CHARLESTOWN — More than 30 years ago when Bill Leonard was a kid watching auto racing at his Florida hometown track, he recalls rooting passionately against the Mini Stock division’s most successful driver.
“He won most of the races, so we used to boo him because we rooted for the underdogs,” Leonard said. “We were tired of him winning and wanted to see somebody else win.”
Unbeknownst to Leonard, all of that disapproval sparked his lifelong passion and a family connection with auto racing.
Leonard began dating Tina, the daughter of that track champ, Steve Johnston. Tina and Bill got married. After moving to Charlestown in 1998, Steve, Tina and Bill became fixtures on the Waterford Speedbowl roster. Bill has risen to the top ranks of the Mini Stock division since 1999, posting 11 race victories and numerous top 5 finishes in the point standings with a high of third one season.
He was one of the Speedbowl’s top performers in a truck series until that circuit was discontinued a few years back. Currently in Mini Stocks, Leonard sits in fourth place in the division with three race wins.
“It’s kind of funny that I used to boo the driver who became my father-in-law,” Leonard said. “He was the track champ and my mother- in-law, Karen, also won her share of races in women’s divisions. I was always interested in cars and drag racing, but after marrying Tina, it took my love of racing to a new level.”
And Steve Johnston gained a new fan.
“I won 21 features in one year, so it was natural for the fans in Florida to root against me,” Johnston said. “Bill was one of those fans, but that changed in a hurry once he started dating Tina. I raced for 35 years but finally turned the focus over the Bill. Everyone in our family grew up in racing. My daughter was in the grandstands at six months old, and the same was true for Bill’s daughter and son.”
Bill and his father-in-law now operate Holmes Garage in Bradford, fitting in time to work on his 1980s Mustang racer after business hours. Pretty much, their lives revolve around cars and auto racing, which is just fine with them.
The family influence spills over to his chosen recreational passion of auto racing. Tina competed successfully for years in the Women’s Super X Car division at Waterford. Bill’s daughter, Ashley, 17, is listed as Bill’s car owner. Son Stephen, 13, is crew chief with a major responsibility of checking tire pressure.
Like many Speedbowl racers, particularly the influx of area Mini Stock racers, such as Leonard, Hope Valley’s Garrett Denton and Wood River Junction’s Ian Brew, family involvement is crucial for a successful racing campaign. Volunteer labor helps defray costs of operating, maintaining and repairing a car.
“It would be too expensive if the family wasn’t involved, but everyone loves it,” Johnston said. “The kids mature quickly and learn financial responsibility. They learn you can’t just blow money and stay within a reasonable racing budget. Everyone has their job and responsibility to make the team work.”
And now Bill has passed on his love of the sport to his son, who embarks on his first full season of cart racing, registering two seconds and a fourth in three Mini Cup division races.
Stephen, who turned 13 on Aug. 30, hopes to follow in his father’s tire streaks and qualify to become a Mini Stock driver when he becomes age eligible for NASCAR Whelen Series racing at 14.
“He did cart racing on a dirt track when he was six, but it wasn’t his thing so he didn’t continue,” Bill said. “I didn’t want to pressure him into it, but he was ready this year to resume on the Speedbowl track. My plan if he’s serious is to do practice runs Thursdays in the Mini Stock car next season before he’s eligible. It’s a pretty big jump from karts to Mini Stocks. Right now he’s gung-ho to pursue this.”
Stephen has caught the racing bug. Racing is such a big part of Ashley’s life, it has carried over to her social life. She dates Mini Stock racer Doug Curry, of Charlestown, who finished second to Leonard recently in a Mini Stock feature.
“It’s an adrenaline rush to speed around the track and feel the cart rattle,” Stephen said.
“My Dad is pretty good at what he does and I want to follow that path. I have a lot of training ahead of me. The carts can go about 22 miles an hour and the Mini Stocks speed up to 75.”
While auto racing’s side affects start with safety issues of crashes, both Bill and his father-in-law agree improved safety equipment built into the car minimizes the risks of injury.
Racing has become a family calling and a fulcrum for harmony. Bill admits if not for his family involvement, he may have stepped away from racing after a pre-race incident with a rival driver before a recent race caused a suspension of both for a week of racing.
“It’s the first time I was thrown out of a race since 1999,” Leonard said.
“Having the whole family involved is a wonderful bonding experience. You can’t put a price on everyone pulling together to work for a common goal.”