By Chris Martin
When I think of great single heats that I’ve witnessed, t have to admit that Pro Stock is one of the last categories I think of Overwhelmingly, nitro defines the classes that light me up, yet there was one gas and carburetors race that really sticks in my craw that occurred In Pro Stock at the 1971 NHRA Super-nationals hosted at Ontario Motor Speedway in southern California, drag racing’s original Taj Mahal.
It didn’t take long to realize that despite the surface-poputism, 40 acres and a-mule for all competitors, the cream rose-to-the top in this class fairly quickly. Ronnie Sox was the dominant racer of 1970, walloping all comers and winning the 1971 NHRA and AHRA World Pro Stock Championship with Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins, Sox teammate Herb McCandless, Don Nicholson, and Dick Landy trailing in the distance.
Sox was the Chrysler factory fair-haired boy. His and partner “Buddy” Martin’s red-white-blue Plymouths were first cabin in all directions. Not only was the Sox & Martin Plymouth Barracuda the latest word, but so were the S&M Plymouth rides of teammates McCandless and later Don Carlton.
The North Carollnian did more than just win those Pro Stock world titles; Sox won 15 career NHRA events, nine In Pro Stock and six In the Super Stock classes. He won titles at all of the organization’s big four, and also claimed 14 IHRA titles. Needless to say, he screamed on the match race circuit, locking the cash at the vaunted Super Stock Nationals, the Olympics of Drag Racing, and the Cars magazine meets in Maryland and New Jersey. There will be arguments on this because of the subjectivity, but Sox was probably the best four-speed handler in the sport from 1969 through 1971, and just about everyone’s No. 1 pick to win whatever hot rod association’s Pro Stock or Sgper Stock title that was up for grabs,
After all, Jenkins drilled him in the final at NHRA’s first Pro Stock final, the 1970 Winternationals, and repeated the insult, at the following (and inaugural) Gatomationals, but by the midpoint in the year he was knocking people out of the box regularly. Put simply, in the late 1960s, he was the guy to beat.
It was with that aura as a backdrop that Sox came into the 1971 Supernationals at Ontario. All the usual suspects were in attendance, probably 30 to 35 in all, with a number of these being fodder and from the West Coast. For a number of us, who really thought we had a handle on Pro Stock, our faith rested on Landy, Bagsnaw, and former California Nicholson for slowing this downhill Godzilla. Those guys, and a brash 27-year-old from Tulare, CA, named Larry “Butch” Leal.
Leal oozed self-confidence. At the age of 17, he was running and winning Super Stock races in California with a Chevy Impala and later a Ford Thunderbolt. Over the next few years in Plymouths, he was a class winner at the NHRA Winternationals and Bakersfield, and a winner of numerous west coast match race titles plus the eventual 1971 NHRA Pacific Division Wortd Championship Series champ
Leal was more than a Pro Stock/Super Stock racer. As early as ’66, he jumped aboard the burgeoning Funny Car bandwagon, and did better than good with a pair of Plymouths. He raced at the first Super Stock Nationals and set low e.t. for unblown cars at the third Super Stock bash at Cecil County Dragaway, Throughout the mid-1960s, he was considered as one of the top half-dozen Funny Car racers In the Western United States.
At the beginning of the 70s, Leal was going to go with the blown and injected fuel burning Plymouth, but he had a change of heart and passed, instead building a ’70 Camaro Pro Stocker. Leal didn’t have much luck with the Chevy and the following year he climbed aboard a 71 Plymouth Duster and it was in this ride that he really built his rep as a carburetors and gas racer.
He was lightning quick off the line in any of his cars and quickly became known as “the California Flash.” A few years after his 1071 Ontario showing against Sox, I watched him and (I think) Sonny Bryant at Orange County facing off for the (another guess) the Hang Ten (sports clothing) Championships, Both had done their burnouts and Bryant rolled forward pre-staging and then finally staging and lighting the first bulb at the top of the Tree. Leal? He was back in the OCIR water box.
Bryant’s crew was looking at the Orange County starting line officials and physically gesturing ‘what’s the deal with Leal?” The starters went back to the box, shrugged ‘what gives?’ Suddenly Leal fires the engine, does a brief water burnout, and then rolls right past the pre-stage bulb and deep into the stage. The Tree goes yellow and Butch Is outta there first off the line and first to the finish. Classic “Butch.” Elton John …. “the Bitch is Back?” In drag racing doorsiammers, “the Butch is back”… and In front of the cameras.
He conveyed that kind of confidence back in 1971. He didn’t take himself lightly or for that matter, his foes. His motto, as he told me 20 years ago after winning Pro Stock at the 1985 NHRA Cajun Nationals, “I like to play. I always have it in my mind, I’m not playing for [to protect] my money. l’m playing to take yours.”
Confidence or not, Sox had the way better numbers when compared to his California adversary in that season. The Sox & Martrin Barracuda had won the first three NHRA titles of the year, the Winternationals, Gatornatlonals, and the Dallas Springnationals, and then closed out with the Pro Stock trophies at the Le Grandnational Molson and the Indy Nationals.
Leal did not dazzle near that much, but still could handle himself. He was the Orange County track record holder with a Sox-like 9.51,142.18, had at least three NHRA WCS wins to his credit, and numerous summer match race wins at Detroit Dragway, Thompson Raceway, and southern stops like Shuffletown In North Carolina. He was a respected racer being pictured in ads ranging from Fenton Wheels to Goodyear tires.
In 1971. the NHRA Pro stock title went to the guy who won the NHRA World Finals and that year it was Mike Fons In the Rod Shop Dodge Challenger. Rons was a deserving winner as team owner Gil Kirk was super-competitive and spared no expense in putting forward his biggest foot. Still, If Fons and Sox were to go two out of three, my money would be on Sox.
At the 71 Ontario hoedown, which followed the World Finals, I was mostly captivated by eventual Top Fuel runner-up John Wiebe’s debuting and prototype Donovan 417-powered dragster. It, up ’til the final, was running low 6.50s while the rest of the field was In the low 6.60s, and that for a fuel fiend like me was an attention grabber.
Still, out of the corner of my eye. I saw that there was a possibility that local guy might tangle with Ronnie Sox in a somewhat rare meeting. Both had survived a pair of tough first rounds. Leal had nailed East Coast flogger Carmen Rotonda In round one, and the dished out a mld-9.50 to topple Indy Pro Stock runner-up Stu McDade In Billy “the Kid” Stepp’s immaculate and hard-running Dodge, Sox skated past his two rivals, one of which was Nlciolson In his first pair of go-rounds,
The PA voice, probably Bernie Partridge or Dave McClelland, alerted fans to the pairings In the Ontario Pro semi-finals and one of those was Leal vs, Sox. As actor James Coburn put it slyly In “Our Man Flint,” “My Interest Is piqued.
Leal’s Plymouth Duster was matching Sox stride-for-stride and on paper, it appeared that he could give the boss a run for his money. From my standpoint, I maybe had seen Sox lose just once from the time the Pro Stock category was introduced and that was the inaugural showing in Pomona, California where Jenkins beat him with a slower ET, Wouldn’t it be something If the kid could take Sox.
In the early 1970s, fans stood up (as they still do to a degree) for every pro heat or excuse for one, Two drunks could be wrestling in the seats throwing up on each other and they’d all stand to see it… come to think of it, so would I.
Anyhow, the highly anticipated pairing brought them to the line. I was at mid-track, so it was hard to see who left first, but the crowd seemed to roar as one (what else?) as they took off. They looked dead even as they scorched the Ontario asphalt. It seemed that at every hit of the Torqueflite the Leal fans would scream, ‘C’mon Butch!!!” and by the same token and in all fairness, so would the “Soxers” for their hero. (You know everyone loves a winner.) At half-point, It looked like the somewhat impossible was happening as Leal appeared to put a fender on Sox. It was hard to tell who was first from where I was sitting, but the win lights blinked that indeed Leal had taken the measure of Sox… by the numbers 9.553 to 9.558 and it was not lost on the 20,-to-30,000 fans who were at the track as they bellowed their approval.
…their uplift was soon succeeded by a letdown. In the shut-off area, Sox congratulated Leal, but noticed that the Californian was running wheelie bars, something he had not done in the first two frames. NHRA rules stated that no more than 55-percent of the car weight can hit the rear wheels and Sox wanted Leal to be weighed so that they could be on the safe side. The bars put Leal behind them as the weighed and re-weighed car poundage indicated that 57-percent of the weight was on the rear wheels… hence. Leal was disqualified and Sox would go the final and meet (and later beat) Herb McCandless In Greg Millwee’s Duster.
When this fact was announced, the crowd did not take to it well, booing somewhat vociferously. Still, like the Pope, the scales were infallible.
All in all, it was a very memorable race, one that for this viewer is so rare in this current day push into the boring tide of corporate sameness and sterility.