The history of the Indianapolis 500 is filled with stories of hot rodders using stock-block engines — from the Granatelli brothers in 1946 with a Ford flathead in a cast-off 1935 Miller-Ford V-8 chassis, to Mickey Thompson, who shocked the Indy establishment with his innovations, through John Buttera, whose efforts at the speedway in 1982 made him among the last to try to conquer the speedway with a stock-block engine.
John Buttera was born in Kenosha, Wis., in 1939, and established the R&B Chassis Co., with a partner. While at the 1968 U.S. Nationals, Buttera met Thompson and agreed to work for him. Working at Thompson’s shop, Buttera built Thompson’s groundbreaking 1969 ‘blue’ Mustang Funny Car, with a dragster-style chassis beneath the replica fiberglass body.
After a few years, Buttera left to start his own company, building countless drag-racing cars. He is credited with being the first to carve racing parts from a solid block of billet aluminum.
In 1982, Buttera, with his son-in-law Ronnie Capps and Bob Varnburgas as partners, formed BCV Racing to challenge Indianapolis using a Chevrolet stock-block engine in a 1981 Eagle chassis. Capps, who had served as the mechanic on the 1974 NHRA World Champion Top Fuel dragster, built the engine.
Buttera and Capps purchased Eagle chassis No. 8106 from All-American Racers and completed the assembly at AAR headquarters. AAR designer John Ward recalls Buttera and Capps working at the Santa Ana, Calif., AAR shop, replacing many of the standard Eagle parts with lightweight billet aluminum parts created in their Cerritos shop at night. Ward remembers that the aluminum parts the pair substituted “made for a good-looking car, maybe more ‘hot rod’ than race car,” and the finished car weighed 60 pounds less than a standard Eagle.
For a driver, BCV Racing picked Dennis Firestone, who already had two Indianapolis 500 starts to his credit.
The small, underfunded team attracted offers of help from locals Eldon Rasmussen, Earl Gaerte and Jackie Howerton, all who allowed the team the free use of their shops.
The bright red unsponsored No. 75 BCV Racing Eagle qualified 21st at an average speed of 197.217 miles per hour, then the fastest qualifying speed for a small-block Chevrolet-powered car.
Unfortunately, after only 37 laps, the BCV Eagle was out, eliminated when the flywheel bolts sheared at the flange. The car was credited with a 27th-place finish.
For Buttera, competing at Indianapolis was an emotional experience. Years later he told an interviewer with the Orange County Register that “the first time I saw my car come out of turn four, I had goose bumps all over me.”
This author is indebted to Buttera’s family, All-American Racers, and his longtime friend Bill Simpson for their assistance with this article.