For many teenagers, getting their driver's license would be the highlight of their year. For Zach Leonhardi, it wasn't even the best thing to happen to him that week.
Granted, it undoubtedly was his top moment when it happened on June 8. The next day, though, the rite of passage was overshadowed by any even grander accomplishment behind the wheel — his first victory in a super late model race.
You see, Leonhardi, who turned 17 a couple days later on June 12, has been driving more than half his life.
The rising senior at Woodland High ran his first race in a go-kart nearly 11 years ago. Over time, he moved up to bandolero racing, progressed into Legend car racing and finally into super late models.
His journey started out in Smyrna, but it brought his family to Bartow County in December 2012 — just before the jump into Legend racing.
“It just wasn’t conducive” his mother, Dee Leonhardi, said of living inside the city limits, “and the cars were getting bigger and bigger every time we turned around — and louder and louder.”
They also got tougher and tougher to drive, or at least that's how Zach Leonhardi felt when he moved from Legend cars to super late models, which are known for having few restrictions when it comes to engines. While he had some experience racing on dirt, he had primarily raced on asphalt with the bandolero and Legend cars.
“It was a huge change,” he said of getting into late models. “I still say dirt is a whole lot harder than asphalt on the driver’s side. I still think setting up cars, mechanically, is hard across the board. It’s not just adjusting to the surface. Asphalt stays the same the whole race. On dirt, they put moisture in it. As the moisture runs out, you have to drive different to keep traction on the car. That was really hard. And then adjusting to the size of the car, it’s like three times the size of the legend. …
“Once you figure it out, it ain’t that big of a deal, but it’s a huge learning curve. It’s a way bigger learning curve than I’ve gone through from any of my asphalt cars to asphalt cars, or even from when I went from a dirt go-kart to an asphalt bandolero. It’s a huge learning curve, but you’re always learning something about it all the time. There’s no one who’s got it completely figured out.”
He might not have it completely figured out, but Leonhardi has felt a lot more comfortable in his car, which is adorned with the No. 24 in honor of Jeff Gordon, recently than ever before.
Not only did he have to navigate the natural struggles that come with changing cars and changing surfaces but also, as a teenager racing against grown men — some of whom have been racing late models longer than he's been alive — Leonhardi had to mature. Success had come rather easily at the Legend level, but when he made the move to late models, the then-14-year-old failed to replicate it.
Eventually that maturation process kicked into high gear, and so did Leonhardi.
About a year ago, he started to get the hang of things. Although he began regularly challenging for wins, it took until a couple of weeks ago for him to claim his first late model checkered flag, leading virtually throughout in a victory at his "home track" of Senoia Raceway.
“Ever since mid-March, we’ve been really consistently up front,” Leonhardi said. “Last year, I had good races, but I would really be on and off. …
“More than anything, the time I’ve been in it has helped. You watch races and stuff. You almost learn more from the races you do bad in. You figure out what other guys did. You watch the track and learn what you did wrong. … I think coming out of it, it made me better. I learned a lot of stuff from it.”
However, he's not quite back to the standard he's set for himself.
“I still don’t think I’m there, but I’m getting pretty close,” Leonhardi said. “We got that first win, and we’ve been running pretty consistent out there. We’ve been knocking off a lot more top-fives and top-10s in bigger shows. We’re getting there. From 2016 to early-to-mid 2017, I just wasn’t taking it seriously enough.
“I was taking it seriously to me, but when you go from stuff that isn’t paying money and racing for trophies — everyone thinks they’re going really hard for it — and then you have to go up against guys who have been racing 20 years and they’re racing for a living. It’s a whole other level of how committed you have to be to it. … I think we’re getting there. I still need to get where I’m winning some bigger shows before I’m probably content. But I won’t really be content until I’m a national guy.”
So for anyone thinking Leonhardi has a fun hobby, he plans on doing this for a living. He used to dream of making it in NASCAR, but when he realized he could be self-sufficient racing on dirt racks, his goal shifted.
Now, he's looking to hopefully break into one of the two national late model racing circuits — Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series or World of Outlaws Craftsman Late Model Series. Leonhardi has already raced twice in each series. It's given him a glimpse at where he wants to be in the not-so-distant future.
Leonhardi understands, though, that just wanting to race at that level isn't enough. Even though he currently has a few, he knows he will need to accrue several more sponsorships — or at least some bigger ones — to achieve his dream.
Without the existence of major partners, the overwhelming majority of money spent to support Leonhardi's efforts has come from his parents.
“You really have to have a supportive family behind you.” he said. “You have to have a family that can put some financial support behind you, unless you are really good in the marketing frontier and know a lot of people who own businesses to help you out. It’s been really important to have my family behind me to help me out. ... I definitely couldn’t do it without them.”
Prior to his interest in racing, Leonhardi's father, Mike, had some mechanical knowledge. Once he realized how passionate his son was about racing, he showed just how dedicated he was by spending hours upon hours figuring out how the different cars ran and how to fix them when they didn't.
“He’s been around cars his whole life, but he hasn’t really been around the racing scene,” Leonhardi said of his dad. “When I first started and I was too little to really know anything mechanically, he really had to research and learn a whole lot on his own about how these cars work and how to make them work on the race track. Up until recently, when I’ve gotten old enough to do some of the research myself, it’s pretty much been on his back to figure the stuff out.”
Leonhardi said his mom has gone to nearly every single race of his career. For more than a decade, she's sat in the bleachers to watch her son do the thing he loves most.
“It’s usually more of a nervous excitement,” Dee Leonhardi said of how she feels watching the races. “I’m excited. I love watching him race. We provide him with the best safety equipment we can. I tell myself sometimes, ‘Just sit back and enjoy it. Don’t get so worked up about it.’ I want to enjoy watching it, just kind of savior it and enjoy it.
“It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been a fun ride for us to watch what he’s been able to do as he’s grown, because he’s grown and matured not only as a person but also as a race car driver. Very proud of what he’s been able to accomplish.”
As much as Dee Leonhardi would probably hate to admit it, there have been more than a couple of close calls over the years.
The scariest of which probably came when Zach Leonhardi, who was 8 or 9 at the time, suffered a head-on collision with the pit wall following a part failure. The crash occurred during a bandolero race at a Thursday Thunder series event on the quarter-mile "Thunder Ring," which sits on the frontstretch of Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Luckily, Leonhardi emerged uninjured. His only concern was getting the car, which did suffer extensive damage, back on the track as soon as possible. That attitude wouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who has seen Leonhardi race.
It was clear, even at a young age, that racing cars would be a big part of his life. Now, he hopes that it will be his life, because, as great as it is to have the freedom to take your car out for a spin around the block, for Leonhardi, the best driving experiences happen on a dirt track.
“Some people say they don’t get nervous, but there’s usually butterflies coming to the green [flag],” Leonhardi said. “For the most part, when you get going, I’m calm and just out there doing a job. I’m doing my task, and I’m out there just doing the best I can every lap. You can have the most fun race of your life, but when you’re in the car, you don’t really realize it. You’re 100 percent focused and in the zone.
“When you make it out of the car, you start chuckling and think, ‘This is awesome.’ But when you’re in the car, you’re going 100 percent serious, you’re focused on what the task at hand is and just going after it. Pretty much everything that’s going on in the world fades away, you don’t think about it or worry about it.“