TITLE DEFENSE: Greenfield’s Leary picking up where he left off at Indiana Sprint Week

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Sprint car racer C.J. Leary competes in a Heat 3 race at Gas City Speedway on Friday, July 24, 2020. Leary is a Greenfield native and a past Sprint Car series champion. (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter)

GREENFIELD — Everything came together for C.J. Leary in 2019.

“Last year, I had a dream season,” the 24-year old Greenfield race car driver said.

Things are beginning to come together in 2020, too.

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The defending Indiana Sprint Week champion is coming off back-to-back victories in races No. 2 and No. 3 of the seven-race, nine-night event. The 33rd annual NOS Energy Drink USAC Indiana Sprint Week got underway on Friday in Gas City.

Though the opener didn’t go Leary’s way, he picked up wins on Saturday and Sunday in Kokomo and Lawrenceburg, respectively.

The annual week of racing features some of the nation’s top sprint car drivers at tracks across the state.

After taking Monday and Tuesday off, the remainder of the state series picks up tonight at the Terre Haute Action Track. Thursday through Saturday, races will take place in Putnamville, Bloomington and Haubstadt.

“It’s a hectic week,” Leary said. “You go into each night as a new night. You’re not thinking points, You race each night as its own, then you restart the night all over again. (Sprint Week) is a pretty grueling schedule with the Indiana heat.”

Winning Indiana Sprint Week was just part of last year’s fulfilling campaign. Leary took home the 2019 AMSOIL National Sprint Car championship, becoming the third-youngest driver to do so. The late Bryan Clauson and Levi Jones also won titles at 23, but were slightly younger than Leary.

It added him to a long list of national sprint car champions that includes familiar racing names like Tony Stewart, Johnny Rutherford, Ken Schrader, Gary Bettenhausen and Parnelli Jones.

He’s looking to be the first national back-to-back champion and first Indiana Sprint Week back-to-back winner since Clauson won national titles in 2012-13 and the state crown in 2013-14.

Prior to his wins over the weekend, Leary said he had been having a solid season.

“We haven’t had the wins so far this season but have consistently been on the podium (a top-three finish),” Leary said. “We’ve been setting quick times.”

Those quick times turned into victories, beginning with Saturday’s win at Kokomo. Leary took over the lead late after a spin by then-leader Tyler Courtney. On Sunday in Lawrenceburg, Leary led all 30 laps. Leary placed 13th at Gas City on Friday.

Leary is a 2015 graduate of Greenfield-Central High School, beginning his sprint car career in 2012. He first started racing go-karts in 2006.

He is a second-generation driver. His father, Chuck Leary, drove midgets and sprint cars in the 1990s and still helps out with his son’s race team as his “tire guy” on race night.

“I kind of grew up at the race track and felt like it was something I wanted to do. It’s in my blood,” the younger Leary said.

Leary said there are aspirations to drive in bigger, more well-known series, but admits you have to be more than just a great race car driver to get one of those prestigious seats.

“When you grow up (in racing) you want to be an IndyCar driver or a NASCAR driver,” he said. “All the cards have to fall right, and you have to have the right sponsors. Making the next step would be a matter of finding the right backer.”

In the meantime, things are going quite well as a full-time Sprint Car driver. It’s a busy schedule. He raced 64 times in 2019 after competing in 60 events in 2018.

In February, he raced in Florida before the sport was shut down from March to the middle of May due to COVID-19. This season’s trips have included races in Oklahoma, Nebraska and Iowa.

He picked up a podium finish in Iowa before taking a week off from competition to get ready for the big week in Indiana.

Leary said the team — the No. 30 Leary Racing Chevrolet — which also includes crew chief Davy Jones, a 35-year racing veteran and son of Bubby Jones, a member of the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame and an Indianapolis 500 veteran, travels across the country with a primary car, backup car and enough spare parts in their trailer that could make a third.

“When you do it for a living. You have got to have the money to help pay the bills,” Leary said of his busy racing schedule. “When you do it as a full-time job, it makes you race harder. It’s a lot of work, but it’s rewarding.”

Leary is looking to become only the fifth driver in the 33-year history of the nine-day extravaganza to win outright back-to-back Indiana Sprint Week titles. Along with Clauson in 2013-14, Jones won in 2008-09. Kevin Thomas has done it twice, winning in 1995-96 after getting his initial crowns in 1992-93. Chuck Amanti won in 1989 and shared the title with Gary Trammell in 1990.

It’s already been rewarding for the young Greenfield driver, who is seeking more satisfaction for his hard work in the remainder of the grueling week in Indiana.