Race Car Chronicles #2
Dave LeBrun/John Gray
1969 Chevrolet Camaro
For half a century, this car has been a force in NHRA Stock Eliminator
The second installment in the series features a car built and raced for nearly 40 years by a 2014 inductee of the New England Hot Rod Hall Of Fame.
The fundamental concept behind Race Car Chronicles is to tell the story of a car and of the things that the car did that make it important to the history of drag racing in New England, regardless of who was behind the wheel at the time. But I can’t really write the story of this car without telling the story of the man who built it in the first place.
Dave Lebrun – First Owner – 1971 to 2011
Dave LeBrun was born in Rhode Island, went to elementary school in Massachusetts, and graduated from New London High School in Connecticut. Once he finished high school he signed on as an apprentice at Electric Boat (EB) in Groton, CT. He worked at EB for nearly 15 years, but in 1971 Lebrun made the decision to open his own automotive machine shop with business partner Ed Lenair, L&L Auto Machine Service, at least in part to support his own love of fast cars. Dave was a fan of Chevrolets, especially early Corvettes and big blocks.
Lebrun was also an original member of the New Breed Auto Club. Based out of Norwich, CT, the club was founded in 1961 and the members soon became well-known as some of the most competitive and successful drag racers in the Northeast.
Dave raced a number of cars during the 1960s, and in 1971 he acquired the subject of this story.
That year LeBrun purchased a two-year-old white 1969 Chevy Camaro with a vinyl top. More importantly for Dave’s purposes, the drivetrain consisted of a big block backed by an automatic transmission. Dave quickly turned it into an NHRA-legal Stock Eliminator car running in A/SA.
Dave LeBrun raced the Camaro for more than 40 years. During that time he assembled the LeBrun Engineering stable of race cars that became renowned in Division 1 and around the country. Dave’s brother Bob raced another Camaro, and Ed Elderkin was the driver of a Corvette Stingray. All of the LeBrun Engineering team cars ran in A/Stock Automatic.
Over the course of time the Camaro won numerous NHRA National Events; twice at the Grand National Race in Sanair Canada in 1971 and 1982, at the Summernationals in Englishtown in 1975, at the Keystones in Reading, Pa. in 1989, and the 1987 US Nationals in Indy. In 1989 Dave and his brother Bob ended up competing in an all-LeBrun final at Maple Grove. Dave also won his class at Indy multiple times.
The Camaro was also a force at the Divisional level, winning the Division 1 Championship three times. Dave also won seven championship trophies in the All-Star Racing Association (ASRA) series.
Between the winning ways of the Camaro and the work the L&L Auto Machine did for other Stock and Super Stock racers in the Northeast, Dave LeBrun earned notice by a number of national and regional groups. He was inducted into the NHRA Hall of Fame in 1994, the ASRA Hall of Fame in 2012, and the Orientals Hot Rod Club’s New England Hot Rod Hall of Fame in 2014.
Unfortunately, Dave LeBrun was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and by 2010 he had parked the Camaro. Dave LeBrun struggled with that illness for a number of years, and early in 2019 he passed away.
John Gray – Second Owner – 2011 to Present
John Gray was another fan of drag racing from an early age. Like many gearheads, he built scale models of his favorite dragsters as a kid, and became involved in drag racing as a crew member, first with the New Boston Strangler funny car of Bob Sweet and later on Phil Burkart’s funny car team. In 1996 John decided it was time to work on and drive his own race car, so he picked up a small-block Nova to run in Stock Eliminator. He ran that car in various configurations for the next fifteen years.
It was at that time the Dave LeBrun was beginning to suffer the effects of Parkinson’s, and John let him know that he would be very interested in buying the ’69 Camaro if it ever came up for sale. Late in 2011, Dave called John and told him that the car was his if he wanted it. John had already decided that he would pay Dave whatever the asking price was, so a deal was made that the first installment was paid.
John was making payments on the car over the winter and asked Dave if he had the title. Dave assured him that he did and he would look for it. More payments were made, but the title hadn’t shown up. John inquired and Dave told him, “my wife is looking for it and so far she has found the titles to six 1969 Camaros, but not that one.” Eventually, the original title that transferred ownership to Dave LeBrun in 1971 was found, but it does go to show how much Dave liked 1969 Camaros.
John raced the car for the first time in 2012 and Dave freshened the motor a couple of times in the next few years. Eventually, John started making some major changes to the car. Over time the car has been completely disassembled and rebuilt with more modern components. John freely admits that his OCD is a driving force when it comes to upgrading and maintaining the car. And of course, new rule changes by the NHRA for Stock Eliminator required constant updating and improvements to allow the car to remain competitive.
But of course the most noticeable change the John Gray has made is to the paint scheme. Rather than keep the single color paint scheme that many Stock racers use, John wanted his car to stand out, and he was willing to spend the time and money that would require. Scott Brown out of Missouri came up with the design, based on John’s choice of colors. The colors, two shades of blue with orange highlights, were inspired by one of the most beautiful dragsters from the heyday of front-motor nitro madness, The Keeling and Clayton top fuel dragster. The eye-catching paint job was applied by painter Lee Baker and Dan the Sign Man Delaney handled the lettering. The final product has attracted a lot of attention, and more than one Stock competitor has told John that they wish they didn’t see the car on Facebook so often.
As for performance, John says that at about 3400 lbs., the cars fits into A/SA class naturally, but he can add 200 lbs go down to B/SA, or take 200 lbs. off to go up to AA/SA. John likes to run in AA/SA, but it can be tricky to hook up the tires at only 3200 lbs. But that is also the challenge that John enjoys most, getting a relatively light car with a 396 to hook up and run against the heavier Chryslers and Fords with bigger engines.
Another challenge that John enjoys is helping his 18-year-old son Tim run the old Nova. John jokes that with his OCD and Tim’s ADHD it can be a challenge, but he is also proud to see Tim step up to the challenge of racing an NHRA class car. John is quick to point out that Tim doesn’t really have ADHD, he’s just an 18-year-old. But John also doesn’t deny that his own OCD is real, which is probably a good thing when it comes to being competitive in Stock class racing. I think that the words “obsessive” and “compulsive” are in the NHRA Stock Eliminator rules, aren’t they?
The Camaro has continued its winning ways, earning back-to-back wins at NHRA National Open races at Epping, and a trip to the final in the third year. John has also won an NHRA points race at Numidia with the car. One especially poignant achievement was when John the All-Star Racing Association Championship in 2013. Dave LeBrun had won that seven times with the Camaro, so John was proud to be able to continue that tradition.
John Gray knows that it would be easier if he loaded the car up with weight and ran in D/Automatic. But as any self-respecting drag racer should, he likes running in AA/SA and going fast as he can. I am sure that Dave LeBrun would agree.
I would like to thank Mick Smallridge and John Gray for generously sharing their time to help me tell the story of this race car.
If you know of other cars that have been racing for 25 years or more and have a story to tell, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org