INDIANAPOLIS – C.J. Leary will chase a USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car Series championship for car owner Bill Michael next season.
His quest for a second driver’s championship with the tour begins February 11-13 at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala, Fla.
Leary, the 2019 USAC National Sprint Car Champion and 2012 series rookie of the year, will contest the full tour piloting the No. 77m, which has won a record 39 USAC Southwest Sprint Car features, led by R.J. Johnson’s 36 wins for the Arizona-based team.
Together with Johnson, Michael earned an unprecedented four consecutive USAC Southwest Sprint Car championships between 2013-16.
For 2021, Michael set his sights on putting a deal together to compete on the USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car trail with Leary, the 11-time series winner who has won a feature in each of the past five seasons.
“At the end of the 2020 season, I didn’t really know what I was going to do,” said Leary, who ran his family car for the majority of the year. “I had a couple options, but Bill (Michael) really wasn’t one of them at the time. We were just friends at that point, but he called me out of the blue and he was hinting around about maybe doing something and I didn’t know how serious he was. After I got off the phone, I was thinking about it and I called him back that night and asked him if he was really serious about doing this.
“He said this was one of his dreams, was to field a USAC National Sprint Car and run the full tour, and he wanted to do that with me.”
This will not be Leary and Michael’s first racing foray together. In March of 2020, Leary swept a USAC CRA and USAC Southwest combination weekend at Canyon Speedway Park in Peoria, Ariz., for Michael.
Although they didn’t qualify particularly well – for their standards – things picked up soon thereafter and Leary scored wins on back-to-back nights, which partially led to their pairing for the upcoming season.
“I didn’t really know Bill all that well at the time and he called me last year in the spring to come out and run for them at Canyon,” Leary recalled. “I’d never been in his racecars, but I knew he had Fords and that was kind of an unknown to me. We went out there and everything went our way that weekend.
“It seemed like we couldn’t do anything wrong. Everything clicked really well.”
Michael put the call out for Leary based on his extensive experience, championship capability and his ability to compete for victories night-in and night-out.
“He’s a gasser,” Michael said of Leary. “We’ve raced against him with the 360s and he was always one of the fast guys, and he’s easy on equipment as well. Having him run our 410 stuff earlier in the year and having the success we had, he’s definitely a good hand and he knows all the race tracks. He’s in that category of drivers who’s capable of winning any national race.
“If the cards fall a certain way on a given night, he’s in the mix.”
For Michael, this deal is more than just putting a car together and going racing. It’s the culmination of his lifelong dream to field a car in USAC National Sprint Car action.
“I don’t even know if it’s all sank in yet even though I’ve been working on engines and building headers and things like that for three weeks now,” admitted Michael, who now resides in Arizona after growing up in Illinois. “It’s an absolute dream for me to be racing in the pinnacle of national non-wing sprint car racing. I would’ve never guessed I’d have this opportunity, especially with somebody like C.J. at the wheel.
“It’s totally one of the things on my bucket list that I never thought I’d get to achieve.”
With all that said, Michael isn’t planning to rest on his laurels. He’ll be hands on at all the events on the schedule, overseeing the engines and maintenance on the cars which will utilize DRC chassis and Cressman Ford engines.
His son, Leland, has taken the reins and will run the family business when Michael is on the road with the team.
“It’s an honor for me,” a proud Michael stated. “I’m flattered, I’m humbled and I’m definitely not going into this thing thinking, ‘oh, we’ve got this handled,’ because I know some of the other teams have been competing for a decade or more and how tough it is to win a race, let alone be there and competing.”
For 2021, the team will be run out of Leary’s shop in his hometown of Greenfield, Ind., similar to the setup Leary had during his 2019 championship season with Reinbold-Underwood Motorsports.
Michael will provide a truck and trailer, plus new top-notch equipment.
One change, however, will have Leary operating as his own crew chief.
But thanks to the minimal, yet highly successful tenure with Michael he already has under his belt, Leary feels they have a bit of a head start entering the new year.
“It’ll be a tad easier having a bit of a head start and not having to learn so much that first weekend out,” Leary explained. “That’s crucial because, once you get behind, it’s difficult to gain ground. We’re building two new cars and he’s giving us all the tools we need to win another championship.”