Joe Leonard: Champion on Two Wheels and Four

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.

One episode at Bay Meadows lives on in racing lore. If Leonard could tuck in without having to hold open the throttle, he could pick up 250 rpm on fast tracks, so Sifton used the carb spring to hold the throttle open instead of closed. Sifton specifically told Leonard only to do this on the back straight, out of sight of the pits. Of course, Leonard tried it on the front straight and everyone noticed. "On the Harley, it's really simple: You just reverse the spring. So when we got caught, I told them, 'Oh, the mechanic must have done it. I could tell it really wanted to run!' I didn't know what to say. But it was worth 250 rpm..."

Leonard left Sifton's team in '57, and with former Sifton racer Charlie West turning the wrenches, dominated for the next two seasons. "Charlie should have gotten a lot of the credit. He retired from racing and became my mechanic," Leonard says. "I won Daytona twice, in '57 and '58, the same years I was riding with number one." Leonard also won Springfield both those years.

In '57 Leonard won at Daytona, Laconia, San Jose, Sturgis and Springfield to clinch national championship number three. At that point, Leonard and Brashear saw their competition coming straight at them.

"Before I retired and went to cars, there was this little guy named Carroll Resweber coming up, and Everett spotted him. He was faster than our Experts on a crappy motorcycle."

Resweber would go on to win four-straight titles between '58 and '61, beating Leonard for the'58 title by a single point.

After a mediocre '59 season in which he finished fifth, Leonard came back with a vengeance in '60. Despite not winning any races, his consistent front-running performances were good enough for another runner-up spot behind Resweber. Looking back over his professional career from 1953-'61, Leonard sees Resweber as the only obstacle between him and three more AMA Grand National Championships. Leonard's bike-racing career ended in '61 with a total of 27 national wins. Still, Leonard is gracious: "Look at this little guy. He must have had 2 hp on me, and although I didn't like it, he drove me off to cars. That was the best thing that ever happened to me. I could have all the hamburgers and shakes I wanted!"

In '64, Leonard was USAC Stock Car Rookie of the Year driving a a Dodge. Teammate A.J. Foyt invited him to Indianapolis to try something a little sexier, but the Chrysler people said no. Leonard protested: "Foyt drives the stock cars. Foyt drives the midgets. Foyt jumps into a sprint car every once in a while-why not me?" Chrysler's response was brief: "When you're A.J. Foyt, come and see us!" It was a slap in the face. Leonard took a chance and went to see Foyt, who got him a Kurtis roadster. Things didn't go quite as planned, though: Jim Hurtubise lost an engine, Leonard hit his oil and spun the car into the wall.

Put an Indy roadster into the wall and you feel it, but Leonard bounced back. At Phoenix in '64, he ran all 200 miles and got fifth. In '68, Leonard drove perhaps the most famous race car of the '60s: Andy Granatelli's STP Lotus Turbine. The car was originally built for Indy 500 winners Jim Clark and Graham Hill, but Clark was killed in a Formula 2 race at Hockenheim, Germany, and Clark's replacement, Mike Spence, died when his Turbine slammed into Indy's Turn 1 wall. Leonard was tapped as driver number three, and put the car they called "Silent Sam" on the pole.

To say the wedge-shaped, four-wheel-drive Lotus 56 was a challenge to drive is an understatement. The brakes would fade away to almost nothing after a few laps due to the complete lack of engine braking. "With the Turbine you had to anticipate," Leonard recalls. "You'd ease into the corner and stand on the throttle while easing on the brakes, because you had to watch how fast you'd be coming up on a guy. I'd have to get on the gas and hope like the devil that I didn't run into the back of the guys whose cars weren't handling real good. You had to make these decisions really quick." After perfecting the art of braking while standing on the throttle, Leonard came within nine laps of winning the most prestigious race in the world. The 500-hp Pratt & Whitney gas turbine's fuel shaft broke while he was leading.

Leonard took the Indycar title in '71 and '72, but suffered career-ending injuries to his legs and feet at Ontario, California, in '74. There have been many auto racing champions and many motorcycle racing champions, but precious few have been both. Leonard reflects with characteristic modesty: "Well, I guess my life was longer than expected, so I had to do something else."

Flanked by Harley-Davidson teammates Charlie West (34) and Everett Brashear (25), Joe Leonard wore the #1 plate for the first time in 1955, but finished third that year when rookie Brad Andres took the title.
Leonard (98) came from behind to take the '54 Bay Meadows Mile ahead of Paul Goldsmith (3) and his future mechanic Charlie West (31). It was his seventh Grand National Championship win.
After taking his second AMA title in '56, Leonard dominated in '57, winning Daytona, Laconia, San Jose and Springfield to earn his third and final #1 plate. Following that, Carroll Resweber got the best of him.
Taking the checkers at his hometown San Jose Mile for the first time in '57-his third win of the year-gave Leonard a total of 20 National victories. Runner-up Al Gunter is nowhere in sight.
After frustrating mechanical failures in the firstfour rounds, the 100-lap Road Race at Laconia, New Hampshire was Leonard's first win of the '54 season and the fifth of his career.
Shown here enjoying his backyard in San Jose, California, Leonard still lives in the same town he's called home since getting that first Harley-Davidson ride with Tom Sifton way back in '51.
Leonard was leading the '68 Indianapolis 500 in Andy Granatelli's four-wheel-drive Lotus 56Turbine when the fuel shaft broke nine laps from the finish.
The Tom Sifton-backed Harley-Davidson KR750 that Leonard rode to the first of his three AMA Grand National Championships in '54 is presently on display at the San Diego Automotive Museum.