““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
"Screw it, let's ride" was the position Harley-Davidson took when the economy tanked. So said ex-motorcycle drag racer and business jet owner Terry Vance, who thinks the cure for general aviation lethargy could be a page out of the motorcycle company's marketing playbook. "The [business aviation] industry made a huge mistake when they started running ads justifying their existence," Vance commented. "They should have gone right at the throat of the issue: There are a lot of people out there who use aircraft to be successful in business and there is no disgrace in that. It is the position they should have taken, sort of like Harley did. They took the posture that the economy is not in our control, so let's go ride our bikes."
Vance retired from racing in 1988, after accumulating 24 major victories, and is still ranked as the 34th top drag racer of all time by the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA). In 1982, he became the first motorcycle drag racer to top 200 miles per hour in the quarter mile-a mere 1,320 feet-a dizzying rate of acceleration that far outpaces that of his new Embraer Phenom 300 jet. The "bike" had a 1,200 cc engine, but it was supercharged, fuel-injected and ran on a nitro-methane fuel that boosted output to 1,000 horsepower. "At the time, it was pretty cutting-edge technology," Vance said.
It certainly was a quantum leap from his first ride, a mini-bike powered by a lawn-edger engine. He purchased that with proceeds from his paper route and then moved up through a series of Hondas.
By age 16, he was racing at the local drag strip, and he turned pro in 1972.
Then he met bike builder Byron Hines and the two became fast friends. Vance was right out of high school and Hines had recently left the Army. In 1977, Vance began racing-and winning with-Suzuki's new GS 750. Hines stayed with him to tune the bike. Their success quickly brought the duo star status in the motorcycle world.
At that point, Vance said, "We began to think the best thing to do was to save our money so we could go into business for ourselves." In 1979, they launched Vance & Hines, a custom engine shop, in Santa Fe Springs, Calif. It soon grew into the premier builder of high-performance exhaust systems for racing and street bikes, mainly Harley-Davidsons. The company also fielded national race teams for motorcycle manufacturers, first for Suzuki, and later for Yamaha and Ducati, and branched out into related publishing and apparel ventures.
By 1999, Vance & Hines had 200 employees. The Motorcycle Aftermarket Group acquired the company in 2003 but Vance remains involved in the business. "We've been around for 30 years and have 45 percent of the market," he told us.
In 1998, meanwhile, Harley-Davidson approached the pair about putting together what has become a championship NHRA motorcycle team. Vance is involved in managing the team while Hines is the chief designer and "tuner."
Going back to racing got you into aviation?
Trinidad, Colorado [where Hines has his workshop], is a hard place to get to and that is when I decided I had to get a pilot's license to go back and forth and to the races. I realized what a great business tool it was for me. More importantly, it enabled me to be home with my family. I could do all my racing activities and still have a family life.
I understand you had a Cirrus first but bought a Cessna Citation CJ2+ when you realized you needed something faster and with more range.
Actually I still own my Cirrus. In fact, I'm on my third one and it is a super airplane. If I am taking short hops to Vegas or Phoenix, I always fly my Cirrus. But I knew I needed to get to places like Gainesville, Florida, and Norwalk, Ohio-places commercial aviation can't get right to. I had a Citation Mustang ordered originally, but I decided it didn't have enough range, so I bumped up to the CJ2+.
What's the most valuable thing the jet allows you to do?
Our race shop is now in Indianapolis. We have 200,000 square feet and 100 employees. It's where we do all our engine development. With that jet I could be in my office in Indianapolis and take care of business in the morning, then fly to Janesville, Wisconsin, and meet with our largest customer, or to Milwaukee and meet with Harley-Davidson, and still be home with my family for dinner in California.
That is pretty special stuff and you couldn't take care of business like that on the airlines or any other way. The amount of time it condenses for me is invaluable. I just don't know if I could do it [run the race team] if I wasn't able to use private aviation. In fact, if I didn't have the jet I wouldn't do it, because it would take two or three times the amount of travel time to get the work done and I don't want my family to have to suffer with me away more than I need to be.
How many races are there a year and how is the team doing?
There are 17 national events and they are held in all the major metropolitan areas around the U.S. Over Labor Day weekend, Indianapolis hosts the biggest event of the year, with 120,000 spectators over four days. We started competing with this team in 1999 and that first year we didn't even qualify for one race. That was pretty demoralizing because we had never not qualified for an event. But then in the last five years we have won four championships.
You took delivery of a new Embraer Phenom 300 jet last year. What attracted you to the airplane?
I actually sent Embraer a check for my 300 before I took delivery of my CJ. I thought these guys are a huge company that build high-time aircraft, regional airliners, so they should be able to build a business aircraft that can log a lot of time without too many problems. My thinking was that Embraer had to hit it out of the park to get any traction in this marketplace, because when they announced the airplane, business was very robust. So when I saw the performance numbers-the range and speed-
I was pretty happy. I think at the end of the day I will be glad that I got one early.
What impressed you most about the airplane?
The ascent. It is not uncommon to see a climb rate of 4,000 feet a minute for a long time. I couldn't do that with my CJ. In fact, the controllers would keep asking us for more speed. Now, in the 300, they are asking us to slow it down. The fuel burn is the same as the CJ, but this airplane is 40 knots faster.
Also, the aircraft is quiet inside. What they did with putting cabin heating and lighting controls at the executive passenger seat is really nice. The fit and finish are good. Then there's the ramp presence. People flock around it wherever we go.
I don't know why I would ever need a larger airplane. There are a lot of people who can use this aircraft and be happy with it, so if I were the competition I would be worried about that.
Embraer is a relative newcomer to the corporate jet market. Did you have any concerns about the company's ability to support your airplane?
I knew it would be a challenge for Embraer to meet Cessna's level of service. The Cessna guys took great care of me, but I am pretty happy with Embraer. My plane is based at Long Beach and the Embraer service center is in Phoenix. When I am in Indianapolis, I can take the plane to the factory-authorized service center at Eagle Creek Airport. What is critical to me is that I can get in the plane and get where I need to go squawk-free and be comfortable while I am doing it.
If you want the same speed, price and cabin, the only thing that would make you buy the CJ4 over the Phenom 300 is that the CJ's systems are a little more tested and there is better service in terms of numbers of locations and reputation. But the Embraer guys are in the sweet spot if they maintain the customer service they need to maintain.