Vinton native Jon Leonard is spending a several weeks this fall away from his normal behind-the-scenes job, and spending several Sunday afternoons in one of NASCAR’s most noticeable occupations.
Leonard went from his job as primary engineer for the Leavine Family Racing and its car no. 95, driven by Michael McDowell in NASCAR’s Monster Energy Cup series, to a temporary gig his team’s crew chief for the rest of the season.
“Every day is a new challenge,” says Leonard. “That’s part of what I like about it. The sport evolves so fast it’s always something new. And we have so many variables and buttons to push that it’s like a Rubik’s Cube that you’ll never solve.”
The son of Lori McGowan of Vinton, Leonard still calls Vinton his hometown. He lived in Vinton for several years, although he later graduated from Cedar Rapids Xavier. He raced go-karts and trucks at Hawkeye Downs, but said he had to sell his racing equipment so he could afford to go to college. He earned a mechanical engineering degree at Iowa State in 2011 and moved to North Carolina, where he has been working in NASCAR circuits since 2012.
“I wanted to get into racing and interviewed with RCR for a race engineer position in what is now the Xfinity series with Elliott Sadler that winter. I came down January 7, 2012, and been there ever since,” he says. Later, he joined the Leavine Family Racing team.
Early in October, Leavine Family Racing announced it was replacing crew chief Todd Parrott, and named Leonard its interim crew chief. After spending the final weeks of the season in that position, working with McDowell and the rest of the crew, Leonard will return to his post as primary engineer to help the team and its new driver (Kasey Kahne) and crew chief prepare for the 2018 season.
Under Leonard’s leadership, McDowell, who is currently 26th in NASCAR’s Monster Energy standings, has finished 18th at Kansas, 19th and Martinsville and 21st last Sunday in Texas.
“The biggest difference is team management and race preparation,” says Leonard, when asked about the difference between the jobs of race engineer and crew chief. “So I’d stay study – both your people and your homework.”
Leonard explains the difference a bit more:
“Crew chiefs are responsible for their team as an entirety. Every nut, bolt, person, finish, etc. In the end it’s your team and how it performs is a direct reflection of you. Every Cup team has two race engineers. The primary does everything setup related, from build sheets to practice changes. The secondary is in charge of notes, documentation, and does a lot of inventory, part measurement, etc. He is in charge of the little details that nobody sees .”
As an engineer, Leonard says his job is about half computer work and half mechanical, working on the car and its many parts, as well as the team’s testing equipment.
“At first it’s more mechanical, getting used to the cars, knowing what is where and what affects what,” he explains. “As you progress it turns into more computer, but you still have to be involved in the car side. They’re obviously tied together so it takes both to be a good engineer.”
Two people who were instrumental in helping Leonard get to where he is are Jerry Grief and Landon Cassill. Leonard credited them both for his success in an interview with the Cedar Rapids Gazette early in the 2017 racing season.
The NASCAR life is a busy one, and there are many jokes about the rare “day-off” for drivers and crew members. Even the off-season is extremely hectic, Leonard explains.
“Even though you’re not traveling, you have just two months to get everything ready for next season. All Chevy teams have a new body next year, so that has to be done on every car, plus with part and personnel changes it keeps us busy.”
Like many crew members, Leonard enjoys racing, when he can. With his busy schedule, that means an occasional dirt-track go-kart race.
Adding to his busyness this off-season: A wedding. Leonard is marrying his fiance, AudriOnna Elswick, in January. The couple have a daughter, 1-year-old Kennedy.
“NASCAR wives are a special breed because most everybody in this level of the sport works six days a week, sometimes seven in some form or fashion,” says Leonard. “We usually try to take a day and a half off a week, but sometimes depending on schedule and whatnot it doesn’t always happen that way.”
“It is a different kind of life, for sure,” agrees Audrionna. But it’s one with many memories to cherish already for the young family.
“My favorite memory from this year would have to be from this past Charlotte race,” says AudriOnna. “It was the first time Kennedy and I had passes to go into the pit area for a race. Jon was just beaming with excitement! I could tell he was so proud to have us there and so excited to be able to show us what he did each week and share his passion with us.”