar coming across the top of the cage. And, shit, nobody does it. I don’t know why. There’s room enough to get in and out. It might be a little tougher but it ain’t that much. It’s good to have all of the safety stuff you can. When I first started running a sprint car all you had was a lap belt…

When did you start racing with power steering?
Yeah, I don’t remember when we got it but it was probably the late ’70s … but I didn’t want it. I said, ‘Hell, no!’ I figured I’d be oversteering the car. Bailey did it anyway and then I figured, how stupid could I have been? (laughs) It made a big difference. Shit, they even put it in the midgets after that, and the midgets always steered pretty easy. 

You went Indy Car racing; how did that come about?
It was 1981, this guy (Lyle McCray), he was going to buy an Indy Car. I told him he’d be better off buying everything brand new. At that time it would probably have cost $125,000—with a Cosworth motor. He was saying, ‘well, no, with the used deal (a 1980 Penske PC7), we’ll get a lot of spare parts…’. So, he bought it and it was all in pieces and I got some guys to help me put it together. We got it all together and we tried to build some ground effects into it. In 1982 we raced it ... I mean tried to race it. I took it to Phoenix and put it in the wall down there. There was a big bump and I come over that and the back end got loose. Quite a few cars that day did the same thing.

I said, ‘Get your ass in that seat and let me know what it looks like from there.’

Rick Mears came over and asked me what I was going to do and I said, ‘Hell, I’m all done. I ain’t going to make it to Indy.’ And he said, ‘Follow me after the races.’ He was really good to me. So we went over to a building he had there in Phoenix and lifted up the door and he said I could have it. It was a brand new tub with all the chassis parts and I asked him, ‘What do you want for it?’ And he said, ‘No, I’ll give it to you.’ It was really awful nice of him. I went home and put it together and had to go to Indy and I got some letters of recommendation to say that I wouldn’t have to take the rookie test. So, I got away with that. We got there and we were still working on the car. Shit, the thing had 535 horsepower and the good ones had 730 and it didn’t have the ground effects, so we were just kinda up shit creek all the way. I got as much as I could out of it but I didn’t qualify.

What made you decide to retire in 1984?
I was probably just getting too old. I just felt it. I didn’t need to be doing it no more. I raced until I was 50-something. There would always be bad nights sometimes, but that never bothered me. I always had a good time. I went there (to the track) for fun. There wasn’t no money in it to speak of. I would still race every now and then in somebody’s car for a few more years, but I didn’t have no business doing it. I still went to the races to watch when I could. Last year I went almost every weekend.

Who’s impressed you over the years in sprint car racing?
Oh, you know, the Kaedings have always impressed me. I used to race against ol’ Howard in a super modified. He was good, really fast. And Brent came along … he was real good, too. And then Tim … all those Kaedings are good. It’s pretty neat.

That (Buddy) Kofoid kid is a racer, too, I’ll tell you. He don’t even weigh 100 pounds. He raced a whole year and never really tore anything up. He stays out of trouble. He’s a clean racer and he can race with the best of ‘em. He’s a very nice kid, kind of a mix of Rico (Abreu) and (Kyle) Larson. He’s not a bragger, just a pretty quiet kid. 

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I think Buddy’s going to do good in this coming year. I think this guy (Gary Silva along with car owner Harley Van Dyke) is going to help him out. I try to help ‘em out a bit. My son (Roy), he works on that car a bit. I still got some ideas that nobody’s ever used that I know of. I’m going to change something in that car. I lay in bed and think about that stuff all the time. I will have it done before his first race and they can try it. I’ll tell you, I think about some crazy shit sometimes.

I still got some ideas that nobody’s ever used that I know of.

But that Larson … I’ve never seen anything quite like him. His family lives just down the road here. I’m good friends with Mike, his dad. I think Kyle will be in an Indy Car for Chip (Ganassi) one of these years. I know Larson wants to do it. I know he’d do well. I’ve seen so many different drivers. ... I remember (Bill) Vukovich Sr., and nobody’s like Larson. I don’t see anybody drive harder than he does and keep the car straight. He’s got a good career ahead of him. 

I know you were well liked and respected as a driver…
Well, you don’t want no enemies out there. (laughs) I always thought if somebody puts you in the wall and you go back and put them in the wall and they come back and get you … you ain’t going nowhere. You have to put it behind you, mind your own business and get going. Sometimes there were guys that would screw around until you had enough of it. And the next time they start screwing around and you just screw back and they think they did it to themselves—there’s always a way to do it—without them knowing what happened.