Life in the fast lane
When Calvin Butler isn't building residential homes, he's floating somewhere around the United States traveling the drag-racing circuit — at speeds close to 200 miles per hour.
Butler's team recently won the International Hot Rod Association's Sportsmans Spectacular Race in Memphis, Tennessee. This was the first time the race has ever been held, and its inception was to acknowledge the top racers in 10 divisions across the country.
“Only 27 of us qualified this year — that's in the whole country,” said Butler. “That's the best of the best, cream of the crop. They've all either won their divisions or they're in the top three of their division.”
“I drive for a car owner, Grayson Murphy, out of Richmond,” added Butler. “Every year, Murphy puts me in a brand new Corvette. In his mind, and maybe it's true, every year he's bought me a new car — we've won.”
Butler said he met Murphy in Rockingham, Virginia, in 1996, the last year he raced there.
“He'd never said anything about driving his cars,” remembered Butler. “Then he called me one January and said 'I heard you sold all your stuff.' I said 'yes sir, I did. I'm out, I'm done.' He said ' well, would you drive for me?' I said 'what kind of deal we talkin' about?'
“He said 'I tell you what, I'll pay your gas to-and-from the track, pay all your room and board, food — all you gotta do is drive, and you get fifty percent of the winnings.”
Butler said a partnership like that is rare in the racing world. Butler has been racing since 1983, but he quit when he moved here to Marlinton from Woodbridge, Virginia to start his own building company, Express Builders.
Butler said in 2001, things were going well for him and he went down to Oklahoma to buy a race car — an Oldsmobile Cutlass.
“We were doing real good, but when the economy turned, I knew I couldn't handle that anymore,” said Butler. “It's an expensive hobby. So I sold all my stuff in 2008 when the economy got bad.”
Butler sold his cat to his old crew chief. Later that year, Butler started racing with Murphy, and was pitted against his old crew chief, and his old car — and won.
Butler said he travels all over the country to race — Florida, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, Tennessee, and the Carolinas. All the cars he drives are specifically 1963 split-window Corvettes, though he races against a variety of cars. Butler drives the '63 Corvette because the owner has a history with the body style.
“He has an original 1963 split-window Corvette that came off the assembly line,” said Butler. “His dad was a car collector. These cars — he just loves 'em.”
Butler said the molded body is built on an all-tube chassis, and the car is completely carbon-fiber. With Butler in the car, it tips the scales at only 2,150 pounds.
According to Butler, the engine generates around 1,472 horsepower, and goes from 0-60 in under a second.
“It runs on a high-octane airplane fuel,” Butler said. “In a quarter mile, we go about 7.10s at 195 mph,” said Butler. “An eighth of a mile, I'll run 4.60. People will say 'well 4.60, that ain't so fast. I go 'well, take your watch and look at the second hand. In five seconds I've done gone 660 feet.”
Butler said despite moving at a top speed of around 300 feet a second, you get used to it.
“That's clipping along pretty good,” laughed Butler. “To be honest, it's just like you driving your car down the road. I mean yeah, you're going fast, but at least there aren't any picket fences or poles.”
The modern dragsters reflect the latest in automotive technology.
“This thing is completely computerized,” explained Butler. “When you come back from every run, they'll plug a laptop to it. It'll tell you the wheel speed on all four wheels, the drive shaft speed, all the temperatures on every cylinder, how much fuel went in it, where the shift was. You don't even shift the car, it's all automatically shifted with electronics. If you're going to compete in these classes, you got to have the best of everything — that's what it takes.”
The best of everything isn't cheap.
“That car right there, you're looking at about $240,000,” said Butler. “It's specially built by a guy named Jerry Bickel out of Illinois. That motor alone is about $49,000. I mean it is an expensive hobby.”
Sponsors help curb the high cost of keeping up with the pack. Butler said they go through a set of new tires about every 40 runs, or every 3 or 4 races.
“Hoosier gives us all the tires for free,” said Butler. “Tommy John's engines and transmissions, they do all the motor work for us, Gary and Russ Turner from Powertrain Control Solutions, they do all the computer work inside these, and Sherwin Williams gives us all the paint.”
Butler said in the race two weeks ago in Memphis, he probably went home with somewhere between
$12-14,000 in prize money and a brand new fire suit that usually runs about $1,500.
The cars are built with safety in mind, and Butler has been lucky — he's never wrecked before.
“I told Murphy one time — I said 'hey, this is ain't like no horse.' They say you fall off a horse, you jump back on. I don't know if I want to jump back on that horse. If I climb out of one of these things from one of these crashes — I ain't getting back in it.”
“Sure these cars are built safely, and we wear all the safety equipment, but if I hit the concrete wall at 195 mph I don't think I wanna get back in it. I have seen some horrendous crashes and people walk away, but I hope to God it's something I never have to go through.”
Butler is part of a racing team.
“Murphy has two other drivers, but I think they'd like to shoot me because I'm the only one that's won anything in the last four years,” joked Butler.
Butler said all the drivers are very competitive, but he's seen some real class.
“We're all buddies — until we get locked in the car,” Butler said. “But at the Richmond race, this guy Don Rudd, we were in the finals. All of a sudden, my car wouldn't start.”
The officials told Rudd to go ahead and run, but he refused.
“Don said 'No. Go get a jump start and get Calvin's car started, I'm not going to run without Calvin,” recalled Butler.
Butler said he is basically riding on a time bomb, but he just re-signed another four year deal.
“I told Murphy, 'we've been on the podium for two years, we can't complain, we have to be humble about it,” said Butler. “Sooner or later somebody else is going to knock us off the post. I mean it's coming. But if it stopped today, I couldn't complain. It's been a good trip for me. I get to do something I love and it don't cost me a dime. It's a dream come true.”