“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.