REENFIELD — CJ Leary’s progression has been neck-breaking. From the age of 9, the Greenfield native grabbed the steering wheel with both hands and never let go.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Leary, 20, started out as a go-kart racer, before advancing to quarter midgets, CRA Late Models and CRA sprint cars.
For the past five years, the 2015 Greenfield-Central High School graduate has been running in USAC National sprint cars and in 2014 made his debut in the USAC Silver Crown Series.
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“I’m in this because of my dad (Chuck). He’s helped me through everything I’ve ever had to deal with,” Leary said. “Whether it’s racing, school or life in general, he’s always been there to guide me down the right path.”
His father’s late-race advice proved the difference earlier this month during the Sumar Classic at the Terre Haute Action Track.
A former 10-year USAC veteran until 2000, Chuck Leary spotted a trend as his son wheeled around the track at speeds of 150 mph inside his 1,500-pound Leary-6R Racing/Leary Construction-AMSOIL-sponsored DRC/Claxton Toyota.
Stuck in second place, a position he’s become more than familiar with over the years, CJ Leary, the Silver Crown Rookie of the Year in 2015, took the lead from Justin Grant on Lap 94 to win his first career USAC National feature.
“We ran second for 94 laps. In the Silver Crown, you can have a spotter, and for 20 laps my dad kept telling me I had to move down on the track,” Leary said. “He said I had to search for a different line. We had a yellow with 10 to go, and I found some rubber and the leader didn’t. That’s what won me the race.”
Leary’s perseverance did more than net him the 100-lap 2016 USAC Silver Crown Series opener. It put his family in the record books.
Leary joined his father, who won the 1997 Hoosier Hundred in Indianapolis, to become the first father-son duo to win races in the 46-year history of the Silver Crown Series.
It was a proud family moment, CJ Leary said of the victory. Growing up with the dream of gaining traction and a ride in IndyCar or NASCAR, Leary remembers watching as his grandfather, Dan, support the family race team and supply cars for the likes of Tony Stewart and Mark Dismore in the 1990s before their big breaks.
In Terre Haute, Leary fittingly celebrated the the win with father, who took over the business, Leary Construction, and is now his son’s crew chief.
“He says he enjoys just watching and wrenching on the car in our shop in Greenfield now without having as much pressure on him,” CJ Leary said.
Also driving for Micheal Dutcher Motorsports in the National Sprint Car Series out of Noblesville, Leary’s USAC Silver Crown pursuit is family operated with the support of countless sponsors.
With one win in the books this season, he is eager to build on the success and take the Silver Crown Series championship. The 11-race Silver Crown Series schedule continues this Saturday at Toledo Speedway in Ohio.
Recently, The Daily Reporter caught up with Leary to talk about his big win, career and pursuit of a national championship.
What motivated you to pursue a career in racing?
My family has always been racing. We’ve owned race cars for a long time, and I’m just following in my dad’s footsteps. He ran the USAC National Midgets and Silver Crown cars in the 1990s, and I kind of wanted to do that, and I’m doing it now.
How difficult is it to keep funding going to support the race team through sponsorship?
That’s harder than racing itself, trying to find the funding and get sponsors to help pay for the team. We’ve been fortunate to have some great supporters. The cars are really expensive to keep them going every weekend. Without those sponsors and future sponsors, it wouldn’t be easy doing this.
How close were you in the past to winning your first USAC Silver Crown win before taking the checkered flag in Terre Haute?
Actually, the night before, we ran the USAC National Sprint Cars at Lawrenceburg Speedway, and we ran second there. I’ve been the bridesmaid many times over the past four years, struggling to get that monkey off my back, and I finally have.
How exhilarating was it to get your first USAC Silver Crown win in your home state?
It was extremely nice, especially being in my family-owned car. I typically run for a different team in the sprint car deal. It was pretty big. It actually was the first father-son duo to win a USAC National Silver Crown event, so it was even more important. My dad won the Hoosier Hundred at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in 1997, and with my win in Terre Haute, we became part of history. There have been brothers that have won in the same series, but never a father-son duo.
You raced while you attended high school. Looking back, how difficult was it balancing your schedule to pursue your dream?
It was tough, but my counselor worked with me where I could make up work since I would be out of class at times. They gave me some flexibility as long as I kept an A-B average and didn’t get into any trouble. I worked hard to make sure I could do both.
What is it about racing that you love the most?
I guess it’s the thrill it gives me and the desire to succeed in my career.
What’s the ultimate goal for you in your career?
That’s a tricky question. The big picture goal is getting to IndyCar and NASCAR, but the odds of that happening are slim. To just make a living at racing would be a good feeling.
What’s the hardest part about racing sprint cars?
Keeping up with the track. It changes on you from the start of the night to the end of the night. Adjusting to track conditions is the most difficult part because there are 20 to 30 other cars every night that can win, so the competition is stiff.
What do you hope your win in Terre Haute will do for you the rest of the season?
Well, since it was the start of the season, hopefully, it will bring us a lot of wins this year, and it means we’re going to have a successful run. At the end of last season, we were contenders to win every night, and we had plenty of seconds and many consecutively. We knew we would get a win sooner or later and now hopefully more.
What’s the big goal in the series you’re in right now?
We’ve been chasing the USAC national championship for four years now, and I’m really looking to accomplish that goal this year. If I can come out on top at the end of the season, I would be extremely happy. It would be huge to be the first in my family to win it. I think the highest we’ve ever finished was sixth in the points standings. Anything higher than that would be great. I really think we have a shot this time.