Butch Leitzinger - Racing With Two Families And Starting A Third
© Andrew S. Hartwell
Auto racing has long been a sport in which families and
generations unite to share and fulfill dreams. Father's set
records and sons (and daughters) grow to meet or exceed
them. The family works together to prepare the cars and
set up the paddock tents and turn the wrenches. Everyone
does something to make the 'family car' the winning car.
It is indeed a fortunate soul who grows up in such a unified
family. Butch Leitzinger is one such recipient of family
support and when he moved on from his original family,
he was again fortunate to be 'adopted' by another caring and nurturing racing family.
"My father (Bob Leitzinger) raced cars for many years. I grew up at the track, working on his crew." Seeing how his dad and brother seemed to really enjoy driving racecars, Leitzinger decided he needed to experience the enjoyment for himself. So he took matters, or more correctly, a shovel, into his own hands.
"I literally dug one of my dads old cars out of the snow bank out behind the race shop and got it ready for driving school. That is how the first two years of my racing career started, by fixing up his castaways. I got experience that way and then my brother, Chuck Kurtz, and I started co-driving with him in the longer races. Chuck and I co-drove in the old Firehawk series, which is now the Motorola Cup. Our first professional race was with our father. My first Daytona was when I was 18 years old.
"Our racing was a family affair until my dad picked up the Nissan factory sponsorship in '89. Then it all became a lot more serious. Because we had been driving with him already, we became 'factory drivers' overnight. When my father and David Loring were teammates, they brought in a third car to get more manufacturers points, and I got to drive that. That led to a full season in '92 and then to the championship in '93. Then I got to drive the factory Nissan GTS car and we won Daytona with that. I fell into a lot of really great drives just by being in the right place.
Finding A New Family For 1995
By the end of the '94 season, Butch Leitzinger had established himself as a talented and capable driver. And he was soon to become a lucky one. When the end of the Leitzinger family racing affair was at hand, the Rob Dyson 'family' was just one phone call away.
"Going to work with Rob Dyson, Pat Smith, James Weaver, and the whole Dyson 'family' was a wonderful and lucky coincidence. At the end of '94 I didn't have a ride. The Nissan deal ran out in '93 and my fathers team was trying to make a go in NASCAR, but the sponsor we had lined up for '95 backed out at the last minute. Right then it was looking pretty bleak for '95. I went down to the Daytona test days and looked around hoping to find a ride. Rob Dyson's team was down there with the new Riley & Scott and, to be honest, I didn't even go over to talk to them because I thought there was no way I could get that ride."
But the ride he didn't chase came to him.
"After the Daytona tests, I came home and about a week or two before the race, Rob called and asked if I was available to drive for him! John Paul Jr. was lined up for the race but he had to drive Tom Milner's BMW so they needed someone in a hurry and all their usual choices were taken. The funny thing is, my father used to race against Rob in a Datsun 510 back in the middle '70's. It was around '94 that my dad mentioned to Pat Smith (Dyson's long time Crew Chief) "if you ever need anyone for testing Butch would love to do it". I guess my name rang a bell and that is why Rob called.
Pat Smith is the long time crew chief for Dyson Racing, having been with Rob Dyson for well over 20 years. He recalls the circumstances that put Leitzinger on the team. "Rob basically invited Butch and another driver down to test for us. I gave both drivers some parameters to use for testing the engine because the engine quite wasn't where we wanted it to be to race with. Butch listened to me and took directions but the other guy didn't. He immediately went out and tried to go as fast as he could without paying attention to what was requested so Butch got the job! I could see that Butch would be easy to work with and do what he is told."
Team Owner, and racer Rob Dyson, was fond of his friends' son. " We knew Butch's dad well. Bob and I were great friends when we raced against one another back in the '70's. The Leitzinger and Dyson families go back a long way. We knew that Butch had a lot of experience in all sorts of cars, some of which were very good and some of which were lousy, but Butch did a good job in all of them."
Leitzinger was well aware of the Rob Dyson - Pat Smith operation, having watched them compete against his father. "I knew them more so as a kid, just looking to keep out of everyone's way. I didn't know them as a driver. At the racetrack I would listen to them talk about the cars and the tracks and I enjoyed being there for that.
But the years passed and the young man who was always on the sidelines finally became one of the drivers. And his talent soon became obvious. Now the little kid who was always trying to stay out of their way was officially an adult and one of their ilk.
Smith remembers that the new kid on the team did have
some teething pains in his first year. "Butch crashed a lot
in his first year! Lets just say he went off track a lot and
filled the engine up with a lot of dirt! I think that was just
him getting used to the car. These cars are not the easiest
to drive and it takes some getting used to. He wants to do
well and he is willing to do what ever is necessary. Butch
drives everything to his ability, which is one thing Al Holbert
always said about Derek Bell; he will drive whatever you put
him in to the best of his abilities."
Dyson agrees: "Butch has been a great addition. He is good
with the car and with the guys. He is a real pro too. When it i
s his turn to go, he gets in and goes better than anybody.
People don't recognize how good he is. He is one of the best
sports car drivers in the world. One of the best. But he is
quiet. He doesn't blow his own horn."
The life of a racing car driver wannabe is fraught with anticipation and disappointments. For many, the chance of a lifetime never comes. For some, the people with no shortage of confidence or ego, the view taken is that the world will come to them. For most, the reality of the game is that you need the sponsors, the dollars and / or the breaks. Get the break and you have a good shot. Wait for the break to come to you and you grow older before you grow more experienced, or richer.
For the ones who don't get - or make - a break, the world of 9 to 5 awaits. Leitzinger tried that by working at his parents Nissan-Mercedes dealership in Pennsylvania. He soon decided the life of a racer was much more appealing to him. But there was that little matter of fate swinging his way. "The time between the GTP era, which was full of money, and the new WSC era, which was much more stingy, was pretty bleak. Other than Rob Dyson, there were only one or two other teams that had professional drivers. There wasn't really a sellers market for drivers. I guess if the ride with Rob didn't come through that I would have been high and dry."
"The difference between a driver who has a great career and the one who ends up working in a restaurant or something is not so much talent as it is being at home when the call comes or meeting the right person.
Being A Part Of The Dyson Family Scene
When Leitzinger left his immediate family to join the Dyson family, he found that leaving home wasn't such a traumatic experience. "When I first got down to Daytona, I guess I was expecting a pretty tense, stuck up team but it was a lot like my family team. Everybody got along with everybody else and they were all very friendly to me. James Weaver, who I had never even met before, even joked with me on our first meeting and immediately put me at ease. It was just a wonderful environment to walk into.
"With a lot of teams you have to deal with your teammates before anyone else because they are the ones who try to sabotage you the most. Both Rob and Pat made it very clear early on that they wouldn't stand for any of that. So everyone cooperates and we help each other."
Smith is quick to agree. "We are a team and everybody is supposed to help each other. For example, James (Weaver) will come out of the car and take my headset and talk to Butch and tell him exactly what the car is doing and how to treat it in certain areas. Down in Homestead, we had an under steer problem in NASCAR turn 4. James got on the headset and said, 'Listen Butch, when it goes green this is the best way to warm up the tires and the car will tend to under steer. If you let off early it will be worse so just keep your foot in it.' They all help each other when they get out of the car by telling them things like 'watch out because second gear is starting to snick' or whatever."
And there are other attributes that appeal to Dyson: "Butch speaks English and that helps, as opposed to whatever it is that James Weaver speaks! Seriously, Butch is quiet and consistent, and he is as quick or quicker than anyone on the racetrack. He is superb on equipment. Chassis, tires, gearboxhe is absolutely superb. He wisely defers to James as far as set up goes. James sets it up and when Andy Wallace is running with us, the three of them work together very well."
Leitzinger found he had indeed joined another 'family'. "I think the reason I like being with Dyson Racing so much is because, when I was racing with my family's team, it was a bunch of people who had been together for a long time. It was the same people every weekend, not a lot of hiring and firing going on, and so we grew to become good friends. That is what it is like with the Dyson team too, with some of the guys having been together for 20 years. It is a really nice atmosphere."
Rob Dyson can attest to the roots of this strong family tree. "Our guys have been with us a long time. We have won a lot of races together and that helps too because nothing succeeds like success. We are as strong as the weakest link - which is generally me!
Smith: "I feel we have the best drivers out there. They may not always be the fastest but they are definitely the best you can buy for both speed and knowledge. And they have the desire to finish more than the desire to be the fastest driver on the team. And Butch has a good sense of humor. He always laughs at my jokes so he can't be all bad!
Before He Was A Driver, He Was A Fan
Leitzinger can often be found in the race paddock area signing autographs and talking with race fans of every age. He appreciates their interest in him and the sport and he knows what it can mean to a young fan to have a driver pay attention to him or her. "Until I was 12 or 13 I used to collect the driver's autographs. I would get them to sign a scrap piece of paper or whatever I had. When David Loring drove with my Dad, I pulled out a photo I had of him in a Formula Ford that he autographed for me years before. I completely wanted to be a driver and I idolized everyone who could drive a car well. It is really neat to be on the other end of that now
"I think if sports car drivers are more approachable by the fans it is because the fans seem to have much more of a genuine rapport with the drivers. I don't think they idolize us so much as they simply respect us. They are more like casual friends. I hope they feel they can come up to us and just talk with us. Coming from a family that grew up in racing, and being around all the drivers who were really nice to me and took the time to answer my stupid questions, makes you appreciate the fans perspective. Just taking a little of your time to answer questions can really make their experience at the track that much better.
Talking About Lime Rock Park
"LRP is one of the best racetracks in the country. It is a no holds barred driver's course. It is not an easy course to drive. It takes a long time to get the confidence to do a good lap at LRP. There are places where, if you make a mistake there are going to be consequences. If you carry too much speed into the uphill turn, for example, there is a big wall waiting for your arrival. It is a place that demands you have a lot of confidence in the car and in yourself.
"It is one of my favorite tracks because it is so challenging. When you do a good lap at a track like that it is a lot more fulfilling. At some tracks, if you go too fast you have a harmless spin and nothing happens. It's kind of like playing a video game where, if you spin, nothing happens and you just get going again. At a challenging track you don't have the luxury of testing the limits like that. You really have to work on it slowly and have a real feel for what the car is doing and not overstep those bounds.
"The first time I raced there was in 1987, in one of the showroom stock cars I dug out of the snow banks. I didn't do very well. I think I placed third or fourth out of four or five cars. I was pretty disgusted with myself because I had grown up watching my dad race there and he was always excellent there. I think his first IMSA win was at Lime Rock. I knew I wasn't getting the most out of the car but I couldn't figure out why.
"The next year I came back and I ran every race I possibly could at Lime Rock to try and learn as much as I could about it. I asked my dad and my brother a lot of questions about it because they had raced there so much. That helped. It is a place that you need to do a lot of laps to get right. It is a very tough track. It is a real momentum track. If you try and drive it like a conventional track where you brake in a straight line and turn the wheel and then hit the gas, you end up going pretty slowly. You really need to carry a lot of speed through the corners because all the turns are third gear or higher. It is imperative that you keep your minimum speed up as high as you can.
"I love the short laps at Lime Rock because it keeps us in front of the fans a lot more. At some tracks we are out of view for a few minutes and it gets pretty monotonous for someone trying to pay attention to the race. At Lime Rock, we are coming around every 47 seconds. That helps to hold the fans attention much better and they are better able to follow what we are doing.
"I also think Lime Rock is probably the best track in the world for spectators. I have watched a ton of races from every vantage point, and there are so many different places to watch from. On the outside hill you can see 50% of the track and on the infield hill you can see at least that much or more. You can get a real sensation of the speed of the cars. I would say it is the best spectator track I have ever been to.
And this Memorial Day Weekend, race fans at Lime Rock Park will have another chance to watch Butch Leitzinger practice his craft every 47 seconds or so. And while there will be many of us on the hill keeping an eye on the #16 Dyson Racing Riley & Scott car, it is a good bet the members of both of his "families" will be paying even closer attention.
And the recently married Butch Leitzinger may one day have a third family watching from the hill!