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The Legendary Engine Builder Passed Away At Age 77

Sonny Leonard Death
Image via Facebook

We lost a legend this week.

Acclaimed drag racing engine builder Sonny Leonard passed away earlier this week at age 77. You might know Sonny Leonard from his work with big-inch V8 engines, his pioneering Pontiac heads, or maybe just from an episode of Finnegan’s Garage.

Leonard used to build engines as a hobby on evenings and weekends while supporting himself as a mechanic working at a local Chevrolet dealership. In 1968 he opened Sonny’s Garage, a little two-bay shop in Madison Heights, Virginia, where he began building engines for himself and a small group of clients. The rest is history.

Sonny Leonard engines lead the way in classes like pro stock, radial vs the world, pro modified and more. His engines have won 13 IHRA Mountain Motor Pro Stock championships, set countless world records, individual event victories, and championships in drag racing and truck pulling spanning more than 50-years. You can even find one of his engines powering Mike Finnegan’s Game Over drag boat.

Sonny Leonard Racing Engine
Image via Facebook.

But Leonard’s engines didn’t just shine in competition, they were also technical marvels. He built the first 800-plus cubic-inch engine and the first 500 cubic-inch small-block Chevrolet, he developed the GM hemispherical cylinder head, along with the 5.3-inch bore space wedge cylinder head. However, his crown jewel has to be building the first 1,000 cubic-inch V8 engine. The naturally aspirated monster makes in excess of 2,100 hp and offers more than 1,550 ft. lbs of torque, it’s the largest such engine to be built for drag racing.

Owning an engine with SONNY LEONARD stamped on the rocker covers will forever be an aspirational goal for many in the go-fast community, be it on land or water. The company released a statement following Sonny’s passing:

“As most of you have heard, unfortunately, Sonny passed away this morning. He will be deeply missed beyond what words can describe, but we want to reassure our customers that Sonny’s Racing Engines will continue to thrive and remain open for business.”


Written by Michael Accardi

Michael refuses to sit still, he's held multiple hands-on automotive jobs throughout his career. Along with being an investigative writer and accomplished photographer, Michael works for several motorsports organizations.

He was part of the Ford GT program at Multimatic, oversaw a fleet of Audi TCR race cars, has ziptied Lamborghini Super Trofeo cars back together, been over the wall in the Rolex 24, and worked in the cut-throat world of IndyCar.

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