1961 Corvette Roadster - Long Hauler

One man's 44-year journey with a '61 Corvette - and the many engines that powered it along the way.

Scott Lachenauer Apr 9, 2012 0 Comment(s)
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Henry "Butch" White began dreaming of owning a Corvette all the way back in high school. The allure of its swept-back lines and the thought of drop-top cruising combined with the obvious performance aspects to make the Vette his ultimate adolescent dream car. Unfortunately for White, there were a number of speed-related fatalities in his area during his teenage years, with many of them involving Chevy's little 'glass sports car. At the time, his dad told him straight out, "If you bring one of those things home, it better have a big enough trunk for all your [expletive deleted], 'cause I'm kicking you out." Enough said.

Finally in late 1968, at age 21, White decided to test his dad's resolve on the household Corvette ban. He found a nice little '61 for sale locally, finished in innocent-looking white paint and sporting a hardtop trimmed in black vinyl. It wasn't a bad looking car at all, even if someone had carved up the soft top to excavate the eight-track player from its dash.

It turns out the seller needed a bigger car with a trunk, since his wife had just given birth to their first child. White just happened to have a car like that in his own private stock: a '65 Impala with a 283 engine and a "boot" the size of a hot tub. The guy immediately took a liking to the gleaming-red Imp, and an even swap was made on the spot.

Needless to say, White's father was less than pleased--he even refused to talk to his son for a week. He finally broke the ice by saying, "You got away with that one, but if you ever bring home a motorcycle, you're definitely getting your ass kicked out on the street."

As a gift, White's best friend went to the local Chevy dealer and bought him a fresh Dunvtov solid-lifter "30/30" camshaft for the new car. A pretty tired 283 sat between the fenders of the '61, but the old motor came to life with the new cam, and it ran pretty well out on the street.

After a month or so, the Vette was involved in a "parking-lot demolition derby" at an all-night Christmas party. A quarter-panel and door were damaged pretty badly, but the car was still driveable. White drove the Vette for two months with the damage, then had a bunch of friends come over and repair it with used parts. He then took the remainder of the insurance money to his local Chevy dealer, where he purchased a brand-new Z/28-spec 302. This was in the winter of 1969, and the high-revving 302 would serve as the Corvette's motivation for the next few years. The purchase was the last ingredient in a recipe of trouble for White, the Vette, and his street-racing spirit.

"A License to Steal"

By this time White had become a full-fledged police officer in his local borough in New Jersey. White says being a cop was like having a license to steal. "We could basically make our own rules out there on the street, because we were the ones who were supposed to be watching for this kind of crap," he admits. Needless to say, White and his cohorts watched and participated in plenty of street races in North Jersey…and they did it their way.

"Many times I would let a friend drive my car in a race, while I was working as a cop on duty. I would mark off the quarter-mile with the police car, start the race with the roof light of the patrol car, and then judge the winner as they went by me," he recounts with a grin and a sly chuckle. "What a great time it was in my life. I was in my 20s, a little crazy, and I was doing what I loved to do: running fast and hard."

White had been dating his sweetheart for a few years at this point, and he felt it was time to pop the question. So he decided to purchase a ring for his girl, and asked for the help of his prospective mother-in-law in picking out an appropriate diamond. Unfortunately, the Vette was undergoing some pretty heavy surgery at the time, as White had just stripped the car of its paint, removed the exhaust all the way up to the headers, and denuded the interior of everything but its two buckets.

"It must have been quite a trip for her," he says. "She must have wanted to get her daughter out of her house very badly to do that with me. But it worked out real well, as we're still married after 41 years."

The next few years saw some pretty heavy racing action for the Vette. White had finished the bodywork--installing custom Dodge taillights along the way--and added a few coats of '70 Cadillac Nottingham Green Firemist. He also completely restitched the interior. But shortly after completing the cosmetic work, he spun a rod bearing while performing a massive 7,000-rpm powershift for the benefit of a crowd gathered outside the local watering hole.

Back at home, he tore down the motor and built it back up to spec, then continued to beat on it every chance he got. Local 'strips like Island Dragway and Raceway Park became regular stops, as White expanded his racing repertoire to include legal, on-track events. Finally, after a few more years of constant battering, the 302 had nothing more to give. White sold the short block to a local gas-station owner, who rebuilt it and put it in his '63 split-window. White's Vette, meanwhile, received an engine out of a stock '73 Chevelle; this would provide mild-mannered motivation until he could decide on his next move with the car.

Block Partying

Although White was by now the proud father of two children, a son and a daughter, his domestic situation did nothing to lessen his desire for speed. His next modification to the '61 was the addition of a built 350 with a 0.60-inch overbore, 12.5:1 compression, angle-plug heads, and a 750 double pumper. This engine really made the car rip, and White just loved beating on it.

"I got to know the management at the Morristown Airport, and they let me pull up to the pump there to fill up with 110- or 140-octane airplane fuel," he says. "Little did I know, but there are different additives in car fuels than there are in airplane fuels. It didn't take long to put a hole in the number one cylinder while running at Island Dragway."

But before he busted up that cylinder, White regularly took his 4-year-old son, Dan, out in the Corvette for shakedown runs. "He loved to ride in it and go fast. One time I brought it out of the hole and powershifted Second, then Third, and heard a loud bang. I thought I blew Third gear. When I got home, I looked and realized that the harmonic balancer had come apart at about 7,500 rpm. Luckily, it had blown down, and not up, when it came apart."

When White went back to the spot where the balancer had exploded, he found a large hole in the macadam. "It could have taken the nose off of the car if it had gone upward," he says. Another crisis averted by luck.

Eight years later, White had Dan back in the car, this time in the driver seat. "I taught him to drive a stick in the Vette when he was about 12, at an industrial park in Livingston. It had the mild 350 in it and 4.56 gears, so it was almost impossible to stall. He did very well."

But that wasn't the end of the young man's very special driver's education.

"I taught him how to powershift the car in an industrial park in Florham Park, about a mile from where we lived," says White. "Next, I put a new pair of slicks on the car and taught him how to bring it out of the hole. I had him stop the car, bring it to 4,500 rpm, and dump the clutch as fast as he could. I told him to drive it like he was trying to break it." It must have worked, as his son is now one of the few people who can actually get a nose up on him at the local drags.

Motors for the '61 came and went frequently. After the high-compression 350 blew, a homemade Sprint Car motor wearing the heads off his old 302 and a 327/360 hydraulic cam made a brief appearance in the car. That motor died after a year, and those parts found their way into another 350 White had in storage. It lasted perhaps five years before finally coming apart at the dragstrip.

"It finally blew up at Island while I was racing my son, who was driving my '69 Camaro. I was just trying to squeeze a little too much out of it in Third gear, and it threw a rod. That one got tangled up with another one, the crank broke, the cam broke into three pieces, and it puked every fluid out of it that it could, all over the track. While towing it back to my barn, I realized that it was time to build a real good motor."

Running on Full

White's search started at a local junkyard, where he found a nice 400ci block out of a '70 GMC pickup. He first cleaned it up with an 0.30-inch overbore, added a stock 350 crank, and finished off the short-block with all new internals. The heads and cam came from White's last running 350. The 377-inch motor lasted 13 years, running a best of 11.41 at 118 mph. White had finally found a motor he could live with--and one that could live with him.

In 2011 White set about freshening up the unbreakable motor. While it was on the stand, he decided to go completely "old school" and change out some of the modern components. A roller cam was added, along with some Crane Gold roller rockers. Up top, he installed a vintage tunnel ram and crowned it with two big four-barrel carbs. The imposing engine is all but guaranteed to strike fear in the hearts of White's drag-racing competition, even if all of that racing is now done on sanctioned tracks.

After 44 years, more than 16 motors, 6 transmissions, 8 Chevy rears (the current Oldsmobile rear has thus far proved indestructible), and countless other parts, Butch White says the car still serves as the mechanical embodiment of its driver: a little beat, a little battered, but still running…and running hard.

Having survived a medical scare a few years ago, when doctors found and removed a brain tumor, White is back to tearing it up on the racetrack, though he sometimes passes the keys off to his son. With its powertrain finally sorted out, this once and future dream car looks poised to provide the pair with many more years of driving excitement out on the road we all ply everyday--the road of life.

Spec Sheet: '07 Coupe
OwnerJohn Callahan; Allentown, Pennsylvania
BlockStock LS2 aluminum
Displacement364 ci
Compression Ratio10.9:1
HeadsStock LS2 aluminum
ValvesStock 2.00/1.55
CamshaftStock hydraulic roller
Rocker ArmsStock 1.7 ratio
PistonsStock hypereutectic
CrankshaftStock nodular iron
RodsStock cast
Intake ManifoldPorted stock
Power AdderPaxton NOVI 1200 supercharger with ECS methanol kit, 13 psi boost (max)
Fuel Injectors60-lb/hr
Fuel PumpStock with Kenne Bell Boost-a-Pump
IgnitionStock coil-on-plug
Exhaust System1 3/4-in American Racing headers, Billy Boat Bullet exhaust
TransmissionStock six-speed manual
ClutchStock
DriveshaftStock
SuspensionStock Z51
RearendStock with 3.42 gears
BrakesStock Z51 with nickel-plated rotors and red powdercoated calipers
WheelsD2 Forged VS1 chrome; 20x10-in front, 20x12.5-in rear
TiresNitto Invo; 285/25ZR20 front, 345/25ZR10 rear
Fuel Octane93
Weight3,300 lbs with driver
Best ET/MPH11.96 sec at 119 mph (NA)
Best 60-ft. Time1.70 sec
Current MileageAbout 20,000

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