By Eric Johnson
“Good motorcycle racers can always do well at car racing. But very few, if any, car racers could succeed in a motorcycle race.” Joe Leonard
Beginning way back in the 1930s, a number of championship-winning motorcycle racers began climbing off their bike and looking at auto racing as a second phase of their careers. In the 1930s - and in the decades to follow - Europe brought us “two to four wheel racers” Tazio “The Flying Mantuan” Nuvolari (considered by many to be the greatest single racer who ever lived and once said something to the effect of “I only feel exhilarated when the valves are smashing against the pistons”), Bern Rosemeyer (the great German-born Grand Prix driver who was killed while trying to break the world speed record in an Auto Union Streamline on January 28, 1938), Jean Behra (who died in a Porsche at the AVUS circuit in Berlin on August 1, 1959), John Surtees (the only driver to win motorcycle and automobile World Championships), Mike “The Bike” Hailwood (who won nine motorcycle World Championships and proved to be a deft Formula 1 driver) and many others.
While the great racers of Europe who made the transition from motorcycles to automobiles received global attention, the United States of America produced a motorcycle and auto racing champion who was, arguably, as good or better than any of those who had ever lived. His name was Joe Leonard and he was born on August 4, 1932 in San Diego, California. As a boy, fascinated by the motorcycle racers who competed in meets near his home put on by the Aztec Motorcycle Club, at age 19, Leonard packed a suitcase and moved north to San Francisco to begin his career in racing. Getting things started on a Triumph, Leonard rode hard, if not a bit wild. Nonetheless, a local, highly regarded engine builder named Tom Sifton took note of Leonard’s “diamond in the rough” talents and hired him on to ride for his San Jose-based Harley-Davidson dealership. In his rookie year of 1953, Leonard proved he was the real deal, winning four nationals. In 1954, Leonard won the first AMA Grand National Championship. After placing third in 1955, he’d come back to reclaim the National Championship in both 1956 and 1957. When all was said and done in his two wheel career, Joe Leonard won 27 national victories, most of them on the terribly dangerous mile and half-mile dirt track circuit of the U.S. in which danger – if not death – lurked at every corner. Interestingly – and showing his supernatural abilities – Leonard also won the fabled Daytona 200 raodrace on two occasions.
In 1961, Leonard decided to bring the curtain down on his motorcycle racing career, but not before winning three Nationals and finishing second overall in the Grand National Championship. By this time, Leonard was already looking to begin a career in auto racing, and on September 7, 1964 showed up ready to race in DuQuoin, Illinois. The beginning of his USAC (United States Automobile Club) Champ Car career started with a 14th place finish in the #16 Konstant Hot Vollstedt Offy Dirt Champ Car. (the legendary A.J. Foyt won the race).
A year later, Leonard qualified the #29 Halibrand Ford 27th for his first Indianapolis 500. Although an oil leak forced him out of the race, he did leave town with a cool memory.
“A guy came by the garage and was looking at my car, which was facing out. “Come on in and get a closer look,” I said. He kind of reminded me of my grandpa who used to take me to the midget races is San Diego where I grew up. He looked it over real good and asked some great questions. He thanked me and slowly walked off. Just then, an old-timer that I knew came by and asked “who is that sharp old guy?” My friend looked over at him and replied, “That’s the guy that won the first Indy 500!” I am sure glad I was nice to him. I will never forget that time in my life. My first Indy 500 and I met the very first winner.”
By the way, that man’s name was Ray Harroun and in the yellow #32 Marmon Wasp, won the first Indianapolis 500 on May 30, 1911 at an average speed of 74.602 miles per hour.
Leonard would go on to race the wild and wooly USAC Championship Car series from 1964 through 1974. He would start 98 races – in fact in the famed Granatelli turbine car, he won the pole for the 1968 Indianapolis 500 – wins six races, and most impressive of all, claim the 1971 and 1972 USAC Championship Car Season Championships (better known as the “Indy Car” series). Surpassing the great John Surtees, Leonard became known as “The Only Racer in the World” to have won multiple National Championships on both automobile and motorcycle racing back-to-back.
On March 10, 1974 at the now long gone Ontario Motor Speedway in California, Joe and his #15 Eagle were flying through the pack when, on lap number 146, his left tire disintegrated, slamming the cay into the wall. Leonard suffered sever feet and leg injuries and the shunt marked the end of his career, but thankfully and unlike many of the former motorcycle-turned-car racers who came before him, he recovered and today leads a happy life as a grandfather and racing fan.
In the early 1970s, when I was nine years-old, my dad and uncle took me to see the Michigan 200 in Brooklyn, Michigan. Joe Leonard competed that day and at one point during the race, he flashed by our section of the grandstands at nearly 200 miles per hour. “That’s the greatest racer who ever lived,” said my dad, who loved both car and motorcycle racing and knew all too well about Leonard’s accomplishments. I didn’t really understand what he meant at the time, but I certainly do now.