Larry “Butch” Leal grew up in central California with a fascination for cars early in his life. With a subscription to Hot Rod Magazine at age 12 his love affair was kicked into high gear. He bought his first car, a 1946 Ford coupe, at age 14 but opted to trade it for a 1931 Ford Model A coupe. There were a lot of abandoned cars in the fields around his home so he talked the various farmers in the area into allowing him to use them as a “pick-a-part” lot and he soon had the “A” running.
At age 16 Butch talked his folks into trading his entire summer’s work for a new 1960, 348 cubic inch, tri- powered Chevrolet El Camino which he promptly took to the local dragstrip. His first outing netted him a trophy and it was the start of his racing career. Butch lived not far from engine builder HL Shahan’s shop before long he had HL modifying the El Camino’s engine.
By the time he graduated from high school Butch had racked up an impressive win streak at several tracks. So, it seemed natural for him to go racing full time. The El Camino was followed by a 409 powered Chevy Impala, and in 1963 he bought an Impala with the new 427 engine and an aluminum front end. He started getting a lot of help from Bill Thomas and how to run the car.
In mid-1963 GM pulled out of racing. About that same time Butch was introduced to Mickey Thompson who had just inked a deal with Ford, to campaign one of the new lightweight Galaxies, so the two teamed up on the project. It took a bit of experimenting and help from some of the Ford oriented folks but they soon had the Galaxy in the winner’s circle. It was also at this time Butch began doing a lot of his own machine work and engine building.
At 19 years of age Butch became a member of the Ford Factory Racing Team and found himself at the wheel of one of the new 427 powered Thunderbolts. This car took him to the winner’s circle in the highly competitive S/S class at the 1964 NHRA US Nationals in Indianapolis, Indiana. Shortly after this win Butch received his second nickname, “California Flash” which stayed with him the rest of his racing career.
After winning the US Nationals Butch received a call from the director of Chrysler’s factory racing program with an offer to drive one of the new Chrysler Hemi powered Plymouth sedans which he quickly excepted. The only problem with the program was that, in relationship to the regular cars, the front and rear wheels were move forward on the car so NHRA didn’t have a specific class for them to compete in. Without a class to compete in, the team cars instead campaigned throughout the states in match races which opened the doors for more competitors to become professional racers. Also, the introduction of those “altered wheelbases” cars was the beginning of what later became commonly known as funny cars.
In 1967 after watching the latest Mercury backed funny cars, which were based on to chassis, Butch contracted with the Logghe brothers to build him a similar car with a tube chassis and a barracuda flip top body that was powered with an injected 426 Hemi Chrysler on nitro. The next year Butch built a new Barracuda body funny car but this one was to use a blown 426 Hemi for power. While working with Jack Chrisman to learn the ins-and-outs of running a blown nitro fuel engine, Butch witnessed several severe explosions and decided he really didn’t want to go that route so he returned to his super stock roots.
1969 found Butch at the wheel of Mickey Thompson’s as new 429 shotgun hemi powered Ford Mustang. In 1970 he moved again this time successfully competing with his own big block powered Camaro. In 1971 Butch returned to the Chrysler camp which is where campaigned various configurations of Chrysler’s through the 1977 season. Butch finished his career campaigning the Chrysler brand.
During his career Butch was an 11-time NHRA Champion, recipient of Car Craft Magazines coveted “All-Star Driver of the Year” (four times), and one of the most successful drivers to compete in the sport over the years: 01960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.
By "Big Daddy" Don Garlits| April 8th, 2019
Jimmy Nix, aka the “SMILE-N-OKIE”
By Martin Libhart (all photos by Martin Libhart unless noted otherwise)
Jimmy Nix began drag racing in the mid-1950’s, and by the early 60’s he had become an Oklahoma drag racing legend, winning several nationally sanctioned races at the old Jaycees Dragstrip on the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds in Oklahoma City. In fact, he was the first driver in NHRA history to set records in four separate divisions - AA/FuelDragster, AA/Gas Dragster, A/Gas Dragster, and Super Stock Factory Experimental.
Although probably known best for his years in the seat of a AA/FD, Nix also spent time in the seat of one of the “Dodge Chargers” beginning in 1964.
The Dodge Chargers were a factory-backed team running two Dodge 330 sedans with stroked and blown wedge motors. To further ‘wow’ the crowds, they brought in three Dodge Polaris hardtops powered by 318 motors for the team members to drive. The team had a custom-built tractor-trailer rig that carried both race cars, along with an elevated platform and a lighting system for their pit display.
With name recognition as an established top fuel driver, Jimmy Nix was an immediate hit with the crowds. Nix would often ruffle the “factory feathers” by switching camshafts without permission, and once even attempted to transplant a nitro-burning 392 from his AA/Fueler into the sedan. Sadly, the factory-backed team was short-lived, and never received the new hemis they had been promised when the team was first unveiled.
In 1971, Nix retired to pursue other things, but the retirement was not to become permanent. Jimmy Nix returned to the sport in 1990 after attending a race as a spectator. Drag racing was in his blood, and he could no longer resist returning to what he loved. Nix was quoted as saying "It's kind of funny, I went to watch some races and visit friends, and all of those guys who raced when I did (in the '60s) were still out there doing it.”
At the 1994 Winternationals in Pomona, CA, Nix broke a track record when his top fuel machine ran 4.781/276.75 mph. Just a few months later, the veteran Oklahoma City drag racer was killed on May 21, 1994 – on a Saturday night at the Texas Motorplex in Ennis, TX. His rear-engine top fueler crashed at the top end after experiencing catastrophic wing strut failure. View attachment 76522
Iconic Funny Car Crew Chief Austin Coil Shares Thoughts on Mindset, Innovation, Safety
By Josh Hachat | September 24, 2018
In Austin Coil’s mind, there was only goal when he pulled up to the staging lanes.
It’s a mindset he shared with Will Hanna on his weekly “Tuneup Tuesday” live show on the Drag Illustrated Facebook page, as Coil joined Hanna for an extensive talk on his career, his innovations and success, and his thoughts on the current state of racing in the NHRA.
Ultimately, what that success came back to was an intense drive to always push forward.
“Every time we went out to race we had the self-proclaimed goal to run better than we ever ran before,” Coil said. “We went out there with the attitude to see how fast we could go.”
That singular focus took Coil a long way as one of the most successful and highly regarded crew chiefs in the history of drag racing.
From match-race success with the Chi-Town Hustler to winning his first Funny Car world championship with Frank Hawley to an incredible run of dominance as one half of an iconic duo with John Force, no Funny Car crew chief can match a track record of 17 Funny Car world championships, 139 Funny Car wins and 14 CarCraft Funny Car Crew Chief of the Awards.
But to get there, Coil’s approach never changed. No matter the time period, there was one goal in mind.
“A lot of guys tuned by the idea of intentionally taking horsepower out of the motor,” Coil said. “We never did that. We always made as horsepower as we knew how to make and let’s find a way to make it go down the racetrack.
“Some guys ran to not hurt parts. My goal is to hurt all eight pistons just a little bit.”
It’s also a mindset that has made Coil not a fan of the NHRA’s track prep changes during the 2018 season. After record-breaking speeds and times were routinely set in 2017, NHRA altered its track prep approach early in the 2018 in hopes of keeping speeds at bay. As a crew chief, it’s not a move Coil has enjoyed.
“They had a system figured out where just about every pair was side-by-side racing at the end of last year. It’s not no prep, but it’s half-prep,” Coil said. “To me, it makes it uninteresting. Nobody is going to run better than they did last year the way they’re prepping the tracks now and this is in the name of safety and saving parts. That’s their intent.
“If I had a vote, I would vote against it because I wanted to go drag racing to find a way to go faster every time we raced. It’s what I like to see. They had some of the best shows they ever had up until they changed the prep. For my view of what’s happening, the way they used to prep the racetrack made it a better show.”
As a crew chief, it’s easy to see Coil’s viewpoint. A magician when it came to creating speed and consistent power, his goal was never to hold back.
He understands the safety intent behind it, if not the results this season, yet finding a solution is self-admittedly not in his wheelhouse.
His area of expertise is being on the cutting-edge of performance and that all-or-nothing, full steam ahead approach doesn’t exactly mesh with the idea of slowing the cars down.
“I’ve personally been involved in a dozen meetings as part of the safety committee, and all of those meetings are still going on now,” Coil said. “The question they ask is, ‘What can we do to slow the cars down and make the show better for the fans and save the competitors money?’ I don’t know of any solution that answers all the questions in a positive manner. It’s a problem that all motorsports are facing.”
When it came to solutions, innovation and forward-thinking creations in a Funny Car, there may be nobody better. His advancements in all areas – from clutches and clutch discs to throttle linkage to fuel systems to blower testing – were always ahead of their time, also staying at the forefront of technology.
He continues to consult with John Force Racing, talking with Robert Hight just a couple weeks ago at Maple Grove Raceway after the team struggled early on in qualifying.
But working together as a team to make a spectacular run, that was a major draw for Coil. The perfect mesh of people, parts and technology was never easy, but when it came together, there was nothing better.
“The thing about winning races that most teams give ample credit to – and I was guilty as anybody – is you don’t give enough credit to every member of your crew,” Coil said. “However many guys are involved, any one of them can make you lose. It takes every one of them in harmony to make you win. That’s a big thing, having a whole team that works in harmony.”