Joe Leonard was the first champion of the AMA Grand National Series which was initiated in 1954. For many years the national championship was decided on the basis of a single race, the Springfield (IL) Mile. Beginning in 1954, riders had to compete in a variety of racing disciplines at race tracks around the country. Leonard, then a second year expert, won eight of the 18 Grand National races on his Tom Sifton-tuned Harley-Davidson, dominating the inaugural championship series. Leonard would go on to win two more AMA national titles before moving to a successful automobile racing career in the mid-1960s.
Leonard was born on Aug. 4, 1932 in San Diego, Calif. Leonard's childhood neighborhood bordered an open valley where motorcycle field meets were put on by the Aztec Motorcycle Club. As a youngster, Leonard and his buddies would ride their bicycles down to the valley to watch the racing. Southern California racer Don Nicolaides became an early hero of young Leonard. While still a teenager, Leonard began hanging around a local San Diego motorcycle shop owned by Guy Urquhart and before long was hired to do odd jobs around the shop. One of his jobs included the hair-raising task of teaching sailors from the nearby naval base to ride motorcycles for the very first time as a passenger! It was in San Diego that Leonard began racing as a novice.
At 19, Leonard moved to San Francisco to pursue his racing career. He raced Triumph's and earned the reputation as a hard-charging and somewhat wild rider. Legendary race engine builder Tom Sifton recognized Leonard's raw talent and soon hired him to race for his Harley-Davidson dealership based in San Jose. Leonard moved to San Jose and has been there ever since.
Leonard turned expert in 1953, but nearly missed that season after suffering a serious street crash which kept him bed-ridden in the hospital for a month. Once out of the hospital, Leonard made an excellent recovery and went on to win four AMA nationals in his rookie expert season, more victories than any other rider that year.
The 1954 season was even more impressive. Leonard burned up tracks across the country on his Sifton-tuned Harley and won eight nationals, including the Laconia (N.H.) road race, the Springfield (Ill.) Mile and both races at the Peoria (Ill.) TT Steeplechase. Eight Grand National victories in one season would be a record not broken until 1986. At one point in the season Leonard tallied a four-race Grand National winning streak, a record that would not be broken until 1993 when Ricky Graham won six in a row. Leonard was the recipient of the AMA Most Popular Rider Award for 1954.
Leonard finished third in the Grand National Series standings in 1955, but came back to win the title again in 1956 and 1957. In all, Leonard amassed 27 national wins split between the disciplines of TT, miles, half-miles and road racing. Leonard won the Daytona 200 twice, the Laconia Classic three times and the Peoria TT a remarkable seven times.
By the early 1960s Leonard was starting to compete in automobile racing events even though he was still regularly winning motorcycle races. By the middle 1960s Leonard made the transition to car racing. He eventually became a top-level Indy racer, nearly winning the Indianapolis 500 in 1968. While leading the famous race that year, a fuel injector on his turbine-engine car failed and, with only nine laps to go, it came to a stop. Leonard went on to win two United States Auto Club championships in the early 1970s.