Joe Leonard, a three-time AMA Grand National champion who went on to race Indy Cars, passed away on April 27, 2017 in a San Jose, California, nursing home at the age of 84. Leonard’s racing accomplishments were extremely rare, as the San Diego native won national championships on both two and four wheels.
Leonard won the AMA Grand National championship in 1954, its inaugural year, and followed it up with titles in ’56 and ’57. He amassed 27 wins during his motorcycle career, including Daytona 200 victories on the old beach course in 1957 and ’58. He was also runner-up in the GNC series in 1958, ’60 and ’61.
Leonard retired from two-wheel racing at the end of the 1961 season and turned his attention to car racing, winning the USAC Champ Car series in 1971 and ’72. He very nearly won the 1968 Indy 500 until his turbine-powered car broke a fuel pump with just nine laps remaining. He also finished in third place at Indy in 1969 and 1972. Injuries suffered during a 1974 crash took him out of racing in 1975.
Leonard was inducted into the Motorsport Hall of Fame of America in 1991, and in 1998 he joined the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame.
Leonard’s passing closely follows the death of another motorsports legend, John Surtees, who was the only racer to have won world championships on motorcycles and cars.