THE BRAD LEIGHTON STORY NOT MANY KNOW by Mike Twist
Even as a Semi-Retired Driver, the Two-Time Champ Still Has Goals
At the end of the 2002 season, Brad Leighton announced that he wasn't going to race full-time in the NASCAR Busch North Series any longer. Barely 40-years-old at the time, he was not a typical candidate for retirement. After all, guys like Stub Fadden and Dick McCabe both raced (and won) in the series after their 50th birthdays.
Nevertheless, Leighton stepped aside as the long-term driver of the Grizco Racing #55 car - a mount that he rode for every race of his Busch North Series career to that point. He wanted to scale back his racing schedule and the #55, as one of the powerhouse teams of the series, needed a full-time driver.
Leighton didn't want to retire from racing, he just wanted more vacation time away from the sport. But before he slowed down, he tried to add one more line to the record book. Going into the final race of the season, he was in the thick of a three-way battle with Andy Santerre and Matt Kobyluck for the 2002 championship. In the end, a margin of 36 points would keep Leighton from his third series crown.
The #35 is Leighton's ride for a planned eight Busch North races in 2004.
"I wanted to be the champion in 2002," Leighton recalls. "I really wanted to go out on top."
Leighton wasn't done with winning though. He announced plans to drive for the start-up #35 team in a schedule of five events for 2003. In September, the team won at New Hampshire International Speedway. The team has increased their schedule in 2004, but will still be in attendance at less than half of the Busch North events for the year.
Leighton (#55) battles with Dale Shaw (#60) and Dave Dion (#29) at Seekonk in 2002 - his last full season in Busch North. (NASCAR Touring Photo)
"We're going to run eight races this season," Leighton said, breaking into a smirk. "We'll go to the first three events and see what happens from there. If we're leading the points who knows what will happen next?"
Does that mean that given the right circumstances, Leighton might make a run for another Busch North crown?
"It would be a tough decision to make if we're leading the points after our first three races," Leighton said, "but our plan is to run eight races this year and that's what we have the backing to do. It would probably be a tougher decision
for the team to make than for me because I'll be OK with it no matter what we do. I've got a lot of things going on outside of racing and I still want to spend time with my family just like when I stopped racing full-time."
The climb to Busch North racing for Leighton was such a simple case of hard work and being around the right people in the sport that it would be hard to believe. Leighton was racing a street car-based Limited Sportsman Camaro at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway (ME) when he caught the eye of legendary Maine car builder and owner Gardner Levitt. In 1991, he was named as the driver of Levitt's #1x car in the American-Canadian Tour. He scored Rookie of the Year that season and was the champion in 1995.
The next step in Leighton's career would be to move up to the NASCAR Busch North Series with the #55 Grizco Racing team owned by Steve and Peg Griswald. This venture was also a success. Leighton won at New Hampshire International Speedway in only his 12th career start. The #55 team would also win at Lee before the end of the season.
Leighton credits the team around him for achieving their success so quickly.
"I've had some really great people around me during my career and I try not to take them for granted," said Leighton. "First it was my
Leighton has been around the Busch North Series for quite a long time.
parents, then it was the Levitts and then the Griswalds. I've really been fortunate to get that kind of support and it's played a big role in my success."
Leighton almost drove for another family-owned team - one that was based nearly a 1,000 miles south of his New Hampshire home.
In May, 1997 there was a NASCAR Winston Cup race that was rain delayed at the Talladega Superspeedway and rescheduled for the same day as a Busch Series event at New Hampshire where several Cup drivers were entered. When the two dates conflicted, there were several Busch Series
machines without drivers and several Busch North drivers eager to fill those seats.
Leighton chases Paul Wolfe (#9) at NHIS in 2003.
Leighton filled in for Terry Labonte, Andy Santerre for Greg Sacks, Curtis Markham for Dick Trickle and Dale Shaw for Tim Steele. Although Leighton only was able to score a 27th-place finish, his abilities impressed the Labonte team enough to seriously consider building a Busch Series team around for the next season.
"We went as far as to talk about a salary and looking at
school systems for the kids," Leighton recalls. 'Basically, itcame to the 11th hour and we lost our sponsor for the deal. We had been talking with Bayer Asprin and they decided to go with Buckshot Jones that year instead. I was a little bit devastated, but everything happens for a reason. The Labontes are a wonderful family and driving for them would have been a wonderful way for a Northern boy to have been accepted down south, but hindsight being 20/20, I'm glad at this point that I stayed up here. I kept some really good friends and everything ended up working out great."
Working out great is an understatement. In 1999 and 2000, he was the Busch North champion. He has a total of 21 career victories, which places him second to Kelly Moore in series history.
Leighton also shows no signs of slowing down. He qualified on the front row of the season opener at Lee and is a threat to win anytime he shows up at the track. It's hard to predict how much longer Leighton will keep racing - especially since he surprised so many in the pit area by cutting back to a partial schedule at the height of his career.
"I don't know how much longer I'll keep doing this," Leighton said. "I look over my shoulder and see (60 year old) Dave Dion being competitive and that keeps me optimistic. But I'll know when it's time to give it up and that will be that."
Through the years, Dion has been one of Leighton's toughest competitors on the track. It took awhile for the two drivers to earn each other's respect - now they are often mentioned as the two biggest ambassadors of the series.
"It's funny, Dave and I never used to get along," Leighton said. "I was the young kid coming in and I had a lot more
Leighton, shown here at Lime Rock Pakr (CT) in 2002, has yet to win a road course race. (NASCAR Touring Photo)
opportunities that he did. In 1998 we finally mended our ways and I have a lot of respect for the guy. He's a good guy and I think that he has a lot of respect for me now. I'm happy to see him at the track and there was a time with us when we couldn't stand the sight of each other at all."
Dion also remembers his early days of racing against Leighton, but is now of fan of his competitor.
"He's a hard, hard driver," Dion said about Leighton. "Our styles are so different that when we first locked horns, we didn't get along. But I got to know him as a person and what really won me over to him is that he does care a lot about this sport. He cares about the little guy, the big guy, the rich guy and the poor guy. He cares about the fans and he cares about the track promoters. I admire that. I enjoy racing with him and we have a lot of fun."
Leighton enjoys spending the time promoting the series.
"We (Dion and I) do put the time into this series," Leighton said. "We know how to support it and we know that the fans are very important. Anything that we are asked to do to support this series that is within our means, we try to do."
There's not much left for Leighton to prove in his career. But when asked if he has any goals left in the Busch North Series, he is quick with an answer.
"I want to win a road course race," Leighton said. "I've come close, but haven't won yet. I want to sweep Lime Rock and Watkins Glen this year. We've got a good enough team to do that. If it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen, but that is really one thing that I'd still like to do."
Brad Leighton in victory lane at NHIS in 2003 with a brand new race team. Leighton hopes