B&H Returns to Pukekohe (Part 5)



Striding like a Titan over this tough contest is the aura of Leo Leonard, probably the most accomplished long distance racer this country has seen. New Zealand’s equivalent of Peter Brock in other words. High praise I hear you say, but what about Jim Richards, Rod Coppins etc?
Leo and Ernie Sprague (later Ernie’s son Gary Sprague took over pairing with Leo), were the ultimate pairing, along the lines of Brock and Harry Firth. They were tactical masters, with superb car preparation and skilful driving in conserving the machinery while driving quickly, plus reading a race more astutely than the opposition.
Both driver’s operated automotive businesses in the South Island seaside town of Timaru. Veteran Sprague, had been racing and preparing competition machinery as diverse as an ex Maserati Formula One car and a ’32 Ford V8 roadster since the early 50’s. Leo had formed a business partnership with well-known sports car racer Brent Hawes in 1965. Tragically Hawes lost his life at Ruapuna, (Christchurch) driving his Begg Chevrolet sports racer in May ’69. Only 8 months before, Leo and Brent had shared their winning Vauxhall Victor 3.3 litre in the inaugural Benson & Hedges 500.
It was the beginning of a four race winning blitz for Leo, who stamped his name on this race in commanding style. Masterminding the team and co-driving on two of these victories was the wily old fox, Ernie Sprague. None of these victories were easy, particularly the 1969 race when they were outgunned by the Valiant V8’s. Playing a waiting game early, before exerting pressure on the Todd Chrysler entries in the latter stages, saw failing brakes on the V8’s open the way for a second Vauxhall Victor win for the Timaru team.
It is interesting to note in the ’68 race, reliability issues were rampant for both the front running Victors, with clutch and gearbox dramas and Zephyr’s with diff and overheating issues. With the exception of the Timaru contingent that is, with both Leo and Ernie on this occasion driving in separate cars, coming first and second - Leo and Brent in the Victor heading home Ernie and Gary Sprague’s 3 litre V6 Ford Zodiac. For a time though, it looked as though there might have been a major upset which would have rocked the “old order”. Dennis Marwood and Brian Innes surged into contention from down the grid in their beautifully driven Datsun 1600, which surprised with its amazing pace and bullet proof reliability. It was shaping up as though there might be a spectacular upset as the British heavy artillery seemed to be dropping like flies. They finished fourth outright and as Donn Anderson commented in his race report, unlike the majority of contenders, the bonnet was not raised throughout the race and it went the distance on one set of brakes and tyres. Hello!, the Japanese had lifted the game with this stunning performance and it was a big wake up call for the traditional market leaders, which they inevitably didn’t take on board…
The only Victor that had a faultless run was the Leonard/Hawes car and combined with skilful race strategy they came through to win in the final laps. Overtaking the late race leader Graham Harvey when his Victor suffered complete brake failure and holding out mate Ernie’s Zodiac, who was closing after changing brake pads in the latter stages, saw them score a great victory.
Of all Leo’s four wins in the B & H 500 and three more wins in the 1000 kilometre version, the 1970 500 mile race was probably his and Ernie’s greatest moment. Running the Valiant Regal V8 for the first time, Leo was comfortably in the lead when he lost control of the big car. He was negotiating The Loop section, with the rain pelting down and fresh oil on the high speed curve and the Valiant got away from him, spinning into the wet grass of the infield, where it promptly got stuck.
Many drivers would probably have thought, “game over”, but Leonard was not one of these, more a man imbued with the “Speight’s”, classic case of Southland Grit! Or maybe he was more concerned about Ernie’s wrath regarding his indiscretion! Whatever, after pushing and shoving and trying to wheel spin his way out, hadn’t nailed it, he grabbed some sacks out of the boot (those southerner’s didn’t overlook anything in their preps!), ripped off the top part of his driving suit, stuck ‘em under the wheels – and got the car back onto the blacktop. Under the rules, no outside help was allowed in these circumstances and the off track excursion had lost them several laps, dropping them back to 28th place. Leo and Ernie’s, no holds barred drive back through the field to a magnificent victory, is one of the true legendary stories of NZ motor sport.