LateModelDigest.Net - Mike Leary Interview conducted by Jim Carson

posted May 22, 2011, 6:53 PM by LRP Admin   [ updated May 22, 2011, 7:23 PM ]
Article originally published in March 2, 2011 issue of LateModelDigest.Net

 In 1978 a racing career began at the now-closed Englewood Speedway in Denver. Mike Leary drove sportsman cars and Late Models on dirt and pavement over most of the next 20 years, usually in Colorado but sometimes elsewhere, including some starts in the old NASCAR Southwest Tour and RE/MAX Challenge.  Soon he became more adept at what he accomplished in the shop and in the pits than from the driver’s seat. A few years later, Mike and his wife Nancy formed Leary’s Racing Products and Shock Shop, which has provided parts and service to many racers, Late Models and otherwise, in the western half of the U.S. Now his influence has spread nationwide. Several Colorado National Speedway-based star drivers work for Leary, including Roger Avants, Richard Burton and Chris Eggleston.

LMD: Your direction really started when you took a dirt race car and changed it to race on pavement. 
Leary: It was pretty unusual, and in this day and age it’d be really tough.  But it taught me a lot. I never had the money to have the equipment everybody else did when I was racing. I was on a pretty tight budget; I wouldn’t say shoestring, because I had some pretty
good sponsors along the way, but it was pretty tight. It made me learn about race cars. Then I got involved in the shock
deal. We sell a million dollars worth of parts in a year, but the shock deal has gotten out of control. I was here ‘til midnight
working on shocks last night, while everybody else was at home with their feet up on the couch on a Sunday night.

LMD: Shocks are definitely your calling cards.
Leary: Yeah, we won over 100 championships in the last two years with guys running our shocks. It started with a lot around here. We did Roger Avants’ shocks in ‘02 when he won the Northwest Region (of what is now the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series).  I always tell him that he was my test dummy. “Things might work and they might not.” He won nine races that year (at Colorado National Speedway). Bruce Yackey’s won six championships (as has Avants) and a NASCAR region once.

LMD: Was Gary Lewis, the longtime star from Washington, your first big touring name with your help?
Leary: Yeah, Gary was a big one, and we’ve just added on from that point. He kinda put me on the map outside of Colorado. I got more attention from that. It’s kept up to now; we’ve won the Rocky Mountain Challenge Series championships the last two years, with John Dillon and Steve Jones. And the King Taco car for Position One at Irwindale set the track record for the
Thanksgiving Super Late Model race and won the pole for the Toyota All-Star Showdown (both with Rod Johnson Jr. driving).

LMD: Didn’t Gary want to keep people from knowing about you for a while?

Leary: Well, racers are racers, and when they’re winning they don’t really want to let others what’s going on. I’ve had shocks returned that had my stickers taken off of ‘em. We have a pretty good-sized store, with three quarters of a million dollars in inventory. We have mostly Colorado business and in neighboring states, dirt and pavement. With the shock deal, a lot of guys don’t want the same thing that somebody else is getting. I saw that with engines; I was in the engine business for a little while when I ran a machine shop, and we weren’t building the same stuff as everybody else.  They’re always worried that somebody else’ll have what they’ll have.  Well, at Colorado National, I probably have done shocks for three-quarters of the Late Models, but none of ‘em are running the same springs and bars and stuff. They need to tune the car for the driver and not try to change the driver. That’s one thing that Gary was very strong at. He let me tweak on the car and he’d tell me what it was doing. He helped my learning curve.  Gary and I have worked well together for a very long time and had a real good partnership there. I’ve been lucky to be hooked up with a lot of very good, talented people. It’s fun, but it’s a lot of work. It’s better than getting a real job, even thinking about that last night about 11:30.

LMD: Your reaches really made an impression on me last year because a driver from Riverhead, N.Y., used your shocks.
Yeah, Mike Bologna. That was a referral from Lefthander; they told me the guy had been struggling real bad, so they said to call Mike and he can help you.  It’s not just a shock deal. I help with setups too. I tell this story a lot: I had a guy come to us that was gonna run Big Country Speedway in Cheyenne, Wyo. He wasn’t super-fast at Colorado National, and he said he wanted to run up there. I did a set of shocks for him and changed his whole setup … basically everything you can do to a car, from springs to the panhard bar. He won his very first race at Big Country, then he leaves a message on my recorder: “Man, those were awesome shocks!” I wanted to tell him that it had a little bit to do with the setup and the springs. That’s
what we try to provide. My phone rings 60 or 70 times on a Saturday. Most of the time they have the answers; they just want somebody to reassure them. I’ve been at non-racing dinners and things and had relatives go, “Does this happen all the time?” and my wife says “Oh yeah.” But it’s almost as much fun for me now. I never knew how I was gonna get out of the competitive set of a race car, but this has done it.

LMD: Several other drivers have gone into the shock and suspension business, like Dennis Reno Jr. in Alabama (Xtreme Suspension Technology), Cale Gale who’s also from Alabama (Gale Force Suspension, now in North Carolina), Willie Allen inTennessee (WAR Shocks) and Frank Deiny Jr. in Virginia (FDJ Motorsports).  Do you have anything to tell these racers?
They’re pretty successful on their own. My thing is it’s the package. On my side of the country you’ve got Mike Naake, Junior Joiner, and Chuck Carruthers, and we’re probably the big three or four. When guys buy shocks, it needs to be the whole program. You can’t just bolt my shocks on your car and go, “Wow!”

LMD: Some racetracks and organizations have put cost limits on their shocks, or even mandated a specific brand. What do you think about that?
What they don’t realize is if they put a cost limit on them, they can end up still coming to me and costing more. The cheaper a shock is, the more money it takes to make it good. Racers are racers, and they’re gonna find a way around it. If there’s a $200 shock rule, they can find the best $200 shock there is, and they’re gonna spend X amount to make it better.
I’d like to see them put in a rule that’d be simple for most promoters: just mandate something like a nonadjustable, or a non-gas, or a singleadjustable or double-adjustable shock, and let a guy pick what he wants from there. I’m all for making racing cheaper; as soon as it gets so expensive that guys won’t do it, they’ll obviously stop coming to us. I’d much rather take a decent piece and tweak it, rather than take something that’s not very good and try to work with it. I’m sure all the shock guys are gonna tell you the same thing.  The dirt guys that are doing specific shocks are more drastic. You need good
shocks more on dirt when it’s rough and muddy and heavy and tacky. One team that won a championship had 40 shocks at $200 apiece, and that’s $8,000. I could’ve sold him a set of doubleadjustables, and he’d have one at each corner and been set, for $1,700. Promoters need to talk to people in the business like us to explain how this works.