I’d like to tell you about Leon.
He isn’t a fancy guy, and he doesn’t wear fine clothes. His English is a little fractured sometimes, shaped by his familiar Kentucky dialect.
Although he’s been around race cars all his life, he is a humble man, with a ready and easy smile.
Leon Gentry was a series regular in USAC national sprint car racing for a number of years, traveling throughout the Midwest and elsewhere. He was the classic low-buck racer, working much too hard for much too little in return.
Hendersonville, Kentucky – just across the river from Evansville, Indiana – was home to Leon and the Gentry bunch. I say “bunch” because it always seemed like there were a dozen dark-haired Gentry men busy on Leon’s sprint car, and unless you were well-connected, it was difficult to know sons from brothers, and cousins from nephews.
Leon says his former engine builder and longtime friend, Warner Brizius, was not a star. He didn’t have any money, and – even in the ‘70s – it took money to make a sprint car go fast.
“You’d see advertisements in the racing paper, and it would talk about the top guys who were going to be at a race,” Brizius says. “They’d say, ‘Pancho Carter, Sheldon Kinser, Tom Bigelow, Kenny Schrader…and many more.’ Well, Leon Gentry was one of the ‘and many more.’”
But that, says Brizius, is what ultimately led him to hold such respect for Leon.
“They never had the money, never really had the chance to see what Leon was capable of,” he insists. “But boy, they’d work hard. And, no matter what happened, they’d always keep trying. I guess after a while I wanted to try and help a little, because you sure do respect somebody who works so hard for so little in return.”
In the early 1980s, Brizius offered to build and provide a new engine for Leon to go racing.
It came with one caveat: He wanted Leon to race with USAC and follow the series.
“They said, ‘We can’t run with those guys!’” Brizius recalls with a chuckle. “’Yes, you can,’ I told them. And they did.”
For several years Leon’s No. 61 was a familiar sight at USAC events. Leon finished eighth in USAC national sprint car points in 1983, something Brizius and Leon were both proud of.
“Leon was a delight to race with,” Brizius says. “He was a jewel. A gentleman. I never saw him drink, never saw him smoke, never saw him use foul language. He’d get riled up every now and then, but he didn’t cause trouble with anybody. He’d do the best he could and you always had a good time when you were around him and his family.”
Over the years, Leon finally hung up his helmet and quit driving. Other members of the Gentry bunch – notably Leon’s sons Donnie and Chris – share the racing addiction and remain involved in the sport in various ways.
For more than 50 years, the Gentry family has traveled north across that big river to go racing.
Leon has struggled with some health issues, and recent years haven’t been particularly kind. But just like he maintained that positive spirit back in the day of using racer tape and second-hand parts to keep a sprint car going, he’s tried to remain upbeat through some pretty tough days.
Maybe that’s one of the reasons so many people – like Warner Brizius – think so highly of Leon.
That, it seems, was so obvious a while back during a racer’s reunion organized in Evansville. The turnout was outstanding – 200-plus attendees, when the optimistic target was 100 – and lots of former racers from the area were on hand.
Everybody – truly, everybody – in the area knows Leon and his family, because they have made such an enormous contribution to the racing culture here.
Leon, who now uses a wheelchair, waited his turn as all the former racers in attendance were recognized. Each driver would stand and wave as their name was called. Finally, Leon Gentry’s name rang out in the big room.
Clutching the handles of his wheelchair, Leon pushed hard. He summoned all of his strength, and everybody held their breath as he began to rise.
Just like all those days of struggling to get a car together and those all-night drives back to the house so he could go to work at the factory, and just like all those times when he worked his guts out and had little in the way of material things to show for it, the true grit of Leon Gentry was revealed.
Slowly, he rose. Unsteady and shaking, he got to his feet. The crowd – visibly moved by the profound display of heart and courage – rose as well, pounding their hands together to honor a true racing hero.
“There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” says Brizius.
I wish I had been there, Leon. I wish I could have risen to my feet and put my hands together, because guys like you are what life is all about. Heart and soul and guts and gumption and pure, pure desire.
Leon Gentry, there can never be any doubt, was a racer.
There were other guys who raced with him, of course. They were the “and many more.”