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.