BCRA racer Joe Leonard passed away

From the desk of Kevin Triplett

Joe Leonard began his racing career on motorcycles in 1951 and by 1953 he reached the expert class, but that season was cut short by severe injuries from a crash. Joe returned in 1954 aboard Tom Sifton’s Harley-Davidson and captured the American Motorcycle Association (AMA) Grand National Championship. 1954 marked the first season that the champion was determined by an eighteen race season rather than by the result of a single race. Those eighteen races included a mixture of road races, races on one mile and hall-mile dirt ovals and Tourist Trophy (TT) steeplechase races which are held on a modified dirt oval with at least one right hand turn and one jump.

Leonard won a record eight AMA races in 1954, posted a win on each type of course, and over a ten-day stretch won four straight races and defeated Paul Goldsmith for the Grand National title. As the defending champion, in 1955 Leonard won three motorcycle races and finished third in the AMA Grand National championship. That same year Joe Leonard made his debut with the mighty midgets of the Bay Cities Racing Association (BCRA) in a race at Contra Costa Speedway in Pacheco on May 14 1955, and finished sixth in the semi-main race.

During the early months of 1956, Leonard raced with the BCRA midgets indoors at the Oakland Exposition Building and captured two semi-main victories. Later that year, on his motorcycle Joe won two of the seven AMA races and repeated as the Grand National champion, and then in 1957 he won four of eight races to win his second consecutive and third career Grand National championship.

Joe Leonard continued to race motorcycles as well as midgets with the BCRA and modified stock cars when his schedule allowed. In 1961, Joe won two BCRA main events at the Oakland Exposition Building on back-to-back nights January 20 and 21 both while driving Walter Booth’s “Booth Brothers Garage” Ford V8-60 powered midget. At the end of the 1961 AMA season, after he won three races and finished second in championship, Leonard retired from motorcycle racing to concentrate on racing on four wheels full-time.

In the 1964 season, Leonard raced full-time on the United States Auto Club stock car circuit and scored his first win at the one-mile Illinois State Fairground dirt track at DuQuoin on September 6 behind the wheel of Ray Nichels’ 1964 Dodge. The next day, Joe took his first ride in a championship car on the same DuQuoin track in Bruce Homeyer’s “Konstant Hot Special” and finished fourteenth. Leonard drove in four more championship races for legendary car owners George Walther, Joe Hunt and Ernie Ruiz, while on the stock car trail he scored six top ten finishes with four top ten finishes and was named the USAC stock car division’s Rookie of the Year.

The following year, 1965, Joe arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and after a problem passing the vision test, he qualified Dan Gurney’s Halibrand rear-engine car to make his first of nine Indianapolis 500-mile race appearances. Barely a month later at Langhorne Pennsylvania, Leonard became a hero to many for his bravery as he helped to pull an unconscious Mel Kenyon from the inferno of his burning roadster and saved Kenyon’s life.

On August 14, 1965 in only his twelfth USAC championship car start Joe was victorious on the paved one mile at Milwaukee. While it would not be until 1970 that he notched his second USAC championship win, in 1968 Leonard started from the pole position for the Indianapolis 500-mile race and came within nine laps of victory in the STP wedge-shaped Lotus turbine car.

Joe was crowned the 1971 USAC National Champion on the strength of his very consistent season in his “Samsonite Special” as he recorded one victory, five top five and two top ten finishes. Leonard repeated as the USAC National Champion in 1972 as he tallied three straight wins at Michigan International Speedway, Pocono Raceway and the Milwaukee Mile. Leonard finished out of the top five twice in his eight 1972 USAC race appearances which included his best finish of third place in the Indianapolis 500-mile race.

After two championships, Leonard suffered through a rough 1973 USAC championship season and finished fifteenth in the season points, then suffered a brutal crash during the 1974 California ‘500’ at the Ontario Motor Speedway after it appeared that his car’s left front Firestone tire failed. Leonard suffered a compound fracture of his lower left leg with his ankle was crushed and his foot nearly severed in the accident, and it reportedly took rescuers nearly half an hour to extract him from the destroyed Vel’s/Parnelli Eagle.

Joe Leonard missed the rest of the 1974 USAC racing season as he recovered from his injuries, and after eight months in a full-length cast, he attempted a comeback in March 1975 at age 42.  Before practice opened for the 1975 ‘California 500,’ USAC officials tested Leonard’s level of physical fitness and found that his left foot was not sufficiently healed as he could not fully depress the brake pedal of AJ Foyt’s backup car.  That failed physical brought a sad end to Joe Leonard’s brilliant racing career that included three AMA Grand National Championships, two USAC National Championships, and two BCRA main event indoor victories.  After several years of health problems, Joe Leonard passed away on April 27 2017.

The author thanks historian and author Tom Motter for supplying many key historical details used in this article.

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