MUSKOGEE — Legendary Oklahoma dirt car racer and National Sprint Car Hall of Fame inductee Harold Leep Sr. died Thursday, a day after he reportedly fell on ice at home. He was 81.
The Cookson native last worked in motor sports as promoter of Muskogee Speedway in the early 2000s, but he had long become a legend for his successful exploits on dirt tracks throughout the country, particularly Oklahoma and Kansas. At a time when open-wheel race cars were larger, heavier and did not have the safety features of current-day cars, Leep piled up wins at local tracks and on regional circuits such as the National Championship Racing Association, the U.S. Auto Club and International Motor Contest Association.
“He was larger than life to all of us growing up,” said Shane Carson, a Yukon resident who is a fellow National Sprint Car Hall of Famer. “He changed racing everywhere he ran. He raised the bar. He was a great friend, too.”
Leep's interest in car racing started in 1950, when he volunteered to help a buddy work on a jalopy stock car. Leep convinced the friend to let him race it. After he crashed the car, the friend didn't let Leep drive it again.
But Leep was hooked. He was back inside a stocker in 1951, notching his first career victory, at Enid Speedway. Leep moved to open-wheel cars in 1955, and he began building a tough-to-beat status during a period when the slightest gambles might lead to horrific crashes and severe injury.
“Sprint car racing is the hardest work there is,” Leep told the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame before his 2004 induction. “I was tired of the travel ... but I still wanted to race.”
Leep won a then-record five points championships (1967, 1969, 1971, 1976, 1977) at State Fair Speedway in Oklahoma City. Those complemented season titles (1965, 1966, 1967, 1969) at 81 Speedway in Wichita, Kan. He capped a triple crown in '69 by also winning the Tulsa Speedway championship. He triumphed five times at the Hutchinson (Kan.) Nationals, then the World Series of open-wheel dirt car racing.
And those titles don't scrape the surface of what the Air Force veteran managed in more than 40 summers of driving.
During a 2000 interview with The Oklahoman, Leep said: “At one time I had over 1,000 trophies. I didn't want to build a big trophy room at my place ... so I got rid of a lot of them. The ones that I didn't want, I burned.”
Funeral services are pending.