Some men achieve greatness. A few become legends. One of the few is Joe Leonard. The versatility that Leonard displayed throughout his racing career earned the San Jose, California, racer three AMA Grand National Championship titles and two USAC National Championship crowns.
Leonard began racing on motorcycles and won the first ever series-determined National title, the 1954 Grand National Championship. He added the 1956 and 1957 championships to his long list of accomplishments, each year winning on both dirt tracks and road courses.
His first title year was perhaps his greatest. He won a record eight of the season's 18 Grand National races and two of those victories came on the same day in the 45 cubic inch and 80 cubic inch Peoria Steeplechase Nationals.
Smokin' Joe closed out his legendary two-wheel racing career in 1961 by winning three Nationals and finishing second in the final point standings. Those final three Grand National Championship wins provided yet another display of his versatility, coming in a road race, a mile dirt track event, and in a Steeplechase race. In nine years of AMA Grand National competition, Leonard scored 27 wins, two of which came in the Daytona 200, motorcycling's Indy 500.
The following year, Leonard made the switch to car racing and the legend grew. After finishing third at Indianapolis in A.J. Foyt's team car in 1967, Leonard put the controversial turbine-powered Lotus "wedge" on the pole in 1968. His severely restricted version of the "whooshmobile" was in or near the lead all day until mechanical failure near the end cost Leonard perhaps his best chance at racing's ultimate single prize.
Greater glory awaited as Leonard reached the top of the Indy Car world in convincing style by winning consecutive USAC national season titles in 1971 and 1972. His brilliant career was cut short by serious foot injuries suffered in the California 500 in 1974.
Leonard's induction into the Motorsports Hall of Fame, where he joins other motorsports legends, is a fitting tribute to the man who stands alone as the only American racer who has won both motorcycle and car racing National Championships.