Intro To Project Midget Masterpiece: The Butler Did It

Our project car is shown here in the front row (#5) with Mike Gehringer at the wheel in the early 1980s. Photo by Scott Daloisio.

Midget car racing has been in existence since a group of budget racers got together to create a new form of racing that provided racing with less financial cost. This has been repeated numerous times over the years, but none with the success of Midget auto racing. This group of racers and promoters launched their new genre of auto racing on August 10, 1933 at the Loyola High School Stadium in Los Angeles under the banner of Midget Auto Racing Association (MARA). This weekly program became insanely popular and spread across the country, then traveled around the world.

Our Butler Midget ran on asphalt and dirt. Initially the car did better on the asphalt surface, but a couple of modifications and the setup changes made the car a dirt performer. Photo by Scott Daloisio.

Like wildfire, the inexpensive Midget racing spread quickly, landing in Australia in 1934, where the first Midget race was held at Melbourne’s Olympic Park. By 1937, the sport had migrated to New Zealand, where a couple of young racers were cutting their teeth on local tracks. Bruce McLaren and fellow Kiwi racer Ron Butler began racing everything they could get their hands on, including the Australian version of Midgets called Speedcars.

Bruce McLaren went on to become a legend. His untimely and tragic death left an indelible mark on open-wheel racing. However, the focus of our story is on McLaren’s friend and fellow New Zealand-racer, Ron Butler, whose career was equally as impressive.

Gehringer leads the pack. Photo by Scott Daloisio.

Who Is Ron Butler?

Butler began racing in 1949 in his homeland, becoming quick friends with McLaren. After McLaren found fame in the 1958 New Zealand Grand Prix, he moved to Europe to advance his Formula One career. Denny Hulme followed shortly after, in a program later referred to as the “Driver to Europe” program by the New Zealand International Grand Prix organization. Not wanted to be left behind, Butler and his wife moved to Canada, hoping to find a job as a driver.

Ron Butler before his race on March 21, 2009. Photo by Mike Grosswendt. www.surfnsprint.com.

In 1964, Butler took a job with Carroll Shelby in the upstart Shelby American, Inc. as a mechanic and fabricator, moving to Venice, California. Soon after, Butler became Carroll Shelby’s shop manager responsible for much of the design and fabrication work in the shop. For the next six years, Butler worked on the original Shelby Cobras, Daytona Coupes, GT-40s, and the Trans-Am Mustangs. During this time, he was a crew chief for Shelby’s racing teams and went to the 24 Hours of Le Mans race five times as a member of Shelby’s “over the wall” crew.

Ron set high standards for himself and the car, and he was a racer, so he wasn’t trying to bamboozle the drivers. – Dan Gurney

According to Dan Gurney, Butler was instrumental in the GT40 win at the 1967 Le Mans race that Gurney and A.J. Foyt won. “Luckily, one key member of the team was our mechanic, Ron Butler. Ron set high standards for himself and the car, and he was a racer, so he wasn’t trying to bamboozle the drivers. If we could figure out ways to improve things, he was up to it,” said Gurney in a June, 1997 issue of Road & Track magazine.

Because of his reputation with Gurney and other top race car builders, Butler was used in many projects. He was part of the development team on the Toyota 2000 GT and testing the dry sump systems on 427 Cobras.

Butler left Shelby in 1970 to open his own shop in Culver City, California. In addition to the high-end road racing cars, the Ron Butler Motorsports shop fabricated more than 40 ProStock drag race cars. These included cars for Bill Bagshaw, Roger Denney, and many of Butch Leal’s “California Flash” cars.

Ron Butler-built Cobras are highly-prized collector cars. Photo from topclassiccarsforsale.com.

Butler purchased the Shelby Cobra tooling and patterns from Carroll Shelby and began building Butler Cobras. He eventually built 104 of these Cobras with either a 427 or 351 Windsor engine. These Butler Cobras are as valued and cherished as the original Shelby Cobras today.

Mike Gehringer celebrates with his crew. Photo by Scott Daloisio.

Butler’s Midgets

In the late 1970s, Butler built and raced midget race cars at the local tracks in Southern California. There were four of these Butler midgets built, which were not serialized, but tracked by color. There was a Yellow, Red, White, and Blue car built. Most of the crew that worked on these cars still refer to them by color.

Ron Butler continued racing Sprint Cars at Ventura Raceway until his retirement and beyond. Photo by Lance Jennings.

Before retiring from racing and race car fabrication, Ron Butler acquired a sprint car and went racing at Ventura Raceway at 70 years old. He is currently retired in Ojai, California, tinkering on some projects around the house. His son Brett continues to operate the Butler Motorsports shop doing prototype fabrication work.

At some point the car wore #62. Later it was back to #5 and even ran as #5x. Mike Smith ran the car as #28. Photo by Scott Daloisio.

The Original Butler Midget Specs:

  • Wheelbase: 68 inches 
  • Rear track: 46 inches
  • Rearend: Halibrand 101 quick-change with 1/2-inch offset
  • 1-1/4 x 0.083-inch chromoly tubing rollcage
  • 1-1/8 x 0.065-inch main chassis rails
  • Front axle: 1-3/4 x 0.120-inch chromoly with P&S Anglia spindles
  • Three front radius rods – two on the right, one on the left (right 8-degrees positive camber)
  • Four rear radius rods with a panhard bar
  • Butler designed his own body skin
  • Rollbar headrest
  • Skellenger in-and-out box with Butler-designed housing and driveline
  • Lowered steering box
  • Crank-driven Jones tach
  • Earl’s plumbing and fittings
  • Surplus aircraft control levers for sway-bar adjustment
  • Coilover Koni shocks (8212-1088 front, 8212-1181 rear)
  • Lockheed single-piston caliper brakes on all four corners
  • 3/4-inch master brake cylinder
  • Castellated brake discs
  • Tru-Arcs
  • Goudy Racing wheels
  • Goodyear tires: 23.5 x 13-inch (RR), 23.0 x 13-inch (LR), 20.0 x 13-inch (front)
  • 775 pounds dry weight
  • SCATwater-cooled, fuel-injected VW engine
    • 95.25mm bore
    • 85mm stroke
    • Cam duration: 306 degrees, .490-inches lift
    • 107-degree lobe centers
    • Modified Type I rockers 1.1:1 ratio
    • 37mm exhaust valves, 44mm intake valves
    • Fuel injectors: #14 nozzles and #54 barrel valve. High-speed bypass, 36 pounds
    • Water pump driven by 1/2-inch Gilmer belt drive

Our Involvement

While assisting as a technical editor for OneDirt in 2013, Bobby Kimbrough suffered a heart attack and cardiac arrest while covering a sprint car event at Victorville Auto Raceway in California. During his recovery, Kimbrough found the Butler Midget in an eBay auction. Recognizing the basketcase project as having historical value, he did what any car enthusiast would do – he bought the car from Gordon Menzie.

Unfortunately, OneDirt was acquired by Xceleration Media and the Butler Midget project car was put in preservation while other projects took priority. When OneDirt was re-acquired by the Power Automedia group, Kimbrough was appointed editor of the title. Happily, the Butler Midget project was brought out of deep preservation and a plan to restore the car back to its glory began to form.

By the time we found the car, it was little more than a basketcase project. We picked it up to prevent it from being parted out.

Menzie provided some of the car’s background, explaining that the midget was recently owned by Mike Smith, an anchorman for local television station KGTV from 1982-1986. Smith went on to broadcast at an LA station and later co-founded his own news agency, Ad-Lib Productions.

Prior to Smith, the car was campaigned by Mike Gehringer, a longtime West Coast Midget auto racer. A number of drivers have piloted the car, including Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame racer Wally Pankratz, who drove the car at Mesa Marin.

Throughout the years, the car has been seen in several different configurations, with a water-cooled SCAT VW engine, and a Kawell Racing engine. The front axles were changed out a few times, which has changed the original Butler front shock mounting – a unique design that focused on anti-dive.

We have sourced several photos from one of the era’s most prominent track photographers of the day, Scott Daloisio. Our goal is to return the car back to the greatness that it displayed to the world when it was featured in the Hot VW magazine in December of 1978 as The Midget Masterpiece.

Most of the important components were still there and the once-proud machine was begging to be rebuilt.

What We Are Working With

In the initial purchase of the car from Menzie, we took ownership of the original chassis, which is straight and undamaged. It is missing the engine, brakes, and rearend. Five of the original Goudy wheels with tires are in the package of parts. The front end and Schroeder steering is complete and working and it has P&N spindles with pressure plates and hex spindle nuts. 

The engine plate and driveline are almost complete but the front coupler and rear sliding coupler are missing from the Seco driveline. Butler built his cars with a shorter wheelbase, so the typical Skellinger Engineering Company drivetrain will not fit. Shorter driveshafts with a U-joint to allow for flexing are incorporated in the driveline.

The interior is weatherbeaten and will require a lot of TLC to bring it back to life.

The dash instruments and oil lines are still in place, along with the external dry-sump oil tank and the breather catch tank. The system also has two well-worn oil coolers. The fuel tank is complete and came with the bladder and fuel lines. The original brake master cylinder and brake lines are mostly there, and what isn’t can easily be manufactured. While the rearend was not present, the original birdcages are included, along with an assortment of shocks and coil-over springs.

Butler’s Midget was featured in the December 1978 edition of the Hot VW magazine. Photo from the magazine.

We discovered a few neat facts about the car from the Hot VW article. They claimed Butler built the car with at least one of every fitting from Earl’s catalog at the time. Butler was also a Goodyear tire distributor during that period, so the car was originally fitted with Goodyear tires.

We’ve yet to figure out why, but we have photos of the car bearing a sponsorship logo from Hawaiian Tropic during Mike Gehringer’s ownership. You’ll want to follow this project as we find out the answer to that question, along with many others, during our restoration of the Midget Masterpiece.

About the author

Bobby Kimbrough

Bobby grew up in the heart of Illinois, becoming an avid dirt track race fan which has developed into a life long passion. Taking a break from the Midwest dirt tracks to fight evil doers in the world, he completed a full 21 year career in the Marine Corps.
Read My Articles

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