Joe Leonard: Champion on Two Wheels and Four

By Norm DeWitt, Photography by Dan Mahoney, Don Emde Archives, Norm DeWitt

John Surtees remains the only man ever to win world championships on a bike and in a car, but America has its own crossover hero. Winner of both the AMA Grand National and USAC Indianapolis Champ Car titles, Joe Leonard (98) earned a reputation for speed and fearlessness over three decades of competition that made him a legend in both arenas.

Young Leonard started his racing career in San Diego. "Early on, I had a reputation of being wild," he admits. "I would ride in one of those little valleys over by 47th Street, racing with the Aztec Motorcycle Club by Sweetwater Lake and riding a Triumph for Guy Urquhart." Soon, he was hired by one of the great development wizards of the sport, Bay Area Harley-Davidson dealer Tom Sifton.

When Larry Headrick crashed and broke his leg in 1951, Leonard parked the Triumph to ride Headrick's Harley. "The deal was I'd give Larry half the prize money," Leonard recalls. "I didn't mind. He had four kids and I was single then. I'd stay with them and his wife would cook me dinner."

Leonard's physical size and weight were disadvantages. Then as now, Harleys were heavy, underpowered motorcycles and Leonard was a big guy at 6-foot-1. "Tom told me I'd probably never win a mile, but I'd be fine at the half-miles, quarter-miles and TT races," he says. "Weight was a big thing. We had about 39 horsepower. If you were 12 pounds heavier than another guy, he had 1 horsepower on you. That's hard to make up, especially on a mile. And 164 lbs. was the lightest I could get!"

Leonard rode for Sifton from 1951-'56. Prior to '54 the winner of the Springfield Mile was crowned national champion, and Leonard won his first title the first year there was a proper AMA Grand National Champ-ionship series. Along the way, he set records that stood for many years. Leonard won eight of 18 races including the miles at Springfield, Indy and San Mateo, along with a couple of Peoria TTs. His string of four-straight national wins stood until '93, when the late, great Ricky Graham won six in a row. The AMA named Leonard Most Popular Rider of '54. Fellow Harley rider Everett Brashear remembers: "Joe had uncanny balance. He could do things on a motorcycle you just couldn't believe. I could stay with him on the quarter-mile, half-mile and mile, but I just couldn't touch him in roadracing or on TT courses."

Most people thought Leonard had terrible vision. Brashear, who severed an optic nerve in a crash in'53, ran almost his entire career with one eye. "At least I had one good eye!" he jokes. According to Leonard, his vision, "was usually 20/30. Mario Andretti used to kid me: 'Giuseppe, can you see?' I'd say, 'Listen fellas, I don't know if my eyes are as good as yours, but as long as your asses are behind me, no problemos!'

The championship road was hard back then, and rewards were thin. The richest purse of the year was $2000 for winning the Daytona 200. The rider only saw $1000, since the other half usually went to his mechanic. "In '56, Sifton only went to one race: Daytona. He bet Harley-Davidson double or nothing-we'd either win $4000 or nothing," Leonard remembers. "I was very young, and Tom was probably 60 at the time. We were leading the race when my cam gears broke; they'd been hardened too much. We came back to California like dogs with our tails between our legs. I could always run really strong at Daytona, but something would always break."

At the time, if you were a top Harley rider and the Harley guys showed up at a race with factory bikes, that's what you rode. "I wasn't with Sifton all the time. I won Laconia on the Harley factory bikes-the 'Pepper Reds'-and I won Peoria three times, too." Leonard won the national championship again in '56-his second in three seasons.

By Norm DeWitt
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