The late Lavern Nance was a legendary race car builder who won the respect of customers and competitors alike.
After working as a plant manager at Beech, he and his wife, Marvell, opened their own machine shop in 1959 and began building parts for local aircraft companies. It wasn’t long before they began creating parts for race cars and that business soon flourished, with complete Super Modified and Sprint Cars eventually being turned out in their facilities.
According to local racing fans, at one point Nance was selling 100 to 150 race cars a year, and they were among the lightest, fastest, most innovative machines on the track. But there was one special car that Nance turned out, near the end of his career, in 1992, that achieved legendary status of its own: what is believed to be the only titanium-chassied Sprint Car in the country.
And it all started with a racing bicycle.
“Mr. Nance was an innovator. He was always thinking about ways to make things lighter … and faster. Or how to make two parts into one,” said Steve Bahm, who recently restored the titanium #1n car with the help of local round track racers.
Paul Diefenbach, who raced bicycles on the same team as Bahm, had talked to Nance about building him a titanium-framed racing bicycle and the notion of a super-strong, super-lightweight round-track racer apparently germinated in Nance’s fertile mind.
It was an expensive undertaking, with the titanium tubing required for the job reportedly costing $10,000 at the time. As the story goes, the raw materials were smuggled into an aircraft plant and welded into a working chassis in a special pressurized Argon gas facility.
Joe Swafford, who had teamed up with Nance on other race cars, supplied a 410 cubic inch Rodeck copy of a small block Chevy engine for the titanium car and it was raced fewer than a half-dozen times. Tragically, during its brief racing history, the car was involved in a fatal accident at 81 Speedway. A front wheel/tire assembly came off the car, bounced over a safety fence and struck two young racing fans, a brother and sister. Both died of their injuries.
Nance retired and sold off his race shop that same year and the car was sold at auction. Over the intervening years, it changed hands several times and dropped off the radar.
Then one day, Dennis Dye, a member of the board of the Belleville High Banks racing museum, called Bahm.
“He said I know where the titanium car is … would you be interested in it?” The museum was interested in displaying the unique machine and offered to help arrange its restoration.
“In 2004 I made a deal to buy the car from Mike Evans ... met him in the parking lot of Texas Motor Speedway. Bahm learned that Joe Swafford still had the original engine for the car, and Bahm’s friend Steve Carbone, the late drag racer, freshened up the power plant for him.
The engine had been dyno-tested at 740 horsepower at some point and, given the fact it now resides in an 86-inch wheelbase car that weighs in at 980 pounds with a full load of fuel, Bahm believes it could still be competitive on today’s race tracks.
Besides the titanium frame, aluminum and magnesium pieces were used to help keep the weight down.
“There isn’t much on the car that a magnet will stick to,” Bahm noted.
The car was in decent condition at the start of the project.
“It was not beat up from the race track, but from sitting in a garage. The wing had a big hole in it. In the restoration, we really didn’t change or update anything,” Bahm said.
Mike Thompson and Louie Thompson (no relation) provided the bulk of the labor, with disassembly and reassembly being done at Warren “Jelly” Wilhelm’s shop, where the top wing was repaired.
Scott Nance also worked on the car, which was repainted in the original Sherwin Williams bright white by Daryl Williams, with Nadine Ward brought in to recreate the original graphics she had done more than two decades before. Debbie Thompson sourced the period-correct decals.
Dwight Diefenbach reupholstered the aluminum racing seat and Fred Stewart donated the rare McCreary racing tires to the project.
The titanium car was finished in time to be present at the recent induction of the entire Nance racing family into the Belleville museum’s Hall of Fame. It will next be on display in the Gasoline Alley section of the upcoming BlackTop Nationals, August 21-23. Eventually, it will be taken back to Belleville for long-term display.
Reach Mike Berry at firstname.lastname@example.org.