HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

Words Rod Short

A former employee of Sonny's Automotive Racing, Rod Short penned this story per Sonny's request and run on CompetitionPlus.com. It was Rod who called to inform us of Sonny's passing and he wished to include parts of this story as his own tribute to the man.

After 50+ years of developing engine combinations ranging from 400 to 1,000 cubic inches, many people are surprised about where Sonny Leonard came from.

Following his time in the U.S. Army, Sonny was employed as a tech at a Chevrolet dealership where he put in extra time on nights and weekends to make a few bucks so he could drag race.

After selling his car and borrowing $300 from the bank to start his business, Sonny and his wife Frances set out on their own to open a shop  in a 300-square-foot building that could barely fit two cars.

He worked on anything that had wheels, anything that would pay the bills to keep his business going. That ranged from fleet truck maintenance to farm equipment to other racer’s cars.

Sonny would do the hardest jobs, the ones that involved internal engine work the big retail names didn’t have the expertise to do. High performance street and strip engines had to have closer machine tolerances on components. That meant sometimes taking a two-hour round trip to the nearest performance machine shop to get work done that Sonny didn’t have the equipment for.

Making that trip cost extra time and money that couldn’t always be charged back to a customer, so Sonny took it upon himself to learn some new skills so he could bring that work in-house.

Sonny recalled, “‘I thought maybe I’ll buy some equipment of my own, but I didn’t have any experience in machine shops, so I went to night school.”  

Sonny was able to borrow money for machine shop equipment so he could apply what he’d learned and then relocated his expanding business to make room for everything. He used that to build some engines for his drag racing hobby and soon developed a local following that had seen how well his car ran at the track.

Even though well into his 70s, Sonny Leonard was a regular presence at his business, as well as his wife Frances and daughter Kelly.

A wide array of customers from every corner of racing across the globe continues to seek parts, engines and knowledge from Sonny’s World Class Racing.

“You had to have the drive,” Sonny said about the secret of his success. “You want to do it, you want to be better and you want to do better than the guy in the next town, so you worked a little harder and a little harder. You gotta like what you do if you’re gonna do really good at it.”

From those humble beginnings in December of 1968, Sonny’s World Class Racing rose in prominence with innovative engine designs and uncompromising performance. That’s resulted in well over 100 national and world records on land and sea. In mountain motor Pro Stock alone, Sonny’s engines have amassed 17 championships within the PDRA, IHRA and ADRL.

Thinking back on the past half-century, Sonny still can’t believe how far the business has come.

“When I think back to my time at that little 300-square-foot building where I started, we didn’t even know if we’d make it or not,” he said.  

When it’s all said and done, his was a lifetime of determination, hard work and the success that came with it. It was the fulfillment of the American dream.