August 16, 2022

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Sonny Leonard, Engine Builder, Dies at 77

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You could possibly know Sonny Leonard from his line of 1,000-cubic-inch V-8s or his pioneering operate with Pontiac heads and Professional Mod racing. Automotive journalist Rod Shorter spoke with Sonny just before he died to share the history of this famous motor builder.
-HOTROD

Humble Beginnings

Immediately after 50-as well as several years of establishing engine combinations ranging from 400 to 1,000 cubic inches, lots of individuals are amazed to understand where by Sonny Leonard arrived from.

Subsequent his time in the U.S. Army, Leonard was utilized as a tech at a Chevrolet dealership wherever he place in more time on evenings and weekends to make a handful of bucks so he could drag race.

Just after offering his auto and borrowing $300 from the bank to start out his organization, Leonard and his spouse Frances set out on their personal to open a shop in a 300-square-foot making that could hardly suit two automobiles.

He labored on anything at all that had wheels, anything at all that would pay back the expenses to maintain his business likely. That ranged from fleet truck routine maintenance to farm tools to other racers’ cars and trucks.

Leonard would do the toughest work opportunities, the types that included internal motor do the job the huge retail names didn’t have the experience to do. Superior-general performance road and strip engines experienced to have closer equipment tolerances on parts. That intended often having a two-hour round vacation to the closest overall performance machine store to get function carried out that Leonard failed to have the tools for.

Producing that trip cost additional time and dollars that could not often be charged back again to a buyer, so he took it on himself to study some new competencies so he could convey that function in-home.

Leonard recalled, “‘I considered maybe I am going to acquire some products of my have, but I did not have any encounter in machine outlets, so I went to night time faculty.”

Leonard borrowed funds for device shop tools so he could apply what he’d acquired and then relocated his expanding small business to make area for all the things. He utilized that to construct some engines for his drag-racing interest and before long created a local adhering to that had found how well his car ran at the observe.

Producing a Name

In the early 1980s, Leonard set alongside one another a 540-inch motor blend for a younger Ohio bracket racer named Chuck Sneed who wanted to try his hand in IHRA and AHRA Pro Inventory. Sneed stunned persons with his overall performance, getting a member of the Holley 7-second club.

The “operate whatcha brung” fashion of Southern drag racing intended obtaining additional ability by what ever usually means was necessary, so Leonard’s recipe for huge-cubic-inch engines was in need. Organization ongoing to develop, forcing him to relocate his shop yet again to get a lot more area.

In 1987, a tiny-known Midwestern racer named Bill Kuhlmann acquired a 615-cubic-inch motor package from Sonny’s, extra some nitrous, and ran it at Darlington in Leading Sportsman. He arrived property from that event with nationwide recognition of getting the very first driver in a doorslammer to ever crack 200 miles for every hour.

“I genuinely failed to consider that it was so significant to his racing to be the initially entire-bodied car or truck to run 200 miles an hour,” Leonard mentioned at the time. “You could operate 199 all working day, and it ain’t no large offer, but you run 200? I did not recognize how critical that was. I just did not feel a great deal about it. But when he did it, that was something.”

Ted Jones, who was the IHRA president then, determined to produce a heads-up course to accommodate these potent, crowd-satisfying cars and trucks that we know as Pro Modifieds these days.

From Mountain Motor to Monster Engines

The popularity of Kuhlmann’s general performance had a substantial impact on racing as a complete as significant mountain motors became all the rage. The demand from customers for more substantial and much better race engines had maxed out the limits in cubic inches of what a stock block could accommodate. A lot of considered that motor enhancement had strike a wall.

“I thought again in people days that engines could only get about 540 or 550, tops,” Leonard admitted. “These ended up mountains again then, but in present-day environment, they are efficiently molehills now.”

Leonard achieved that challenge by abandoning the use of manufacturing facility production auto and truck engines in favor of aftermarket blocks with bigger proportions. Lifted cam spots, distribute oil pan rails, and much larger-bore centers furnished area for more substantial and larger sized displacements. He aided style the capabilities of an aluminum block with Donovan Engineering.

That, in switch, necessitated the want for much better interior motor factors that could securely deal with the bigger stresses of racing. Greater-diameters pushrods and camshafts were produced to minimize flex, whilst connecting rods and rod bolts began to use area-age technological innovation for top-quality energy. Castings for cylinder heads, for occasion, ended up enormously enhanced by warm isostatic Stress technology, which served remove porosity troubles whilst furnishing stronger, lightweight blocks.

The end result, at minimum for now, was the groundbreaking 1,005-cubic-inch motor that was later designed and constructed for an abroad purchaser.

New Directions

Sonny’s Garage, as the enterprise was initially identified, grew into Sonny’s Racing and narrowed its concentrate to just level of competition engines. As worldwide business enterprise grew, the title advanced into Sonny’s World Class Racing.

Regarded for its forward-contemplating and merchandise quality, inquiries from the truck-pulling and large-effectiveness marine communities began to ask for Sonny’s expert services. While not publicized, the enterprise experienced a hand in NASCAR and motorcycle racing, as nicely.

It all arrived from the recognition and praise that Sonny Leonard had acquired from his longtime shoppers.

New Yorker John Montecalvo, who gained Pro Stock association championships in 3 different sequence with Sonny’s electric power under the hood, was an example.

“He has constantly been progressive and on the foremost edge of technological know-how. If there is a way to make more horsepower, Leonard and his phenomenal employees would come across it,” he claimed.

The Legend Carries on

Nicely into his seventies, Sonny Leonard was a frequent existence at his small business, along with his spouse Frances and daughter Kelly.

A vast array of clients from each corner of racing across the globe continues to find parts, engines, and information from Sonny’s Earth Course Racing.

“You had to have the push,” Sonny mentioned about the key of his accomplishment. “You want to do it, you want to be much better, and you want to do superior than the guy in the upcoming town, so you worked a small more challenging and a small more durable. You gotta like what you do if you might be gonna do seriously excellent at it.”

From people humble beginnings in December of 1968, Sonny’s World Course Racing rose in prominence with progressive engine styles and uncompromising general performance. That’s resulted in well in excess of 100 national and world records on land and sea. In mountain motor Pro Inventory on your own, Sonny’s engines have amassed 17 championships in just the PDRA, IHRA, and ADRL.

Thinking back on the past half-century, Sonny even now won’t be able to believe how much the business enterprise has appear.

“When I assume back to my time at that small 300-sq.-foot setting up where by I started, we failed to even know if we would make it or not,” he mentioned.

When it can be all mentioned and finished, his was a lifetime of perseverance, hard do the job, and the success that came with it. It was the success of the American dream.

For above 50 yrs, Sonny Leonard was concerned in document-location carbureted wedge head avenue-style engines (left) to hemispherical mountain motors ranging up to 1,000 cubic inches.
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