Joe Leonard: 1932-2017

Kevin Duke
by Kevin Duke

Racing legend on two and four wheels passes away

Joe Leonard, a three-time AMA Grand National champion who went on to race Indy Cars, passed away on April 27, 2017 in a San Jose, California, nursing home at the age of 84. Leonard’s racing accomplishments were extremely rare, as the San Diego native won national championships on both two and four wheels.

Leonard won the AMA Grand National championship in 1954, its inaugural year, and followed it up with titles in ’56 and ’57. He amassed 27 wins during his motorcycle career, including Daytona 200 victories on the old beach course in 1957 and ’58. He was also runner-up in the GNC series in 1958, ’60 and ’61.

Leonard retired from two-wheel racing at the end of the 1961 season and turned his attention to car racing, winning the USAC Champ Car series in 1971 and ’72. He very nearly won the 1968 Indy 500 until his turbine-powered car broke a fuel pump with just nine laps remaining. He also finished in third place at Indy in 1969 and 1972. Injuries suffered during a 1974 crash took him out of racing in 1975.

Leonard was inducted into the Motorsport Hall of Fame of America in 1991, and in 1998 he joined the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame.

Leonard’s passing closely follows the death of another motorsports legend, John Surtees, who was the only racer to have won world championships on motorcycles and cars.

Motorsports Legend John Surtees Passes: 1934-2017

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  • Mick kay Mick kay on May 01, 2017

    I remember seeing him at the vintage races at Gunstock in NH. A very nice gentleman and a hell of a racer. Godspeed.

  • Gee S Gee S on May 02, 2017

    A little misty at the loss of another irreplacable champion.

    Joe had skills beyond comprehension -- on the flat track he beat competitors into submission with essentially no depth perception -- he only really had one working eye. When a competitor discovered this near the end of Joe's bike racing career and confronted him about it, he responded "Imagine how good I coulda been if I'd had two!"

    Joe was the only guy that ever figured out my favorite open wheeled race car of all time, the STP Special Turbine. When someone asked him what his secret was for getting fast laps out of the crazy thing, Joe told 'em it was because he figgured out that to go fast, you "had to brake and accelerate at the same time". Joe wasn't kidding. The acceleration lag on the turbine was so bad, that he would gas it and spool up the engine a full three or four seconds before the apex while he was still on the brakes setting his entry speed. When it was time to accelerate out, the turbine was already on the boil and Joe would just let off the brakes and gazoom -- gone! His pit guys would tell stories of the Turbine coming back to the pits at the end of the race with its brakes basically on fire.

    Joe is no faster in heaven than he was right here.