Hot rodding and racing lost one of its luminaries this past weekend when John Buttera passed away from complications of a brain tumor. "Lil John," as he was known to the industry, was 67 at the time of his passing.
Buttera loved the California lifestyle, especially racing and rodding aspects of being in the Golden State, but unlike many of its pioneers, he was not a native. Buttera came to "The Coast" in 1969 with a reputation and tremendous skills already intact when he abandoned the snow and ice of Wisconsin for SoCal's balmy beaches. It was in Kenosha, Wisconsin that Buttera built a reputation for designing, fabricating and welding highly crafted dragster chassis as the "B" part of R&B Chassis. R&B built many of the upper Midwest's best cars, and his skills as a high-end craftsman made it possible for him to smoothly transition his way into the ranks of "chassis masters" on the SoCal scene.
HOT ROD, December 1979
"Lil John" Buttera, 1941-2008
HOT ROD, December 1974
His initial works were in building more front-engine dragsters, but he soon branched into Funny Cars and then Pro Stocks, each one bearing notably innovative design and flawless craftsmanship. Soon 'Lil John Race Cars' became a hallmark among many of the top drag racers of the 70's. Among his very well known customers were Don ?Snake? Prudhomme and Don "Stardust" Schumacher. It was also Buttera who designed and built the very successful and unique Barry Setzer owned, Bruce Walker driven, small-block Chevy powered Pro Stock Vega of the early 70's, one of the most successful Pro cars run on the West Coast.
Buttera was gifted not only as a fabricator and welder but also as a machinist. All of his works were adorned with examples of his rampantly intuitive creativity. He may very well have been the "father of billet components" in racing and street rodding, as his love of taking a chunk of aluminum and machining it into something uniquely functional were legend. Buttera caught the street rod bug in the 70's, and created several top-flight rods. These were not only rolling examples of his talent, but high mileage rides that he was quick to jump into and drive hundreds of miles purely for the pleasure of enjoying driving a car that was his own creation.
A true hot rodder and lover of anything that had wheels and went fast, Buttera proved that even a little guy without huge corporate sponsorships could, with plenty of hard work, ingenuity and dedication, build a race car capable of qualifying for and running in the 1987 Indy 500. Buttera?s dream began with a cast-off Dan Gurney Eagle chassis tub which Buttera re-engineered, redesigned and rebuilt, ending up with a virtual masterpiece that had even veteran Indy campaigners admiring what one optimist from the hot rodding culture could produce. Buttera's car didn't win Indy, but it qualified eighth, a third row position that was substantially ahead of a field filled with cars and crews backed by at least ten times the cash resources Buttera had in his jeans. It was the same optimistic "Hey, we can do that deal!", never stymied attitude that earmarked Buttera's craft and his life.
'Lil John Buttera, master metalsmith and passionate hot rodding icon, is survived by his son Chris and daughter Leigh, son-in-law Ronnie Capps, granddaughter Katie and grandson Max.