CUSTOMER/FRIENDS RELISH MEMORIES OF SONNY LEONARD
The passing of legendary, record-setting engine builder Sonny Leonard has left some of his high-profile clientele uncertain of their racing future without him.
At the same time, those customers -- all of whom became close friends of the Lynchburg, Va., powermaster -- have a seemingly endless list of stories to share.
“I don’t know what they’re going to do without him, really,” said Dean Goforth, a former IHRA Pro Stock competitor and close friend of Leonard’s.
“I don’t even want to think about it,” said John Montecalvo, who has won three mountain motor Pro Stock titles with Leonard’s engines under the hood. “I’m having a hard time just thinking about racing without him being on the track without the engine portion of it. He was more than … it was more than business, he’s just one of my best friends. Every time we ran the car, Sonny was there, shaking my hand before I made a run.”
Leonard, whose engines were responsible for 13 IHRA Pro Stock titles, died early Sunday morning after a bout with pneumonia. He also was part of IHRA’s ownership group in the early 1990s.
One of Leonard’s engines produced the first 200-mph run by a doorslammer car. That came in 1987 at Darlington (S.C.) International Dragway, when Missouri’s Bill Kuhlmann broke through that barrier in IHRA’s Top Sportsman ranks. To generate the type of power needed for the historic burst, Kuhlmann assembled a 615 cubic-inch Chevy kit purchased from then Sonny’s salesman Ollie Volpe. During the assembly process, Kuhlmann added nitrous oxide.
On his first qualifying run at Darlington, Kuhlmann ran the quarter-mile at 194.80 with the clutch going away on the top end. Before his next pass, Leonard came to Kuhlmann’s pit area to introduce himself, at which point the latter said, “‘Sonny, to be honest with you, 200 miles an hour is going to be a piece of cake.’ And he just looked at me funny, turned around, walked away, walked straight over to Bob Glidden,” Kuhlmann said in a June 2020 interview for competitionplus.com.
“He’s over talking to Glidden, and they’re maybe 30 feet away from me. He points over to me -- I can hear him but he don’t know it -- and says, ‘You see that stupid sumbitch over there? He thinks 200’s going to be a piece of cake.’ And Bob Glidden just shook his head.”
He removed all doubt on the next pass, rocketing down the quarter-mile at 202.24 mph and carving a place in drag racing history.
“I couldn’t afford a full motor, so I talked to my friend and sponsor, John Taylor, and asked if he wanted to put up the money for a kit motor. He went along with that, so that’s how we got into that,” Kuhlmann said Monday morning.
“I was with Sonny for a lotta years, and even after I switched to supercharged engines I had Sonny make me a manifold or two for the blowers. I stayed with him until I finally, just for the sake of cost, started building all my own stuff around ‘93, ‘94. I still consider him probably the best builder and Sonny’s the best engine shop in the country.”
Kuhlmann said that his midwestern dialect and Leonard’s southern Virginia drawl occasionally created a mild rift when one couldn’t understand the other. But, he added, there were many more times they made each other double over in laughter.
He recalled a time when they stood near the starting line between a pair of fire-belching Top Fuel dragsters. After their blastoff, Kuhlmann asked Leonard if he would like to ride in one of those missiles.
Leonard replied, “I wouldn’t drive one of those …”
“I didn’t say ‘drive,’ ” Kuhlmann clarified, “I said ‘ride.’ “
“I’d rather (stick my finger) in a hornet’s nest,” was the reply.
“He said stuff like that all the time,” Kuhlmann chuckled. “Y’know, ‘I’d rather walk through a lion’s den in a pork-chop suit’ -- that sorta thing.
“Probably ‘til the day he passed, he had a personality that made you comfortable and relaxed,” he added. “But being as close to him as I was, I could tell a lot of things stressed him. He was really out for perfection, and a lot of things really stressed that guy that he kept to himself. But I don’t know anybody that didn’t like Sonny Leonard.”
Another colleague and friend was Ohio’s Larry Morgan, a former Pro Stock driver and a top engine builder/developer. A Leonard engine was in the Pro Stocker of another Ohio racer, Mark Pawuk, and Leonard was struggling with problems involving valve clearance, Morgan said.
“It had one hole (cylinder) that he couldn’t figure out. I told him that the cam(shaft) was twisting. He said, ‘How the hell can the cam twist?’ ” Morgan said. “I said, ‘Well, it twists toward the end of the motor and the No. 7 cylinder always needs more clearance. He understood it later. I told him that once we figure out how to put big cams in this thing, we’ll be better off.
“He took that big-motor stuff and made something out of it when nobody else wanted to, and I always admired him for that. We were always friends, and we traded a lot of speed secrets. He took over and ruled that (mountain motor) deal, so if you wanted a Chevy like that, you had to go to Sonny, and if you wanted Ford, you went to Jon Kaase. He was just a wonderful person, and he’s going to be missed by a lot of people. Sonny … darn, what a loss.”
Montecalvo was a client of another engine builder when he entered IHRA Pro Stock competition and said he “ran pretty good.” But he also noticed a trend in that the drivers who outran him -- Harold Denton, Rickie Smith, Doug Kirk -- had Sonny’s World Class Racing propelling them to the finish line.
But joining the crowd wasn’t easy. Montecalvo said Leonard didn’t want to sell him an engine; not at first, anyway.
“He said, ‘I’m afraid you’re going to take it to somebody and you’re going to copy my stuff. I need to know that you’re loyal, I don’t trust you, I’m not going to sell you a motor,’ ” Montecalvo said Monday. “I said to him, ‘I’m gonna walk through the pits, and every trailer that has a Sonny’s motor, I’m going to raise the price by a thousand dollars ’til I buy one -- and then when I buy one, I’m gonna copy it because you won’t sell me one.’
“Carlton Phillips was standing there. He said, ‘Sonny, sell the man a motor. You can go to a yard sale and you can find Sonny’s motors sitting out on somebody’s lawn, they’re all over the place.’ Sherrill Huff came up and said, ‘John, I’ll sell you a motor, I don’t give a damn, I trust you.’ So I bought that motor, brought it back to Sonny, and Sonny saw that I was loyal to him -- and here we are 25 years later. I think that’s unprecedented that somebody stays with an engine builder 25 years without a break.”
Dean Goforth’s son, Cary, won eight Pro Stock championships in 11 years with the aid of Sonny’s power. He said that he and his father were solid customers of Leonard’s despite others’ attempts to lure them away.
“I owe Sonny a lot because of the hard work he and the boys at the shop put in to get us not only back together, but always searching for that extra one or two horsepower. They just busted their ass to do that,” Cary said. “There’s no way I win those championships without Sonny Leonard. I had a team -- of course I had a team -- but it starts under the hood, I don’t care who you are.
“Most people don’t know this, but there are always people creeping in with things for you to try. There were engine people that were trying to get us away from Sonny. And I always remember what Dad would tell those kind of people: ‘Me and Sonny are buddies now, and we’ll be buddies whenever this racing thing is over with.’ ”
That’s no understatement.
Once, when Dean Goforth and Leonard were wrapped up in a conversation, one of them brought up the idea of sailing down the Mississippi River. “We could look for Mark Twain all the way down through there,” Goforth remembers Leonard saying.
The plan was simple enough to enact, given that Goforth owned a 42-½-foot-long Chris-Craft yacht propelled by a pair of 454 cubic-inch engines. The two pals and four others set sail from Muskogee, Okla., made their way through the approximately 19 locks along the way, navigated the White River for a bit, then entered the Mississippi.
“We just floated on down through and seen all the tugboats pushing the barges and stuff. We had a super, super good trip. I think right before we got back to Little Rock, I told Sonny, ‘I’ve got a good mind to call my pilot and tell him to come and get me because I’m ready to go home.’ He said, ‘If you do, I am. I’m ready to go home, too.’ We bailed out in Little Rock. The boys that work for me were with us, and they took the boat on back to Muskogee.”
Good times were par for the course for Sonny Leonard and Dean Goforth. When they were in Las Vegas once for a race, they arrived at a casino in separate cars to eat supper. Afterward, Leonard couldn’t remember where he had parked his car and asked Goforth to lend a hand as they scoured the lot. Eventually, after the search proved fruitless, Goforth suggested Leonard use the remote key fob to sound the rental car’s horn -- only Leonard confessed he didn’t have the keys on him.
So, back to the casino they go to see if the keys had been found and turned in to the staff.
“We walked by this sign that said ‘valet’ and he fell over to his knees laughing and said, ‘Hell, I valet-parked that thing!’ There was always something like that wherever you went with him.”
The Bahamas were another of Leonard’s destinations … for conversational purposes, anyway.
Montecalvo was dating his now-wife Lois Anne when she accompanied him to a race for the first time. On race-day morning, they stowed their luggage in the team’s race hauler, then turned their focus to competition.
“He was flirting with her all weekend. He was always loyal to Francis; there’s no way that he would cheat, he was always a big flirt, he liked to kid and have fun. So at the end of the race, she’s coming out of the trailer with her suitcase, and Sonny says, ‘Where ya going, pretty lady?’ ‘cause he was on her all weekend, he’s taking her to the Bahamas, that’s his favorite line.
“She said, ‘I’m going to the Bahamas with you.’ He started stuttering, he turned bright red, he didn’t know what the hell to do. She was on him. ‘Didn’t you invite me to the Bahamas?’ He didn’t know how to handle it.”
In time, Montecalvo said Leonard began to hound him about his girlfriend, saying, ‘Aw, man, you should marry that woman. I’m telling you right now they don’t make them like that any more, look how hard she works and how good she is to you, you should marry that woman.’
“So it comes time to get Lois Anne a ring. He said, ‘What’re you gonna do this year? You gonna buy a new engine?’ I said, ‘Well, Sonny, I’m going to take your advice, I’m going to marry Lois Anne.’
“‘Oh, that’s great.’
“‘But this is the deal man: I can’t get a ring and a new engine.’
“Sonny said, ‘Oh, that woman’s gotta go!’ ”
At the 2020 PDRA season finale in late October at Virginia Motorsports Park, the empty promise of a trip to the Bahamas blew up in Leonard’s face -- courtesy of a very long fuse.
“This woman comes up to him that’s about 50 years old,” Montecalvo said, “and said, ‘Sonny, do you remember me? He said, ‘No, lady, I really don’t. Do I know you?’ She said, ‘I guess it was about 30 years ago, you said when I was a little older you were gonna take me to the Bahamas. Well, I’m a little older now.’ Sonny didn’t know what to say.”
It was Montecalvo who had the final laugh after losing wads of money against Leonard and pro fisherman Orlando Wilson, whose son Gene won the 2001 IHRA Pro Stock championship. Leonard usually went to races with a special dreidel -- a small, spinning top -- he used for gambling. The winner of a round was determined by the dreidel’s pointer when it stopped spinning, and for several races in a row, Montecalvo was the one coming up short. He decided to do something to express his displeasure.
“I went out and bought a cap gun and put it in my pocket,” Montecalvo said. “We spin the dreidel and I lose, right? I pull the cap gun out and said, ‘I’ve had it with both of you son of a bitches!’ and start firing the cap gun. They thought they were both gonna die.”
But when it came to competition on the quarter- or eighth-mile, Leonard was all business. Montecalvo said he became “a contender from the moment” he sped down the track with a Sonny’s powerplant. In addition to the three championships, he said he has “lost track” of the number of races he won as a customer of Leonard’s.
A key to their quarter-century relationship, he added, was that Leonard didn’t play favorites. When he uncovered a speed secret, all of his customers, not just one, got the scoop.
Montecalvo, who owns a pair of 828 cubic-inch Sonny’s motors, said, “I know for a fact we always got what he could get. If you went there tomorrow and you were a customer of his, you’d get the same thing -- or better if he found something more.
“That’s just the way he was, a fair guy. You don’t want anybody to play favorites and he didn’t. You had the best he could give you at that moment.”
On Monday, Leonard’s customers, while reveling in their many unforgettable memories, also were having difficulty dealing with what his loss means to drag racing and to them as his friends.
“He was an honorable guy, and I just can’t say enough good about him,” Larry Morgan said. “I’m going to miss him. ... He’s just one of those fellows you always wanted to have a conversation with.”
Montecalvo remembered how Leonard would often don a Santa Claus costume and distribute gifts at nursing homes in the Lynchburg area.
“He loved the old people, loved ‘em. He’d sit there and talk to them for hours,” Montecalvo said. “He said they were so wise and saw so much that he got so much out of it. ‘Nobody talks to them, nobody listens to them,’ and they looked forward to him coming every year.
“I’m still in shock that he’s not going to be here.”
When news of Leonard’s death reached Dean Goforth in Oklahoma, he and his wife packed suitcases -- without knowing the funeral arrangements -- and began the drive to Virginia for the service.
“I’ll never know another man like him,” Goforth said as he drove east Monday afternoon. “He was a unique person. He wasn’t a good guy, he was a great guy.”
Friends may pay their respects and sign the register, Wednesday, January 13th at Whitten Timberlake Chapel from 9 to 5. 7404 Timberlake Road, Lynchburg , Va 24502.
A service celebrating his life will be conducted at 1:00 pm, Thursday January 14th at Thomas Road Baptist Church. 1 Mountain View Road, Lynchburg, VA. 24502
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