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FOCUS ON GOLF: U.S. Senior Open

From Vroom-vroom To Putt-putt

Former NHRA Drag Racing Champion Butch Leal Begins New Career, Revving It Up in the 50s on Senior Tour

July 23, 1998|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Drag racing long has held a certain fascination for athletes in other sports. Baseball's Jack Clark and football's Dan Pastorini drove top-fuel dragsters, 300-mph fire-breathing monsters far removed from the friendly confines of stadium sports.

Tom Hammonds of the Minnesota Timberwolves and former NBA player Larry Nance, now an assistant coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers, currently are racing pro-stock cars on the National Hot Rod Assn. championship circuit.

Butch Leal, a former NHRA drag racing champion, is going the other direction. Leal, 54, will be in the starting field for the U.S. Senior Open, which starts today at Riviera Country Club.

"I drove dragsters for 31 years, now I feel like I'm just starting out on a new career as a senior golfer," Leal said from his home in the San Joaquin Valley community of Tulare.

"I'd played golf pretty well all my life, so when I turned 50 I thought, 'Why not give myself a shot at the seniors.' "

There were 90 golfers playing for berths in the senior Open when Leal teed off at Turlock Country Club two weeks ago. He shot a par 72 to earn the right to match shots with Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and the latest senior sensations, Gil Morgan and Hale Irwin, at Riviera.

"You know, this has been really fun, playing golf with the seniors," he said. "It's a lot like being part of the drag-racing scene. Everyone treats it like a family thing."

Leal won 12 national championship events in pro stock, modified and super stock classes with the NHRA, including the 1988 Winternationals pro-stock title at Pomona. He reached the final round of eliminations 25 times and in 1987 finished second to the legendary Bob Glidden in pro-stock points.

When Leal won the pro stock final at Atlanta in 1985, it was Pontiac's first win. Leal also was selected Car Craft driver of the year.

He retired from drag racing after the final event of 1991, the Winston Finals at Pomona, where he upset Glidden in the first round and then beat Frank Iacono in the second round before being eliminated by Jerry Eckman.

"Looking at the two sports, you wouldn't think there was any similarity, but there really is. In golf, I can shoot 68s when I'm on my game, but to win you've got to shoot 64 now and then. Trying to cut four strokes off your game at this level is almost exactly the way a drag racer looks at trying to shave two-tenths [of a second] off his elapsed time. Two-tenths can be the difference between losing and winning, just like a few strokes in a golf tournament."

Veteran drag-racing followers will watch closely how Leal comes out of the box in today's first round because his reputation as a racer was built around his remarkable starts.

"Very few drivers had the reaction time, race in and race out, that Butch had," NHRA spokesman Denny Darnell recalled. "His competitors always said that Butch could hurt you off the line.

"Nobody in the NHRA ever beat him at golf, either."

Leal was a perennial winner of the drag-racing community's golf tournaments.

His best showing since turning professional and joining the tour came at Beaumont, Texas, where he shot one under par for three rounds and finished tied for 20th.

"I've got a ways to go yet, but I'm enjoying myself. I'm especially looking forward to playing Riviera again," he said. "I played there a few times when I was living in Woodland Hills. I like it because it has small greens. I figure that's to my advantage. Turlock had small greens too, and that helped me in qualifying."

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