‘LIL’ JOHN BUTTERA BIO
John Buttera grew up in Kenosha, Wisconsin which wasn’t exactly a hot bed for hot rodding but at a very early age he started pouring through Hot Rod and Speed to learn what the rest of the world was building and driving. In high school John was probably best known to his fellow students for his hand built Model A sedan. Even then John was becoming a self-taught craftsman, designing and building parts and pieces on a very limited budget. John worked his way through school as a bar tender including the period while he was attending and graduating from KTI in 1963 with a degree in mechanical design and did a short stint at Outboard Marine and later Snap On Tools. Although they recognized his enormous talent, John didn’t have the patience for bureaucracy and couldn’t see himself spending his life in that type of situation and needed to move on.
John had first met Dennis Rollain in 1956 while Dennis was busy building street rods and race cars in his home garage. Dennis was aware of the Model A John had built and was impressed with the craftsmanship that had gone into it. During this time the pair completed a ’37 Ford fuel coupe in time to compete at the Kansas City Nationals where they finished as runner up their first time out. While the pair was truly the “odd couple”, Dennis being gentle and laid back and John the innovator and fire starter, they continued to successfully race the ’37. In 1963 John began building his first dragster in his mother’s garage at night but about half way through the project he realized he needed help so he called Dennis and shortly thereafter R&B Automotive was born. During this time they both continued to work at their regular day jobs but at night they were fabricating roll cages, traction bars and various other parts. September 1964 was when they took a deposit for their first complete chassis and started their trip into drag racing history.
By 1965 they had completed a junior fuel dragster and a AA/FD and to see how competitive their creations were they took the junior fuel car to California where the car proved to be very competitive. During the latter part of 1965 and 1966 they worked mainly on Anglia gassers, T-bucket roadsters and Altered’s but by the close of 1966 they had teamed up with Ron Pellegrini of Fiberglass Ltd. who was supplying a lot of the bodies for funny cars and secured enough business to quit their day jobs and devote full time to the chassis shop. The pair built cars for such notables as Don Schumacher, Mr. Norm and Arnie Beswick and their reputation continued to grow. They were also turning out AA/FD cars for the likes of Tom Hoover and Marvin Schwartz to round out their business.
Throughout this time, John was also handling some of the driving chores but in 1966 he took the ride of his life when his Funny Car went airborne and was totaled. After healing from that experience John stayed with designing and building everything from wheels to “trick parts” to complete cars. During the summer of 1965 John worked on a Formula One crew for John Cannon so Cannon began referring to him as Little John so everyone would know which John was being referred to and the Little John handle became part of his name from that point on
After the success R&B was having during these years it was inevitable that John would move on to bigger things and in 1969 he met one of his heroes, Mickey Thompson. Mickey offered John a job working on his land speed car and shortly after John left for California with his Top Fuel car hanging out of the back of his Chevy panel truck. At Mickey’s, John teamed up with Pat Foster to help complete the land speed car, build several Funny Cars and design and build several innovative new parts for better performance.
1970 was the year John decided to open the doors to a new chassis shop and, with John’s attention to detail, he first tried to name it “Little John’s Place” but didn’t think that looked right so it became “L’il John’s Place” and after that he was always known and referred to by all as Lil John. As soon as the doors opened, John began to immediately produce AA/FD dragsters and Funny Cars for such teams as Brasket & Burgin, Don Schumacher, Don Prudhomme, Tom McEwen and Barry Setzer. During this time John also won the coveted Car Craft Magazine All Star Drag Racing Team Funny Car Chassis Builder award four years in a row and the All Star Drag Racing Team Top Fuel Chassis Builder award one year. Even during the time when John was building some of the top race cars he never turned his back on building some of the top street rods and street machines to grace the pages of the enthusiast magazines. One of John’s best friends was the street rod guru at Hot Rod Magazine, Gray Baskerville and the two of them could talk about street rods forever. The results of many of their conversations found their way onto the magazines pages after John would take one of their ideals and make it into a real car.
In 1983 John realized his number one dream. With a lot of help and support from his many hot rod/drag race friends, John built his own Chevy powered Indy car and with Dennis Firestone at the wheel they finished the race in 27th place. John returned to the brickyard again in 1984 and took one last shot at it in 1987. They didn’t see the winners circle at the end of the 1987 race but did qualify 8th and John took the Clint Brawner Mechanics Award home with him. Competing at Indy was truly among John’s most treasured memories.
When John decided to retire from the chassis building business he turned his talents to designing and prototyping various products for many of the industry’s top companies. He moved into Boyd Coddington’s facility for a while where he designed several new wheels and billet street rod parts. After that he worked on special projects for several speed equipment manufacturers and worked with Harley Davidson to design and develop a new look within the motorcycle arena. John was so completely dedicated to his work and ideals that most people never really understood him but everyone who knew him agreed on three things, you always knew what he thought about any subject, he was totally honest and he was the consummate craftsman. A little known fact about John was that he didn’t just build cars, he built a few motorcycles and in between building cars, bikes and creating new parts, in 1978 he received his pilot’s license. Like everything else in his life, John learned everything possible about how an airplane worked, how it was built and at one point was even considering attempting to build one. Lil John Buttera was a ‘one of a kind’ person even in our sport.