GREENFIELD — The transmission blew. Of course it did.
“He’s done,” fellow racer Corinne Butler said. “That car isn’t going anywhere.”
Garrett Leonard knew it, too, yet he held on to a whiff of hope.
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Maybe it was something else. Maybe it just needs to cool down.
The 23-year-old Eastern Hancock graduate slammed down on the accelerator in the torn-up 1993 Pontiac Grand Am that his friend let him drive one last time before its date with the junkyard. Nothing.
Smoke clouded the air around him. Unbelievable, Leonard thought. He had made it through two heats of the Enduro Small Car event without a hint of a problem. Now, as he was pulling it onto the track for the championship race, it goes belly up.
Rouse Promotion race officials at Tuesday’s Hancock County 4-H Fair “Night of Thrills” helped him push the mangled metal heap back through the starting gate. Old No. 6 had nothing left to give.
Back in the loading area, Leonard shook his head. He couldn’t help but smile. That’s 3-for-3, he thought. Leonard had competed in derby races at the past three county fairs, and all three times he has had transmission trouble.
“I told you I wouldn’t finish. I never finish,” Leonard said sitting atop his immobile ride after watching Allison Butler win the race he didn’t get to run. “I wish I was out there. But what can you? (Stuff) happens.”
Leonard was undoubtedly disappointed but not disenchanted. He’ll be back. Like a car that dies on the track and has to be dragged off by a tractor, he’s hooked.
“I mean, it’s not like I came out here to win,” said Leonard, who also occasionally races his KTM Duke motorcycle. “I would have been ecstatic if I did, but that’s not why I’m here. I just came to have some fun. And I did.”
Leonard began his annual racing tradition at the fair three years ago when he realized his own 1991 Pontiac 600 was “on its last legs.”
Though having never before competed in a race like the small car enduro, he thought, “What better way to send it off.”
His first taste of the track left him enthralled. Despite killing his transmission during that race as well, Leonard was determined to find a way back on the track.
Lady Luck favored him last year when, a week before the fair, a friend who owns a car dealership asked him if wanted to race one of two banged-up Fords he had just received.
“Somehow, I keep finding ways to get on the track,” Leonard said.
Leonard’s allegiance to the derby makes him one of a dying breed of drivers. A quick scan of his competitors at the “Night of Thrills,” and Leonard was one of few who could objectively be classified as young. Actually, he was one of few competing at all Tuesday night.
People just aren’t coming out like they used to, said Rouse Promotions announcer Torry Stiles, who has a near-encyclopedic knowledge of Indiana derby history.
“We used to get 50 to 60, sometimes even 100 cars at some fair events,” Stiles recalls. “Now we’re having a hard time getting people to show up.”
Stiles guessed money has a lot to do with the drop in attendance, saying that people aren’t as willing to spend on cars they’re going to wreck.
It makes sense, but for some the thrill of the race is more than they can resist. Leonard is one of those.
Come next year’s county fair, he’ll almost assuredly be back on the track … with one major caveat.
“I have to get a new car and one with a manual transmission,” Leonard said. “I’m done with automatics.”
Name: Garrett Leonard
Job: Construction worker at Leonard Excavating in Wilkinson
High School: Eastern Hancock (2010)
Family: Mike and Wendy Leonard, parents; John Leonard, brother; Emily Spegal, fiancé.
Year racing at county fair: 3
Cars driven: 1991 Pontiac 6000 (2013), 2000 Ford Focus (2014), 1993 Pontiac Grand Am (2015).