If you ask 1989 IMSA GTU champion Bob Leitzinger why, at age 77 and after 52 years of racing, he is still in the auto racing game, he has a simple explanation.
“I never wanted to quit,” he says flatly – but with a smile.
Bob is driving the wheels off his 1965 Lotus Elan 26R at this weekend’s Mid-Ohio Vintage GP – finishing second on Saturday in Group 8. He owns both the Lotus (above) and a Datsun 510 (below), both tribute cars to his earlier days in racing. This weekend Bob’s friend, Frank Honsowetz, the owner of Ed Pink Engines and the former top Nissan executive for the Infiniti Pro Series in the early days of the Indy Racing League, is driving the Datsun 510 and, he says, “Having a blast.”
Bob got started with his original Lotus Elan 26R running C Production in SCCA back in 1965. The cars, Bob says, were dominant. Bob won three national races and qualified for the SCCA National Championship Runoffs in just his second year of racing. He also ran at Bahamas for Nassau Speed Week and won all three of the FIA Group 9 races.
His fellow Lotus drivers were also winning in CP. Competitors howled that it was unfair. The next year, 1966, Bob and others in the Lotus contingent found they were “promoted” to B Production. Looking back, Bob believes that was some of the most enjoyable time he spent racing. Despite the stiffer competition, Bob still excelled. He picked off four national race wins and with five second-place finishes he again qualified for the Runoffs.
“On some courses we were faster than the Corvettes,” he explains. “I found myself driving against the likes of Mark Donohue and Don Yenko and I have to say I had more fun driving than at any other time in my life.”
That says a lot for a guy who has been at it since 1964, when he started with an Austin Healey 3000 and won three SCCA races. It was that experience that made Bob realize he loved racing so much he had to figure out a way to fund his addiction and stay in the game. Even in those days racing was expensive.
“That’s why I got into the car sales business,” Bob explains. “I wanted to be in a business where I could legitimately write off the cost of my racing as an advertising expense.”
Bob established a Datsun and Mercedes dealership in 1965 in State College, Pa. Even so, his tax strategy fell short of keeping him in the game without interruption. By 1968 he was, in his words, “out of money.”
Apparently he was miserable enough that his wife, the acclaimed motorsports artist Sandra Leitzinger, insisted that he buy a car and go racing. That’s where the original Datsun 510 came into the picture. Bob purchased a new one in 1972 and entered SCCA’s B Sedan class. He qualified for the national runoffs in 1974. The next year he not only qualified for the national runoffs but also won the SCCA Northeast Division with three wins and three times runner-up. It was a start but it fell short of giving him full satisfaction.
“Paul Newman helped me out by wrecking one of Bob Sharp’s Datsuns,” Bob explains, only half joking. “Bob let me cannibalize the car and sold me parts I needed to build a Datsun for an even faster racecar.”
Suddenly, Bob Leitzinger was back in the game and winning in a meaningful way. Bob acquired a Datsun 280Z and raced that in CP and continued in that class through 1980. During the 1980’s Bob stepped up to IMSA GTU and Trans Am racing with a Datsun 280ZX. They constructed the car from the ground up as a purpose-built racer with a tube chassis and V6 engine.
Over the next several years Bob focused on IMSA GTU and scored a breakthrough class win at Lime Rock in 1983. For the next several years he ran selective races as his team began to develop a V6 Nissan 240SX.
Bob operated his team with little outside financial assistance until receiving Nissan backing in 1989, the year he won the GTU championship. With Nissan backing his team won four manufacturer championships through 1994. His proudest moment came when his son, Butch, burst on the professional scene.
“I remember when Butch first really out-dueled me,” Bob recalls. “It was right here at Mid-Ohio along about 1991. By then he was part of our Nissan IMSA team. I could always out-qualify him and we ended up one-two on the grid, with me on the pole. I led for a while but then he got me in Turn 1. I never could get by him the rest of the race and he won. That was probably my proudest moment racing. I knew Butch was going to be a champion. I never out-qualified him after that race.”
Butch did deliver for his father and along with Jim Pace added to Leitzinger Racing’s string of IMSA GTU championships in the early 1990’s. Butch also went on to succeed in multiple forms of racing and even picked up two class wins in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Bob lost his Nissan backing in 1994 and eventually transitioned his team to tackle what was then NASCAR’s Busch series. They campaigned in Busch North regularly with Butch as a driver.
“I turned to NASCAR because I thought I could be more successful selling sponsorships,” Bob explains. “It didn’t really work out that way.”
Bob wound down his own racing activities as Butch’s career took off. He supported his son and traveled with him to his six appearances at Le Mans and other events such as his overall victory at the 24 Hours of Daytona with Dyson Racing in 1999. Butch enjoyed other successes as well and drove for factory teams such as Cadillac, Bentley and Panoz.
Still, the urge to get behind the wheel burned inside Bob. Wife Sandra had not only encouraged his racing enthusiasm but even pushed him. Her passing in 2002 was a blow.
“I think to succeed you need someone who thinks the same way you do,” Bob says. “It’s important that she understands me, and even more, loves the sport too.”
That partner for Bob now is his all-around life assistant Dineen, who does everything from work on his Lotus or Datsun cars to fielding public relations requests. With her enthusiasm Bob returned to racing in 2009 with vintage cars. He sold his car dealership in 2006 and now has the time to focus on racing again. Carson Baird, his crew chief during his Nissan factory team days, shows up almost daily in Bob’s shop to pitch in.
“Carson is a phenomenal manager, fabricator and can pretty much do anything with a car,” Bob says. “That’s what I love about where I am now. It’s the spirit of vintage racing. It’s like racing used to be. We fought each other track and helped each other in the paddock. Last night we had dinner right here in the paddock outside my motorcoach. There were good friends, wine, great food.”
Bob explains that while vintage racing is more relaxed and the competition is more about having fun than winning at all costs, the urge to pass another car when you know you can is irresistible. The danger, too, is real.
“On the track, the competitive energy still flows,” he says. “In racing you pay dearly for your mistakes – and it can still bite you here in vintage, too.”
The bottom line for Leitzinger, though, is that he is happy with his life and enjoys what he does. Looking back on his 52 years of racing, Bob feels his time on Earth has been well lived.
“I love what I am doing and there’s not much I’d change,” he reflects.
Given that assessment, it’s easy to see why there is no quit in Bob Leitzinger.