We all know Attesa is being developed as a center for advanced technology research engineering, motorsports innovation and forward thinking transportation design. We also know there is much to be learned from the past, including some inspiration from the accomplishments of some not-very-well-known personalities.
People like one of those posed in the background, in the photo to the left, behind an experimental front engine, four wheel drive IndyCar from an era when racers were permitted to innovate.
This is a belated obituary/bio/profile about one such forgotten racer. And I say ‘racer’ because even if you’re not the driver, but you give your all to a motor sport in quest of making your team first to the checkered flag, that’s exactly what and who you are.
Larry Burton was born December 8, 1936 in Dunreith, Indiana, about 60 miles east of Indianapolis. He passed away September 9, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona, where he’d lived since 1976.
He came from a racing family. His grandfather enthusiastically accepted horseless carriages in the early 1900’s, his uncle and father both raced and the bug eventually hit Larry and his three brothers.
His dad took him to Indianapolis when he was four.
Larry finished second in his first Soap Box Derby competition and took home the trophy the following year, winning a year’s free haircuts, a new Schwinn bicycle and free ice cream for a year. He built his cars all by himself.
After high school Larry joined the Air Force and served five years, headquartered at Lincoln Air Force Base in Nebraska. Upon his discharge in 1959 he moved to California and got a job at Disneyland working on the ‘Autopia’ ride, the one with the little 4-cycle Briggs & Stratton lawnmower -engined cars that were on a guide track. He soon returned to Lincoln to gather his wife and kids towards permanently moving to the Golden State.
While back in the Midwest he contracted polio and became permanently confined to a wheelchair. But they all moved to California anyway; Larry, his wife and two sons and brothers, and his mother, a widow after Larry’s dad was killed in a 1951 racing accident in Anderson, Indiana.
In 1962 the Burton brothers built a sprint car and started racing CRA events at Ascot, El Centro, El Cajon and Gardena. Their home-built-on-a-tight-budget dirt cars were fast, to the point where Larry was being asked to build engines for other race car owners. One was a man named Bob East, who had a son just starting to race. They built a new car for East’s son Bob Jr. and he did fairly well, eventually gaining great notoriety and success as the man behind Beast race cars, and the father of two-time (2012, 2013) USAC Silver Crown Champion and 2004 National Midget Series Champion Bobby East.
One Saturday night at Ascot, a couple of racers told Larry he should be wrenching in Indianapolis. One of them was Louie Unser, older brother of eventual three-time Indy 500 winner Bobby Unser and four-time winner Al Unser. Burton doubted if USAC was going to let a guy in a wheelchair into Gasoline Alley but Louie said, “If you have any problems, have them give me a call.”
The next year Larry Burton was hired as the engine man for an IndyCar team owned by Walt and Joe Michner. The car was an ex-A.J. Foyt Lola, powered by a DOHC Ford, to be driven by sprint car ace Larry Dixon. Chevy expert Burton had never even seen an engine like this, let alone worked on one. And the engine was in pieces, completely disassembled, piled in a couple of grocery store shopping carts. Larry put it together in Southern California and then traveled with the team back to Indy where the engine fired and ran exactly like it was supposed to, Dixon bumped his way into the field (qualified 32nd, only to be taken out in the lap one accident that eliminated 11 cars) and Larry Burton got his license and a Silver Badge. He didn’t need to call Louie Unser.
That same year, right after Indy, Larry was visiting racer Don Edmunds’ shop in Anaheim, CA and saw something else he’d never seen before; a Group 7 or Can-Am McLaren Elva prototype sports car, sponsored by Nickey Chevrolet. It was love at first sight. The car’s owner and driver, Charlie Hayes, was there and said his crew chief had just quit and the car needed to be prepared for the USRRC Road America 500 at Elkhart Lake. Was he interested?
With zero experience with sports cars or road racers Larry said ‘sure’ and went to work. He tore the car apart, magnafluxed the suspension parts, rebuilt the engine, put it all back together and went to Wisconsin. Hayes qualified on pole and led most of the race, only losing on the last lap by a fraction of a second after a head cracked near an exhaust port. Larry stayed with the team for a few more events until Hayes was injured in a race at Las Vegas.
Burton’s next job was with Mickey Thompson, working on a front engine, 4-wheel-drive IndyCar, a conventional rear-engine IndyCar powered by a custom 3-valve Chevy V8 and a lot of Thompson’s Bonneville cars. While at the flats he even got to work with Smokey Yunick, even though Smokey was running a Chevy and Thompson was racing Fords. A few years later, Larry actually worked on Turbo Chevy IndyCar engines for Smokey at the race shop behind Yunick’s ‘Best Damn Garage in Town’ in Daytona Beach, Florida.
One day, Thompson called Burton and told him to prep and then tow the 1967 rear-engine IndyCar to Phoenix International Raceway; he’d made a deal to rent it to Universal Studios toward helping some actor learn how to drive a race car for a new movie.
The actor was Paul Newman; the movie was ‘Winning.’ Larry spent two days with PLN, drank beer with him at the Wishing Well bar in Cashion, AZ and helped him to get comfortable — and fast — in an open wheel USAC championship race car. By the end of the learning session Newman was lapping quick enough to have qualified for the previous year’s Bobby Ball 150.
The next year, for insert filming at Indianapolis, Larry and one of his brothers were hired to maintain the replica Bobby Unser 1968 Eagle/Offy that Newman drove in the movie.
Larry Burton was the genuine article; an honest-goodness USAC Silver Badge Champ Car Chief Mechanic who was respected and renowned for building IndyCars, sprint cars, midgets and sports cars, including engine, chassis and suspension. He worked for car builders like Grant King and Clint Brawner and wrenched for drivers like Darrell Dockery, Bill Simpson, Steve Krisiloff, Jimmy Caruthers, Lee Brayton, Dick Simon, Jim Hurtubise, Spike Gelhausen, Larry Cannon, Billy Engelhart and Dick Ferguson.
He helped build and develop Steve Bolan’s four-wheel-drive turbine-powered sprint car, a vehicle that raced several times at the famous Copper World Classic at Phoenix International Raceway, always dropping out near the end, after turning some of the fastest laps, due to running out of fuel or burning up the brakes.
They set a turbine-powered vehicle record at Pike’s Peak, using front wheel drive only, after the four wheel drive system was disqualified.
Larry Burton was the crew chief/engine builder for Billy Engelhart in 1973 when the Wisconsin driver won Ascot’s Turkey Night Grand Prix, then and now the biggest midget race in the country.
In the 80’s he started building radio-controlled model airplanes, then moved up to work on full-size planes, first as a restorer and then as performance engineer. He would modify any and all parts of an aircraft to improve speed, safety and efficiency; all from his wheelchair, using blocks and tackles and hydraulic hoists.
His final claim to fame was an airplane called ‘Blind Man’s Bluff,’ so-titled because it was owned by Eric Lorentzen, who at the time was part of the family that owned the Levolor Blind Company. Lorentzen owned an old World War 2 Hawker Sea Fury, the last propeller-driven fighter to serve in the British Royal Navy. The plane was for sale but there were no buyers. Burton suggested they turn it into a racer for the Reno Air Races.
Lorentzen bit. So Burton went to work, installing a larger, more powerful engine that everyone said was too big and would never fit, with fabrication help from master craftsman Tom Brawner, crew member/cousin of the famous 1969 Indy 500 winning chief mechanic. He moved the cockpit back and lowered the canopy, extended the height of the tail fin, rebuilt the landing gear, had a young (19 years old) man named Bradley Miller create a top fuel dragster -based fuel injection system and lo and behold, the transplanted Wright R-3350-26WD engine that produced 2300 hp (stock) on gas was pumping out nearly 5,000 horsepower on nitro.
The plane was fast. Blind Mans’ Bluff went to Reno but, just like in auto racing, a mechanical issue kept the plane out of the race. But it still became well known and revered among air racing fans, to the point where there’s a now a company that makes Sea Hawk engine conversion kits — because Larry Burton proved it could be done. And you can still find glue-together models of the famous orange and black Blind Man’s Bluff Reno air racer on ebay.
But winning races is not the point of what Larry Burton’s life was all about.
To quote Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
That quote describes Larry Burton to a tee.
Larry was a man without formal education, and confined to a wheelchair, but obsessively inspired to innovate and persevere to make race cars, and then airplanes better. Faster. More efficient.
He passed after suffering a stroke and the then -unavoidable septuagenarian complications. He was also deaf as a result of too many years around the heavenly sound of racing engines. He dedicated his life to motorsports.
And yet after all he’d done, all the racing history he’d been part of, I couldn’t find one Larry Burton obituary on the Internet. Not one.
This blog is not a commercial endorsement. It is a respectful homage to one unheralded Arizona -tied example of the American spirit.
The Attesa team is building a community that wants to foster and groom young men and women who have a passion for advanced technology, and the will to persevere. We want to encourage and nurture today’s, and tomorrow’s, Larry Burtons.
R.I.P., Mr. Burton. You were our kind of guy and our apologies for not recognizing you sooner.