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Ron Leek: Remembering A True American Original That Helped Shape Drag Racing, Motorized Entertainment


Ron Leek: Remembering A True American Original That Helped Shape Drag Racing, Motorized Entertainment

“Well, Brian…I have pulmonary fibrosis and I’m 80 years old…” that was how my last chat with Ron Leek began a couple of weeks ago. Ron was making one final lap of his contact list and effectively saying goodbye to all of us. He did not know the end of his life was a few short weeks away but he did know that the meter was running and that he wanted to talk to as many people as possible before he was unable to. A conversation with Don Garlits shortly before he began dialing in earnest inspired him to do what he did and frankly, it was an awesome talk. But this is not about that conversation, this is about a guy who was among the most interesting people I’ll ever meet in my life and that’s a statement that anyone who knew Ron Leek could make.

There have been many detailed stories recounting of the man’s life. His start as a parentless orphan, his time living on the street in Chicago, his move to Rockford to start a life, living in an ambulance on the lot of a garage he was wrenching at, finding motorsports, announcing, promotions, buying the drag strip, building a trucking company. He was a freaking dynamo.

He was one of those people that had 30ft of concrete stacked on top of him to start his life and he not only bored through all of it to find daylight and success, he did it with a smile on his face and with the kind of hellacious determination few on planet Earth could ever fathom. He came from nothing and truly made his own way like a piece of human construction equipment. If there was one hallmark of Ron Leek’s life, it was never taking the shortcut or easy out of anything or any situation.

It normally makes me want to barf when people insert themselves in their remembrances of others like Ron but I think the best way I can tell you about how awesome this man was is to share some of the experiences and stories I heard from him first hand.

To set the scene, I first met Ron at the 2012 Holley NHRA Hot Rod Reunion in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Steve Gibbs of the NHRA had hired me to work with Ron and announce the weekend’s activities on the track and off of it. Within 10-seconds I did not know whether to be petrified of this guy or to throw my arms around him and give him the hug of the century.

His voice was a booming unit which was so forceful it always made me think that his body had somehow been equipped with is own natural source of amplification. It was not annoying loud, it was just a sort of hammering series of sound waves that cut through whatever obstacle it ran into, including fuel cars. We hit it off immediately and the laughs started from there. So didn’t the stories. I couldn’t help myself. Between pairs, between rounds, I would pepper him with questions about his life, about his track, and anything else I could think of.

Let’s start with Ron Leek taking on the government to save his race rack…and winning. You need know nothing else about a man willing to fight the government if you are wondering about the strength of his will. While everyone likes to report about Ron’s effect on bracket racing, his creation of the World Power Wheelsanding Competition, etc, his biggest victory came against large forces trying to choke him out.

By the time the late 1990s had rolled around, Byron Dragway was not exactly in the best of shape financially. Burdened with increasing pressures from the government of Ogle County, Leek was looking to fend off what he (correctly) saw as efforts by the county government to put him out of business by limiting his hours, limiting what he was able to do with his property, and basically limiting his ability to pay his bills. Unable to race on Fridays, events had to be done by 6:30pm on Saturdays, and Sundays were made previously short per the county rules. This was a recipe for financial ruin.  After a few years of taking his lumps, Leek decided enough was enough and went to battle. After losing the first round in court, Leek appealed his case to a higher court and they decided in his favor. They ruled that the actions of the County of Ogle were against the law and could not be enforced. Their encroachment of his business was over. He not only won that battle but later had the track annexed by the city of Byron which officially ended the issues he was having with the county and the city of Rockford for good. He wore them all down and won. Perhaps his most incredible victory in a life full of them. I could directly quote Ron on this story but the language was so, ummm, adult, they’d throw me off the internet.

But there’s more to talk about here.

As an announcer, Leek will forever stand among the best that American motorsports has ever seen. He did all kinds of different stuff from drag racing, to stock cars, to monster trucks, and even stunt shows. He worked for Evel Knievel for a time and related a hilarious story about those days to me.

“We were at an arena getting set up and Evel took me up to the announcing booth where a guy was standing there waiting for us. Evel explained that I’d be the announcer that night and the guy in the booth said that he was the announcer and that was how it was going to be. Evel immediately got pissed off and started yelling at this guy. The guy stood his ground and then strangely, Evel calmed down. After a couple more minutes of talking, Evel asked for the mic to see what the arena’s sound system was like. He took the microphone, which was a big 1970s metal one and proceeded to beat the shit out of the announcer guy with it. After the “announcer” decided he had enough, he kind of ran off and we never saw him again. Knievel wasn’t the nicest guy in the world and I announced that night into a microphone that looked like someone had used it to pound nails.”

Ron loved telling the story of a monster truck event that featured a packed arena full of 1980s car crushing fans. He looked around the room at the people hanging out with him and said, “Watch this.” He then welcomed special guest “Paul Newman” to the arena and bragged on Newman, telling the fans that he wasn’t in a special area, he was sitting among them somewhere in the seats! The whole thing was a giant lie and he said people’s heads were spinning on their shoulders trying to spot Newman, who was likely not within a 1,000 mile radius of the show. They all roared with laughter.

His acumen and shrewdness as a promoter and track operator were on full display many times in his life. A time that he loved to laugh about  concerned a construction project and an interesting labor pool. An additional set of bleachers was under construction at the track and with weather and other delays was not going to be finished for the event they were intended to help bolster seating for. On the day of said event, Leek was panicking because as the gates opened up, he had basically the medal frame for a grandstand, lumber, and nowhere for anyone to sit on one side of the drag strip. Within 15 minutes of opening he had a grand idea. As the place began to fill up, he called (as he said), “Every able-bodied man” to the timing tower. He then dispatched his newly formed workforce to the lumber pile where the long 2×12 boards (seating for the grandstand) were sitting. You know how the rest of this goes. The swarm of people hauled the wood to the stands and hastily slapped together their own seats! Yes, Ron Leek got people to pay him to build that grandstand and he howled when telling that story.

There was a passion and excitement from Ron that I’ve never forgotten and never will. He knew loads of stuff about old cars and trucks and sometimes it kind of escaped as a fruit salad of words and expressions. My favorite memory of this came in Bowling Green with his butchery of the word Anglia. For three days every time an Anglia came up it was an ANGULA. I do not know now and surely did not then how to correct a legend so I sat on it for days until finally on Sunday I said something to him. He looked at me with his big (and sometimes frightening) eyes and said, “Lohnes, I have been doing that for three days and you are just telling me?!” Sheepishly I said yes and then he burst out laughing, “Hell, I have probably been doing that for 20 years and no one has ever said a damned thing to me about it!!” He was truly awesome.

I could go on for hours.

Ron Leek was an American original. He did all the stuff he needed to do to survive from childhood to adulthood. As a track promoter and innovator he stands in a unique class. As a man he stands in a unique class. As a business operator he stands in a unique class. Over the span of 80 years, Ron Leek lived the lives of 10 men. A truly spectacular person and a man who, without knowing, left me treasures to call upon in both career and life for the duration of my days. Angulas and all.


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21 thoughts on “Ron Leek: Remembering A True American Original That Helped Shape Drag Racing, Motorized Entertainment

  1. David Beard

    This is one of those stories I feel like I should say something about but I wouldn’t know what to say. He sounds like a guy whose name should have been a household thing

    Reply
    1. Steve Akker

      He will be sorely missed at his ” Playground of Power ” at Byron Dragway. He was always the entertainer using phrases such as ” the McDonalds of Drag Racing ” and ” You’re not ready for this ! ” Rest in Peace Ron , you deserve it !!

      Reply
  2. Greg Hurlbutt

    Its amazing how dealing with a person regularly, knowing him as nothing more than track owner/ announcer… for 25 years can be changed in a week. Mr Leek was always good for a laugh, yelling at someone through his cb mid pa setup to slow down on their mini bike or golf cart… or repeating the name of a racer or even the town they were from 3 or 10 times LOL. Guy was all around a good person, and made every racer that entered the facility feel like it was their own home, and that they were family there.

    He is going to be missed, both as a person… and for announcing your name 12 times repeatedly… sometimes only half the name as he would cut himself off to re announce the name.

    The world has certainly become more vanilla with his passing.

    Rest easy Ron. and thank you for the awesome write up as usual Brian.

    Reply
  3. Allen Matlock

    Brian, he mentioned you as he told me some of those stories. He respected you very much. Ron will be missed dearly.

    Reply
  4. Greg

    My attempt at drag racing was with a front engine dragster in 1984. No one bracket raced those, for good reason. We usually broke something during time trials. Ron refunded our entry fee every time. He dug our car and said he didn’t want us to get discouraged. What a class act. Proud to have met him.

    Reply
  5. Jeff Colbert

    I pass by Rt 66 dragway and drive an additional 100 miles to go home to Byron Dragway. Ron made it that special of a place to race. He always welcomed you home like family. I missed racing for two seasons. When pulling into the track after all that time Ron announced over the Pa… well look who finally showed up. The history and stories he’d tell during rain/snow delayes were incredible. Nothing better than Ron announcing during the outlaw super stocks / 10-wides, or the Power wheel standing championships.
    He will be greatly missed by many racers and fans.

    Reply
  6. robert spittle

    Knew Ron for many years. Ran the best track in the Midwest. Was a very kind , sweet man. Proud to have been one of his racers!

    Reply
  7. Greg Taylor

    This has to be the most amazing tribute to Ron i have read so far. He was an amazing mentor, friend and much more. He filled many shoes and did it amazingly. He will be truly missed by all. Bubba

    Reply
  8. Gary

    Great write up. My brother bracket raced there in the 80s every weekend. I started racing there 4 years ago and mentioned my brother to Ron. He thought for a moment and remembered both cars he raced there over the years. Amazing he remembered that after that many years. He will be missed.

    Reply
  9. Randy Dolensek

    Great write up Brian! Ron made every person that raced at his track feel like a superstar.I was in several of the world wheelstanding programs.He used to call my car the Mercury that made Milwaukee Famous! lol Everyone was a winner! Great Man!

    Reply
  10. Chris Keinz

    By far the best announcer in the business, I was there that day the fans were building the grandstands at the world power wheel standing championship, When I read that It brought back a lot of memories and I had a good laugh, Very well written article
    Thanks For all the memories Ron leek

    Reply
  11. John Thilk

    Great tribute to Ron , I knew him for over 50yrs, on and off the track.,he liked my 4 spd. Camaro and talked me up when I came to the line. He had a way about doing his thing like no other. I loved that..!!! A few years ago in the garage I located early flyers from Oswego ,Il. promoting the TOP TWENTY meet,which sent racers to Bakersfield ,Ca. in March. One of the promoters on that flyer ,none other than \” Ron (ding ) Leek \”……..when quizzed about (ding ) I gotta look that will never let me forget that man…..ever. R.I.P.

    Reply
  12. Don Tyee-Francis

    Thanks Brian………….amazing tribute. Looks like you’re going to have a great career ahead as well.

    Reply
  13. Don S

    Ron was excellent about looking over the property from his Eagles nest, in the tower, and barking out anything that came to his mind, or was funny. Oh how funny he was, you would tell people about the stuff he said at work all week. He knew how to butter racers egos as well, for example, I had a street rod I would drive to the track, put on 9 inch slicks and run 12.80s. Well I pull in to Byron, and Ron takes my money at the gate and likes the 34 Ford. Later I hear him yelling into the microphone, \”he drove it in off the street and its running ET1… I took his money at the gate\” well in the 80s it was a bigger deal, but not that huge. His knack was to observe something almost ordinary, and make it seem bigger than life.

    Every-time I went to Byron afterwards, I dreamt of what he might say, and wanted recordings of him doing his thing in the Eagles nest. I hope he keeps looking out for us and Byron drag-way, and encouraging people to entertain those in the stands. I don\’t know his feelings on dragsters esp S/C engine stands, but the place was always about door cars, and great hot rodders.

    We are sad today because he was a once in a lifetime guy.
    Don from Davenport

    Reply
  14. Mark Allan

    I met Ron when I was in grade school,I was good friends with his sons Joe and Jeff. I remember the first time going to the track ,Ron gave me a job in the bottom tower passing out time cards. That morning he picked me up at my house in a big old silver Cadillac. As soon as he pulled up he was already yelling out,come on get the lead out I got a race to run. I jumped in and off we went , 80-90 mph to the track. After that day I was hooked . At 15 my dad bought me a old 71 rusty Camaro that I fixed up and started racing. Ron would see me after a couple of time runs and say ” don’t be afraid to red light,that’s what it’s going to take to cut a good light.. He was a mentor ,a man that knew dragracing better then anyone ,so anytime he would offer me advice I would accept it . I won a championship finished in the top ,5 every year I raced , and went to Indy at 15 and after getting there was told I couldn’t race because I didn’t have a driver’s license.yet. Next thing you know Ron came over and told us to unload,said he called NHRA and had it all worked out that he explained to them that I was one of the best young driver’s hes ever seen. When he told me that, it made my day. I had to move to California when my dad relocated for work. Still too this day I tell people about the fun I had growing up at Byron Dragway . Thank you Ron for all the memories,you will be missed by many but never forgotten!
    Mark Allan

    Reply

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