IRL: Indy500: Legends of the Speedway: Joe Leonard

INDIANAPOLIS, Monday, May 15, 2000 - Like an elephant, Joe Leonard remembers how he got shafted in the 1968 Indianapolis 500. He drove one of Andy Granatelli’s STP turbines and should have won the race. What roils Leonard, now 65, is how...

INDIANAPOLIS, Monday, May 15, 2000 - Like an elephant, Joe Leonard remembers how he got shafted in the 1968 Indianapolis 500. He drove one of Andy Granatelli’s STP turbines and should have won the race. What roils Leonard, now 65, is how a fuel shaft broke while he was leading with only nine laps to go to the checkered flag. It wouldn’t have failed, he said, if the proper replacement had been put in his turbine and teammate Art Pollard’s, just as it was done in Graham Hill’s machine. “I was very, very disappointed,” he said. And he had good reason. Leonard came to Indy cars after winning three AMA national motorcycle championships and earning the NASCAR Pacific Coast Modified series rookie of the year award. He captured the Indianapolis 500 pole in 1968, becoming the first driver to sit on the pole in the 170-mph bracket at 171.559. Later Leonard moved to the Vel’s Parnelli Jones Team, won two USAC championships and finished third at Indianapolis in 1972. He had finished third once before, in 1967 driving for A.J. Foyt. Leonard’s career ended in March 1974 when he suffered leg injuries in a crash at Ontario Motor Speedway. At Indianapolis in 1968, Leonard was originally scheduled to drive a Ford-powered car owned by Parnelli Jones, while Jones was entered in the same Granatelli-owned STP Turbine he nearly won with in 1967. But Jones decided to retire from “500” competition before the event. Leonard became his replacement, only to hit the wall with the turbine during practice. Granatelli then hired Leonard to take over one of four new rear-engined wedge-shaped turbines that Colin Chapman had built for Granatelli. “It was very rainy up to the race, and I didn’t get a lot of practice,” Leonard said. On Pole Day, Leonard said he saw Wally Dallenbach’s car spraying oil during his qualifying run. Leonard followed Bobby Unser, who went out after Dallenbach, almost hit the wall and pulled the turbine back into the pits. He told Granatelli he wasn’t feeling well, but actually he was biding his time. He went back in the garage area, ate a hot dog and thought about taking a nap. “I knew the car was fast enough,” he said. “Someone came in and said, ‘Hey, Joe, there’s a cloud burst coming.’ I went out, jumped in the car and set the record.” He beat out Hill, who qualified at 171.208 mph, for the pole. A deal then was arranged between Granatelli and Colin Chapman, Hill’s car owner, that Leonard, Pollard and Hill would split the lap prize money the three of them earned. “I didn’t mind splitting with Pollard, but I didn’t want to split with Hill,” he said. “Look at the record, and I was the only one to lead a lap.” Leonard led 31 laps. Nine more and he would have won the race. Instead, the car suddenly died when the fuel shaft snapped. The same thing happened to Pollard minutes later. “Here’s a little shaft breaking, and it was like turning the key off,” he said. It wasn’t until later that he and Granatelli learned that Chapman had replaced the rigid shaft on Hill’s car, but not on the other two with the idea of making his turbine the one that would win the race. It enraged Granatelli because he had visited Chapman’s shop in England where the cars were built and suggested the shaft in all three machines be replaced with more flexible pieces. “I found out later they made their own shaft,” Leonard said. “I didn’t have any idea this was done. I thought about that for several years. It was quite a disheartening thing.” Leonard drove the turbine in six other races and got a fourth with it in the Hanford (Calif.) 250. Leonard drove for some of racing’s biggest names. He came to Indy with Dan Gurney, later was A.J. Foyt’s teammate, drove for Smokey Yunick and had George Bignotti as his crew chief while with Vel’s Parnelli Jones team. “I was fortunate to be with some good guys,” Leonard said. On Sunday, May 14 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Leonard was saluted as a Legend of Indy. He was unable to attend the ceremony because of the recent deaths of his mother and wife, Diana. Four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser drove the No. 70 turbine around the track as a one-lap salute to the San Jose, Calif., driver. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t make it,” said Leonard, who is legal guardian of his 11-year-old granddaughter Emily Elisabeth Leonard. “She’s going to be the first woman president,” he said proudly. “She carries a 4.0 grade average.” Leonard’s time at Indy spanned only nine years, but he ran right up there with the best during that stretch. He was a two-wheeler who made it big on four wheels, too.

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Wally Dallenbach , Dan Gurney , Bobby Unser , Joe Leonard , Parnelli Jones , Graham Hill , A.J. Foyt , Al Unser , Colin Chapman