Jon Leonard chasing his NASCAR dream
Before the start of the Daytona 500 this February, Cedar Rapids Xavier graduate Jon Leonard sat in the hauler for the No. 95 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series team, going over last-minute numbers for the day’s race.
Leonard, who calls Eastern Iowa home, was about to take part in his first race as the lead engineer for a Cup team. The Levine Family Racing Chevy, driven by Michael McDowell, had been tweaked and massaged to make the most speed possible for the Great American Race.
For the first time in Leonard’s career, the tweaking and massaging was up to him. As the lead engineer, working for crew chief Todd Parrott, setup numbers and changes were Leonard’s to produce before Parrott signed off.
“Basically,” Leonard said, while sitting back away from his computer, hands resting on the top of his head, “if the car is slow, it’s my fault.”
In another seat, down from Leonard, Parrott had just hung up from a FaceTime chat with his family. He chuckled at Leonard’s comment and said, “He’ll be a crew chief someday, don’t worry,” before departing the hauler.
From racing go-karts to Late Models at Hawkeye Downs Speedway, Leonard joins Cedar Rapids natives Landon Cassill and Joey Gase in chasing their NASCAR dreams. His might not be behind the wheel, but they’re every bit as focused on winning races.
Taking the leap
Leonard got a late start, comparatively, to his racing career than most who end up in NASCAR.
In his youth, living, among a few places, in Anamosa and Vinton, he was more like a prototypical kid — football, baseball, etc. — and played for Xavier as a freshman before an injury gave way that summer to karting. Once the racing bug bit, it was a pretty fast infection.
Leonard raced go-karts at first, progressing into an asphalt truck and an asphalt Late Model at Hawkeye Downs Speedway during summers in high school before heading off to Iowa State to pursue the engineering degree he has now. Leonard mostly was on the sidelines during college while working with Late Model racer Thor Anderson as a spotter and crew member, following the ARCA Midwest Tour.
All through that time he fostered a hope that one day his summer job would turn into full time. When he graduated from Iowa State, Leonard initially took a job at a plastics injection molding company in Iowa. That didn’t last very long.
He worked there for a day-and-a-half before Richard Childress Racing responded to the job application for an Xfinity Series team Leonard had submitted. There was no job guarantee, just an invitation to North Carolina for an interview.
Leonard’s new job told him if he went, he was fired.
“They gave me the ultimatum that if you leave, you’re gone. I said, ‘Well, OK, then I’m gone,’” Leonard said. “It was a pretty entry-level, CNC machining job, and I just decided it was my time where I was going to get hired or not. I decided to take the leap and head down there. (RCR) gave me an offer that same day and told me I had a week to get down there. It was January 7, (2012) or something. We actually had just gotten back from the Nebraska Kart Shootout. They called me and asked to fly down on Monday. We raced two or three days down there and (RCR) called me Sunday night and flew me down there the next day.”
The leap paid off.
Leonard worked on RCR’s Xfinity Series cars as a race engineer, collecting five total wins — with Elliott Sadler at Phoenix and Bristol in 2012 in Leonard’s second and fourth career races, Kevin Harvick at Richmond and Texas and Tony Stewart at Daytona — in his first two years with the organization.
The guts and risk-taking mentality Leonard showed in making the move without the safety net of a secure job waiting is the power of a dream, he said.
“I just had that feeling. I knew it was something I always wanted to do,” Leonard said. “If I was going to do it, I had to do it then. Not knowing anybody down here was the scariest part. I had no connections, no family, no nothing — I didn’t know where to live, where anybody was. But it’s been a heck of a ride since.”
Chasing the dream
While Leonard was cutting his teeth in the Xfinity Series, he had eyes on him from the upper parts of RCR and elsewhere in the garage.
When it comes to the job Leonard does, the results don’t lie. You’re either fast or you aren’t. Leonard helped the cars he worked on go fast. That caught attention from Parrott, especially when he came to work with RCR as Director of Competition for the Xfinity Series teams.
Parrott moved from that role into the crew chief for select races with then-RCR driver Brian Scott and the No. 33 research and development team, and having seen the work Leonard was doing before that, Parrott brought him in to be the second engineer on that team. Parrott said Leonard showed skill working in the lead and second engineer roles. The second engineer does primarily fuel mileage calculations as well as race and practice notes — “whatever the crew chief or engineer needs,” Leonard said — while the lead engineer is responsible for primary setup numbers, vehicle geometry and running simulations.
But more than just his skill as an engineer, Parrott said Leonard showed the desire to be great. That goes a long way for an old school racer like Parrott, who won a Cup championship as Dale Jarrett’s crew chief at Robert Yates Racing in 1999.
After Leonard spent 2016 as the second engineer with the No. 31 Cup team and driver Ryan Newman, he looked at maybe coming off the road. But Parrott, who had moved over to Levine Family Racing in the offseason to be the crew chief of the No. 95, had different plans. The team alliance between LFR and RCR meant Leonard could stay under contract with RCR while working for LFR. Leonard was Parrott’s first choice to be his lead engineer.
“The kid really impressed me with his work ethic and just with how good he was at a young age,” Parrott said. “I’ve worked with a lot of different people through my 30-something years of racing and the kid just really impressed me. His work ethic and desire to want to run good and be better, and knowing his stuff — that was the main thing.
“I told (LFR) my No. 1 choice, my No. 1 pick to be my wingman would be Jon Leonard — just because of the relationship we had built in 2015 and even in 2016.”
While all that was getting worked out, Leonard was being pursued by other teams — namely another Iowan. Landon Cassill said he pushed hard to convince Leonard to move over to Front Row Motorsports and work with Cassill’s team for the 2017 season.
Though from the same area, the two didn’t really get to know each other well until Leonard was in the Cup garage full time and “our haulers were parked next to each other and our conversations were more relevant.”
Through a mutual friend, Cassill kept up with Leonard and what he was doing as he moved up, and the two became friends away from the racetrack, too. Once he saw the results of Leonard’s work, Cassill too saw what Parrott did — that he was the kind of person he wanted around; the kind of person who wanted to win.
“For me, it’s a people thing,” Cassill said. “I don’t know a whole lot about what he specifically is good at as an engineer, but I know he’s got a lot of confidence. I think I could trust him if he was on my team.
“And I know he really wants to win. Those things, in my mind, are what attract me to him. I don’t really care to validate his smarts as an engineer. I don’t think I need to. I think the amount of time and his rise to position validates his smarts as an engineer. I approached him because I like who he is and I like where he’s from. I think if we worked together we would feed off each other’s desire to win.”
When Parrott hung up with his family that Sunday before the Daytona 500, Leonard instinctively checked his phone while answering a question. He has his own budding family to check on, too.
A little more than a year ago, Leonard lived a bit of a different life than he does now. As a man in his mid-20s, he didn’t have a lot to which he answered. That’s changed completely with an engagement and a new daughter, but Leonard wouldn’t change it.
His fiancé, AudriOnna Elswick, stays at home with five-month-old daughter Kennedy. And while it’s painful to leave them so much — Leonard basically never gets a day off during the season — he has a partner in Elswick who he said is all-in on his chosen path.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and I’m lucky enough to have a significant other that supports that, and knows it’s what I want to do. She stands by me,” Leonard said. “She’s able to stay at home with the baby, which is big for us. I’m able to financially provide for us and she’s cool with it. It’s definitely a struggle. Everybody on the road will tell you that they need somebody that’s strong-willed like that; that understands we’re on the road.”
As anyone who’s achieved it would attest, Leonard said fatherhood has been “life-changing” and something “I wish everyone can experience.” Kennedy is a spitting image of her dad — “Mama hates it,” Leonard said — and he said she makes him work harder and reach for more.
Leonard didn’t have his biological father in his life. He said his father “kind of left cold blood, and I haven’t really heard from him since — which is fine.” Instead his mom, Lori McGowan, did what she could to raise him on her own at first, but then with some help.
Leonard credited a man McGowan dated, Jerry Greif, with being the father-figure he needed. It was Greif who introduced Leonard to racing and enabled him to race in high school. After McGowan and Greif split, and even after McGowan got remarried and welcomed Leonard’s younger brother Ben, Greif stuck around in Leonard’s life.
That example is what Leonard wants to follow in his own time as a dad. He said he wants “to stand by them in tough times and good times. I want to make sure my kids always have their father.”
Standing by your family in tough times and good times is not unlike standing by your team in tough times and good times. That approach to fatherhood and racing is why Parrott wanted Leonard with him.
And it’s why Parrott said what he said before he left the hauler before the Daytona 500.
“It’s been a lot, but here I am. Hopefully (I’m) a crew chief someday. Hopefully,” Leonard said. “You learn something every day. Just try and get better at what you do and try and learn from everybody you’re around; know what’s important and what makes a difference, and treat your people right. One day.”
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