The Loss Of Another Legend

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It seems that my first two posts for the Month of May have involved losing a legend in some way. Yesterday was about Sid Collins, today I pay homage to another legend of the Indianapolis 500 – pole-winning driver Joe Leonard. I’ll try to make tomorrow’s post a little more upbeat.

It’s funny how kids see things one way and then grow up to have the opposite viewpoint. In 1968, I was a wide-eyed nine year-old who had already witnessed Silent Sam – the 1967 Andy Granatelli turbine-powered car that came within three laps of victory. The color may have mesmerized me more than anything. I had never seen an entire race car in day-glo orange before. The car itself was bulbous and bulky and looked a little odd with the driver set over to the right in order to have room for the giant Pratt & Whitney turbine on the left. The main reasons I liked it besides the color; were that it sounded cool, Parnelli Jones drove it and the rest of my family detested the entire premise of it. To say it was beautiful was a stretch. Striking? Yes. Beautiful? No.

In 1968, Granatelli returned with the wedge-shaped Lotus 56. In fact, there were four of them, although only three started the race. Due to death and injury, the driver lineup that qualified the cars was far from the original lineup. Jim Clark was slated to drive one, but he had been fatally injured at Hockenheim three weeks before practice was to begin. Mike Spence crashed one of the Lotus turbines during practice in Turn One and lost his life. Jackie Stewart had been hired to replace Clark, but could not pass his physical due to a hairline fracture in his wrist. Weld simply could not get up top speed. Of the original drivers, only Graham Hill started the race. The other two “replacements” were Art Pollard and Joe Leonard.

I was in the stands of Pole Day in 1968. When I first saw that wedge-shaped turbine, I was in awe. I was convinced that I was looking at the future. Race cars didn’t look like this. The roadsters I saw in my first race of 1965 were big and bulky with rounded off noses. The rear-engine cars that were much more common were more like tubes with a big oval-shaped radiator opening out front.

The Lotus 56 looked nothing like anything I had seen before. It had the same day-glo paint scheme that Parnelli Jones had run the year before, but where Jones’ car was bulbous, this was about as sleek as it could be. The turbine was no longer on the side, but behind the driver – where practically all other cars had their engines.

Joe Leonard put his car on the pole after Graham Hill had stood the crowd on its head as the first qualifier to put his car in the field. Hill set a four-lap average of 171.208 mph besting Mario Andretti’s record pole speed the previous year of 168.982. But when Leonard went out and posted a speed of 171.559 – the huge crowd went nuts. I say “huge” because this was when Pole Day at Indianapolis was considered to be the second largest single day sporting event. The stands along the front straightaway were filled and crowds were estimated to be close to 200,000.

Being the fickle nine year-old that I was, Joe Leonard immediately became my favorite driver. I liked that he seemed calm and modest on the PA as he discussed his record-setting run. We always subscribed to the Indianapolis Star during the Month of May in those days. When the Sunday Star came in the mail the following week, I studied everything I could about that car and the driver who would pilot it in the race on May 30th.

1968

When we returned to Indianapolis on Race Day, the lines had been drawn in my family. I was fiercely behind Joe Leonard and his revolutionary car. My father and two brothers basically wanted anyone else who happened to be driving a piston-powered car. Being a kid, I didn’t really understand or even care about the ramifications had a turbine-powered car won. It didn’t dawn on me that within a couple of years, there might be thirty-three turbines starting the race. All I knew was it was a great looking car that sounded neat and Joe Leonard was more like Joe Cool to me.

As the race went on, it became obvious that Bobby Unser was going to do his best to mess up my wish. He had started on the outside of the front row, next to Graham Hill and led the majority of laps in the first half of the race. Hill had crashed his Lotus just passed the halfway point. Leonard and Unser swapped the lead in the second half, but Leonard took the lead apparently for good on Lap 181 with Unser’s car being stuck in high gear. I was beaming as the rest of my family was sweating with fear that this might actually be happening.

Then the unthinkable happened. With Leonard leading on a restart on Lap 191, the turbine flamed out on the cars of Leonard and Pollard. To this day, I’m still not sure exactly what a flame-out is on a turbine, but I know it isn’t good. As the turbine-powered Lotus of Joe Leonard slowly passed our seats in Stand A, my heart sank. My despair turned to outrage as my brothers started jumping up and down in celebration. I sulked and pouted in silence the whole way home.

It took me more than a year to get over it, to the point that I was still mad at Leonard the next year – as if it was his fault. That’s how the mind of a ten year-old works. He was driving a black and gold Smokey Yunick Eagle.

1969

I was upset that he finished sixth. By the time 1970 rolled around, I had forgiven my former favorite driver. Why? Mainly, because he was driving for one of my other favorites – Parnelli Jones. He was also teammates to Al Unser, who I had always liked better than Bobby. After all, it was Bobby who benefited from Leonard’s misfortune. That was the way my logic worked.

It also helped that Leonard’s car was identical to the Johnny Lightning Special that Al Unser was driving, and who couldn’t like that car?

1970

In 1971, Leonard was back with the team, but was now driving a yellow car sponsored by Samsonite. Although Leonard would finish only twenty-fourth in the Indianapolis 500, he would go on to win the 1971 USAC National Championship.

1971

In 1972, the cars of VPJ (Vel’s Parnelli Jones) had been radically redesigned and started out with dihedral wings on the side to the cockpit. By Race Day at Indianapolis, the wings were gone but the car was still not stable. Despite that, Leonard drove the car to a second straight championship in 1972.

1972 a
1972 b

In 1974 at Ontario Motor Speedway (the IMS “clone”), Joe Leonard crashed on Lap 146, when a tire blew sending him into the Turn One wall. His foot, ankle and leg injuries were so severe that they effectively ended his career. He made an unsuccessful comeback in 1975, but he failed his physical and that was it.

Joe Leonard was in the famous rookie class of 1965 at Indianapolis. He drove in nine Indianapolis 500’s from 1965 to 1973, with a top finish of third in 1967 while driving as a teammate to AJ Foyt. He matched that result again in 1972, while driving for Parnelli Jones.

As good as a driver Leonard was with four wheels, he may have been even better with two. He won the first AMA Grand National championship series in 1954. then again in 1956 and 1957. He finished second in 1958, 1960 and 1961, while finishing third in 1955. He also won the Daytona 200 in 1957 and 1958. In order to focus on auto racing with four wheels, Leonard retired from motorcycle racing after the 1961 season.

Joe Leonard passed away last Thursday, April 27th in a San Jose nursing home at the age of eighty-four. I didn’t learn of his death until Saturday afternoon. After I grew into an adult, I understood why my brothers were so vehemently opposed to the turbine. But in 1968, I thought it and Joe Leonard were just about the coolest things under the sun.

It was years later before I grew to appreciate just what a great driver Joe Leonard was. He belonged to the great “super team” of 1972 that was also composed of Al Unser and Mario Andretti. Yet with those two proven winners as teammates, it was Leonard who won the 1972 championship. He won multiple USAC Indy car championships and multiple motorcycle championships. If anyone else has done that, I’m not aware of it, If they have, it’s got to be a pretty short list.

The time I spent at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a kid in the sixties, produced some of the most memorable moments of my life. Like most kids do, I would quickly bounce from one “favorite” driver to another. Parnelli Jones was my first favorite. AJ Foyt ended up being my all-time favorite. But in 1968, Joe Leonard was my favorite driver.

As we continue to lose the drivers I grew up watching in the sixties, I feel a bit of my childhood going away with each one. Losing Joe Leonard last week caused me to stop and reflect over the weekend. I lost one of my favorite drivers, but the Indianapolis 500 lost a big part of its history last week.

George Phillips

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8 Responses to “The Loss Of Another Legend”

  1. Doug Gardner Says:

    Great job George. Your 1968 Experience mimics mine to t T. Only difference was that I was down in Stand B. My father wanted anyone driving a piston powered car and I thought then as I do now that the Lotus 56 is one of the most beautiful cars to race at the Speedway.

  2. At age 15 the 1968 500 was my first. Two 15 year old buddies road a Greyhound bus from Fort Wayne the morning of the race to attend. Sitting in turn one Snake Pit was memorable in it self. Seeing James Garner walk by on the other side of the fence was another. The start was awesome , but alas the most remembered event is watching # 60 pull in to the grass in front of me. What a disappointment . I was a fan of Clark and Hill and Lotus so naturally was routing for the Lotus Turbines . Those cars still are one of my most favorite. Loss of Pelican Joe is sad.
    Thanks for your blog always enjoy your posts and tweets . Please advise of the location of the original tenderloin once more this year . I hope to attend pole day and certainly race day

  3. billytheskink Says:

    I first learned of Joe Leonard while reading through a list of Indycar national champions as a kid. Along with 1973 champion Roger McCluskey, Leonard’s name intrigued me because I had not heard of him before and was eager to read about him.

    Being a winning driver on both two and four wheels is rare enough, being a champion on both? That’s amazing.

  4. Bob F. Says:

    One of the reasons I have always enjoyed Indycar racing and professional baseball is that the past is in many ways as important as the present in those sports. The present defies understanding without the past. But it is also why all the changes in the sports can be so frustrating. As it was said so well in Field of dreams, “It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again.”

    Another fine story to remind us of the rich heritage of Indy.

  5. I was a big fan of the turbines and anybody who drove them. I was big time into building models of the cars then and wanted my models to be exactly as they were on race day, which generally was not what was offered in the kits. The three cars in the race were differentiated on race day by the florescent green nose and left front wheel and tire on Leonard’s, black nose on Hill’s and white nose on Pollard’s. There were also differences in the small sponsor decals that were common then.
    Hill was my favorite of the drivers on the team. I was just 10 years removed from living in Scotland, so an Englishman was close enough for me.
    That was the last race I listened to on radio.
    BTW George there were six turbines entered by Granatelli that year. They were numbered 20, 30, 40, 60, 70 and 80. The 40 was a somewhat redesigned car from the previous year.

    • You are correct, but there were only four of the Lotus 56 turbines. Leonard crashed the 40 turbine, that was essentially a modified version of Parnelli’s, in practice.

      As for the race day colors, you got the other two mixed up. Hill had the white nose (see below) and Pollard’s nose was flat-black.
      null

      • It has been many years since I had those models or even looked at photos. Photos are more reliable than memory. Memory road is not as well defined as things were when they were happening. I am sure I remember an 80 entry but don’t ever remember confirmation that there was actually a car to match the entry. In those days, as you probably remember, there could be 80 or more entries, but not necessarily that many actual cars.

  6. Brian McKay in Florida Says:

    That’s a very enjoyable blog post, George!
    I loved the writing and the photos of exotic cars! Vivid descriptions and illustrations of racers and cars ‘before my time.’
    I didn’t become interested​ until 1983, I think – Danny Sullivan and Bobby Rahal.

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