Connect with us


In the Hot Seat: Gray Leadbetter

Gray Leadbetter takes the time to make a young fan’s day at a Nitrocross race. (Photo: Tori Jo Photography)

While most racecar drivers focus on a single discipline of motorsports, 18-year-old Gray Leadbetter has an old school driver’s heart. If it has wheels and it means going fast, the Morganton, North Carolina native will likely drive it at full speed.

In Leadbetter’s case, she has loved motorsports since she was two years old. When most young children have vast, wild imaginations about potential professions, Leadbetter knew she wanted to go fast and compete on any racing surface.

Unlike most young drivers, Leadbetter is a trailblazer in terms of being a first generation competitor. With the support of her parents, Steve and Polly, the North Carolinian was born with the racing gene and an insatiable desire to drop the hammer with precision and focus.

Leadbetter’s formative years were spent racing two wheelers in dirt bikes. Picking up fast and adapting to these thrilling rides with poise and determination, she overcame and shook off an injury at age seven to continue her pursuit in the motorsports scene.

Inspired by Travis Pastrana, one of the world’s most versatile racers, Leadbetter is taking after her idol in her own ways. If it means racing Nitrocross cars against the best in this discipline, she will do it and thrive along the way.

By all means, Leadbetter may be like a young AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti, Tony Stewart, Kyle Larson or Pastrana in racing anything with wheels. No doubt, she is a fast learner and her love for competition clearly shows with her proven track record.

In the world of Nitrocross, Leadbetter is part of this series’ familial atmosphere. Sure, she and her rivals will duke it out racing wheel-to-wheel but not before a good, youthful battle with some friendly tactical friendly fire.

Recently, Leadbetter stopped by for her first “Hot Seat” appearance on The Podium Finish to talk about her journey, career and efforts in Nitrocross. In this exclusive story for The Podium Finish, let us all get “In the Hot Seat” with Gray Leadbetter now!

Rob Tiongson: Welcome back to a special edition of “In the Hot Seat” here with Rob Tiongson, The Podium Finish’s Editor-in-Chief and lead journalist. On this today’s edition of “In the Hot Seat,” we have a really special guest with 18-year-old race car driver Gray Leadbetter.

I’m so excited to have Gray here because she’s literally back from Phoenix and not at the racetrack in Phoenix, but in the great outdoors of Phoenix. Before we get started, you had an awesome weekend at Phoenix. How are you doing today?

Gray Leadbetter: I’m doing good. I got back last night. I don’t think I got back to my house till about 9:00. So, it was a long day of travel yesterday and then the weekend went great.

Tiongson: Oh wow. That’s crazy. I’m sure you’re a little tired, though.

Leadbetter: Oh, not too bad.

Tiongson: Only to be so young. If you were my age, you’d be like, “Oh, why is this early?” But it’s so awesome. I read about your background, of course, I’ve seen your social media, and that’s why we have you here on “The Hot Seat.” For folks at home who are going to be listening in or reading this on our website, obviously these are NASCAR fans. We’re just learning about you for the first time. What are some of your earliest memories about racing that inspired you to go after this career?

For the past 16 years, Gray Leadbetter’s love of racing has taken her to incredible heights of excitement in motorsports. (Photo: Tori Jo Photography)

Leadbetter: I’m not sure. I’ve been doing it for so long. Nobody in my family’s raced. So, I have no history or no background in it. I just kind of wanted the little cars you get at Walmart. And my parents said “No” when I was two years old because we have a gravel driveway, and they just didn’t want to listen to it. And so instead, they got me this electric four wheeler.

And I started riding that when I was two. And then our friends rode dirt bikes. They’re like, “OK, put her on a dirt bike when she turns three with training wheels.” And then I got off training wheels and started racing when I was four, and then it’s kind of just carried on from there. I still love dirt bikes. I’m slowly getting back into it, not racing, not really riding any big bikes, but back into the world of pit bikes, which is making me feel good because it’s like bringing me back to my childhood.

Tiongson: That’s awesome. I can’t imagine being like two or three years old and being able to do that. Guess it was something that came naturally to you and you’re like in your own little way, saying to your parents, you’re like, “Guys, I want to do this.”

Leadbetter: Yeah, for sure. I mean, I don’t remember it. I was so young. I just know that I got the passion for it when I was that age, and then it just kept continuing up through. Dirt bikes, go karts, mini outlaws, whatever else I’ve ran. There’s been so many things.

Tiongson: That’s amazing. Gray, I can’t even recall when I was 2 or 3 years old, what I wanted to do, and much less still pursuing it because a lot of kids say, “Oh, I want to be a bus driver or a doctor,” and here you are. You’re fulfilling something that you may not remember exactly what you said, but you’re doing that.

Is it something that’s been within you, in your in your body and your blood saying, “I want to be a race car driver?”

Leadbetter: Yeah, for sure. When I was younger, my parents were like, “If you don’t want to go the racetrack, you can go to your friend’s birthday party or go stay at their house or do this. Or we could go on vacation.” And it’s just like, “No, I’d rather be at the racetrack.” I gave up everything as a child to go do that. I had friends still, but that was just, “I’ll see you at school, maybe come over when I’m not at the racetrack.” But now it’s just… I mean, it’s still the same way today.

Tiongson: And how many teenagers now can say, “Hey, I’m going to race against Travis Pastrana and Lia Block?” Does that sometimes make you go, “Holy moly, I’m doing this?”

Leadbetter: Yeah, absolutely. Travis was an idol to me growing up and still is. And now I get to see and get to race against him, which is surreal, honestly. We’re doing things with him, and it just doesn’t feel real. And it is.

And it’s been real for the past six months or so. But I looked up to him so much as a kid just because everything that he got in, everything that he took place in, he did so well and advanced in that aspect and just has forever made every child’s dream of watching and looking up to him.

Tiongson: I was going to say when I read about you, Gray, I feel like you’re very comparable to what Travis does because you’ve raced about anything, which I was so impressed with because if you’re a stock car driver that’s young, you basically have done like late models, Bandoleros, Legend cars and all that.

Meanwhile, you did motocross for a while and I don’t know, I’m not a parent yet, but I would have a hard time saying, “Yeah, Gray, go ahead and race a motocross bike.” But how was that like for you from what you could remember?

Leadbetter: I never had fear, really, on a dirt bike. I don’t know what it was. I think I have more fear now and things now, just because I know I can comprehend the consequences of it. But I don’t know.

It was just something that like we had a dirt bike track in my backyard, so I would come home from school and jump on my bike and then ride till it got dark, which was only like two hours because it would be winter. But my dad would like yell at me to get off my dirt bike. He’s like, “It’s too dark, you can’t ride anymore!” I’m like, “But I could still see. I could see it off.”

And it was just like, I don’t know, the passion’s just never really went away. And even I eventually grew out a dirt bike just because, long story short, it’s very difficult to make it anywhere on a dirt bike as a female just because it is very physically demanding. And that is one thing that sucks about it. But in other terms, it’s got me into four wheels and got me where I am today.

Tiongson: So, it’s kind of like a northern star for you in a way.

Leadbetter: Yeah.

Tiongson: That’s really cool. And I did read somewhere that at age seven, you had a bit of a difficult situation that you had to overcome, and you talked about how you’ve been going back on a dirt bike and you kind of understand the fear of it. But when you were seven and you got hurt, were you like kind of going like, “Oh no, I may not be able to do this anymore?” Or were you thinking, “Gray, I’m going to be OK. I just have to go get over this?”

Leadbetter: I remember because it was a really kind of odd crash, but I didn’t get off the starting line. And then I got pissed at myself because I was so far ahead of the people in front of me who I was racing against. I got cross started, went into a dirt berm. It’s whatever. And I just remember crashing and then my I remember my dad running up towards me, and he came and asked me if I was OK, and I was just like, “I can’t ride.” I was like, “I’m hurt.”

And he was like, OK, so she actually is hurt because she normally would crash and just be fine and want to get back up immediately, and I didn’t. So, he was like, “OK, yeah, she’s actually hurt.” And then we went to the hospital. We did all this stuff. And I remember my first (thought). All I wanted to do is get back on the bike. But my biggest thing was wanting to ride my razor scooter around the house. And I was like, “How long till I can do that?”

And it was probably like two weeks until I was back doing that. And then it was like, “OK, when can I get on the trampoline?” And it was like, “OK, now can I get back on dirt bike?” So, it was just like, even after breaking my shoulder, I don’t think any fear was in me after the fact. And if it was, I don’t remember.

Tiongson: That’s amazing because I know if I was a little kid, I would have been crying and then my parents would have yanked me out. But I think that’s it was built within you to be like, you know, it’s a setback, but I’m ready to go back at it. Your parents are like, fine, great, go ahead and do it. You know, that’s just amazing. And I think that kind of gave you the bravery that you have to have as a race car driver.

I know it’s kind of like a very basic question to get into before we get back to you talking more about you, but a lot of race car drivers will often say, “Well, I don’t have a fear of racing or the dangers of it.” But in your perspective, is it good to have a little bit of a healthy dose of fear?

Leadbetter: Yeah, for sure. I definitely think everybody needs it. Or you just over push the limits to the extent of crashing every time. And you need to. You mean you need to find your own limit. And that comes with fear also. But the best I mean, I think everybody has fear. Even stunt performers, I think, have fear.

It’s just the fact of being able to not necessarily block it out but know that this is the consequence. But this is also what I love, and this is what I have to do. And I have to take the consequences out of the equation. It’s kind of the biggest thing is just pushing past that to get to do what you love.

Tiongson: Exactly. Because, I mean, everything in life has a risk. I mean, the moment you get out of your bed, anything could happen, right?

Leadbetter: Something can happen with just walking on the street or walking down the stairs.

Tiongson: I would hate to think about that thought the next time I go downstairs from my room. That’s going to be funny. I’ll just blame you for that. I’m kidding. Now, you were talking about how Travis was one of your heroes, and I’ve always asked this to any kind of driver. But who were some of the drivers that you looked up to that made you realize, yeah, I want to do this?

Leadbetter: I think Travis was by far the biggest. I think I’ve talked about him forever as long as I can remember. I did something of him when I was in second grade. It was like the poster thing. We had to pretend we were this person and make a speech, and I actually had picked him. Um, but I think it was him.

And then when I was growing up on dirt bikes, it was always Ashley Fiolek just because she does so much and on top of it, she’s deaf was just mind boggling to me because I don’t know how you can. I mean, it’s just all about feel, but it’s just crazy to me.

Tiongson: It’s like these are like magicians at work, but then when you get to meet them in person, it makes you realize they’re just as human as any of us. And I’m sure, like when you’ve met at least Travis, I’ve met him before when he raced in NASCAR, and he’s just so electric. But like, you almost think it’s an act. But when you meet him in person, he’s just generally an energy drink in person.

Leadbetter: Yes. He’s actually he’s like one of the nicest people and most genuine people I know. And he does so many crazy things. So, it’s so nice to just see that and see like the calmness and the wholeness that he has.

Tiongson: I agree, and I just want to have his enthusiasm as well, because he’s like in his late 40s and he’s acting like he’s still a teenager. And I’m like, give me some of your secret mojo, because I would love that as a writer, so that’d be cool.

Now, one of your most pivotal years, actually, Gray was just a couple years ago in 2019 because not only were you doing some off road racing, but you did some rallycross competition. So, what was it like to compete in those different kinds of cars and get acclimated to these different kinds of tracks?

Leadbetter: Yeah, for sure. I went to X Games in 2015 when they ran Nitro or when they ran rallycross in X Games. And I was like, from that point, which was nine years old, I was like, I want to do that. Like I told myself and I told my dad, I was like, “I want to do that in the future.” And we went to a race, and I made connections a year later, I think two years later and started talking to people and this and that.

And then I ended up getting with Johnny and C.J. Greaves in the off road short course stuff. And they’re still to this day, family to me. They have such a big name, but they’re just normal people that live life every day like everybody else. And I got with them in 2018, went into 2019, and that was one of the biggest years.

And then I got an opportunity to go race with rallycross in the Lites car. And it was so much fun. It was like, it’s still to this day, even though I’m back into rallycross, it still to this day doesn’t feel like it actually happened because it was such a dream and then it became a reality.

I still don’t think I’ve processed it. But the Lites cars were so much fun to drive, and it’s crazy to be back around them, even though I’m not necessarily in one, getting to watch them and be around them and watch, you know, everything going on and watching Lia race them is so much fun.

Tiongson: I can just imagine because like the way you’re describing it, it’s almost like living in a dream and you want someone to not to pinch you. Because if you do, then you’re back to where you didn’t want to be. You want to be living the dream, right?

Leadbetter: Yeah, I guess that’s one way to put it.

Tiongson: I think it’s so cool. And, you know, the thing that I really admire about you, Gray, is that you’re just willing to do anything because a couple years ago, I think you raced 410 wing sprints and the World of Outlaws and the All Star Circuit, which is going to be the High Limit Racing Series next year. When you did these previous racing series in motocross and rallycross and all of that, how did they help you with the dirt track stuff?

Leadbetter: Everything works together. One of the biggest people in my life was Patrik Sandell, and still is he. I met him a few years ago. I went to Sweden in 2017 to go drive a Lites car on ice, which again, does not feel like it happened. But the biggest thing (from him) is drive anything that you can drive. And there’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s not necessarily the NASCAR route of going go karts and then late models and ARCA.

If you have the opportunity to drive something, you drive it. So, I went and rode dirt bikes and then I went into go karts, and then I drove Legend cars. And I’ve driven many Outlaws and I’ve driven a late model, and I’ve driven an ARCA car and I’ve driven side by side at rally cars and this and that. And then I had the opportunity to drive sprint cars, and it was like, I have a picture of myself standing next to a wing of one when I was 12 years old, 11 years old, and didn’t even know what they were at the time.

And I don’t think I did for another few years after that. But I have a picture of myself, and little did I know that however many years later, I’d be racing one. Nonetheless, the World of Outlaws World Finals being my second race ever in a 410 was insane.

Tiongson: I can imagine. It’s like being thrusted from middle school. And here you are in grad school all of a sudden, right? You’re like, hello, here I am.

Leadbetter: Yeah, for sure.

Tiongson: Now let’s talk about more of your recent efforts kind of led into it about you racing at Phoenix in early November. You raced at Phoenix for Rounds 4 and 5 of the SXS Series. But what did it mean for you to get a great finish? You got a podium on Saturday, and you got a fourth the next day. How awesome was that for you?

By all means, Gray Leadbetter knows how to get a podium finish. (Photo: Nate Christenson Photography)

Leadbetter: Yeah, it felt really good to get it. I have been working towards it all season of that, and I’ve been finishing right off the box every single time, and it’s been very tough and just trying to like mentally be like, “OK, now I’ve got to push forward the next race and then push forward the next race.” But everybody that I raced against in that class is incredible, and we have so much fun in the pits, nonetheless. At Utah, we would go race, come off the track. Everybody would be super competitive on the track.

We all raced each other clean, but we’re all really like nice to each other in a way because we don’t want to wreck each other because if we wreck, there’s only so many guys that fix the cars because it’s a spec series. And if somebody crashes somebody and they can’t race, then that’s one person out of the class and that’s not what we want. So, everybody goes out and we race each other hard but super clean.

And then we come back in, and we will have Gel Blaster fights and we’ll be hitting each other with Gel Blasters for like 20 minutes after we get off the track. And we’re all laughing and just running around the cars in between, and the fans are looking at us like we’re crazy. But I mean, in reality, most of us are still kids that race, that class, and we just all have fun and have such a blast with each other.

Tiongson: I love that because like when I saw clips of what you guys do. You guys are like family members and you guys care. So, it’s pretty authentic from what I observed, right?

Leadbetter: Yeah, for sure. There’s nothing else… I don’t think I’ve ever really raced anything like it. And it’s not like the Lites cars or the e-cars, those are incredible to watch. But everybody’s on their own team. Everybody’s separated, which is how most racing is.

So then to come into the side by side class and everybody be connected, everybody be under one tent, and nobody ever gets mad at each other, nobody ever has anything against each other. We all hang out. We all talk to each other. We all help each other too. And so, it’s just such a tight knit sport and it’s such a tight group of guys that help there. And it’s so much fun.

Tiongson: That’s what I love because I watch some clips from like the last couple of years and I just think like, you know, in NASCAR when something happens with hard racing, people complain, but then you guys are just like having a good time sometimes apologizing. And I was like, wow, this is such class. Where can we find this kind of stuff elsewhere? And I’m like, oh, Nitrocross has it. It’s really cool.

Obviously, I’ve never driven a car. I just drove a Tesla Model S at Cota, which is not exciting. But for me, it was. For anybody like me who’s never been in a Nitrocross car, what’s the most comparable experience to being in that vehicle?

Leadbetter: Gosh, I have no idea. I think in the side by side it would be driving a side by side, simply anybody, because it’s essentially driving a Can-Am is you can go buy one off the shelf and then take it to the Woods Trail or take it on the road if you make it street legal like we can in North Carolina. And that is what we race. There’s really not much difference to it. We put a roll cage in it, of course, seatbelts and race seats.

But in all reality, it’s just a car that somebody else can go buy, which is insane. (laughs) But that’s what makes the class so unique. And then for the lights cars and things like that, I’m not sure there’s anything that can compare to it. I think the closest thing to driving a car would just be an electric car, because it’s those cars are so fast it’s insane.

Tiongson: Oh yeah, for sure. When people think about an e-car, you’re just thinking, oh, carbon neutral and friendly to the environment. And you’re like, when you put your foot in the gas pedal, you’re like, “Uh, no. Yeah, this, this baby can go quick,” you know? So, I’m like, I have a lot more respect for sure. Oh goodness gracious.

Now, obviously this sounds like a job interview question. I hate asking these, but I have to anyways. Ideally, what’s the happy path for you with your career if everything works out for you in the long run with motorsports?

Leadbetter: Anything that can drive. That is what I’ve always said. And I think that’s like people ask me what’s the most fun thing you’ve ever driven? And I’d just say, whatever I drove last, whether it’s a sprint car, whether it’s a side by side, whether it’s a mini, whether it’s a late model, I don’t anything for that matter if I drove it last and that’s the last thing I have my mind set to, then that’s the most fun thing I’ve driven until I go get into something else.

And it’s just… I have so much fun with any aspect of any of it, that if an opportunity were to arise, I would take it. And whether it be asphalt or dirt or whatever it might be, road course, circle track, anything. I’ve always had just had the passion to go fast and be a race car.

Tiongson: You’re very old school for a young driver. I mean, I’m sitting here thinking AJ Foyt or Mario Andretti or Tony Stewart even, and I’m like, “You know what? This is exciting, I love this.” So you literally could probably go Texas Motor Speedway, and you’d be like, “I’ll do a Truck race.”

Leadbetter: Any of it! Put me in something and I’ll drive it. (chuckles)

Tiongson: There you go, NASCAR owners. Get Gray Leadbetter in the car for sure. Now, for my last question for you. Based on your answers, I feel like this is going to be a really unpredictable answer here. If you had the opportunity to build a racetrack anywhere around the world, what kind of track would you build and where would it be?

Leadbetter: I only say this because I know that there actually is a place that could do it. There’s 300 acres right off the highway in Morganton where I live. And when I say right off the highway, I mean, you drive past it and you can see it.

And it’d be a dream to put an off road track there because it’s actually in a pretty good area because we’re only an hour and a half from Charlotte, and it’s North Carolina, which is head of NASCAR, but it’s still motorsports in general. But that would be incredible. Other than that, I’m not sure. I haven’t put too much thought in about it.

Tiongson: But I like the idea anyway because it sounds very unique and not your typical cookie cutter answer. So, on point for you for sure. And, uh, is there anything you want to say to the fans, your fans, or anybody who’s learning about you for the first time that’s going to listen to this interview or read it?

If it has wheels and can go fast, Gray Leadbetter will drop the hammer at will. (Photo: Nate Christenson Photography)

Leadbetter: I don’t think so. I think just whoever wants to get in motorsports, if there’s anybody out there, just put your mind to it. If you’re younger, go to a go kart track, go to a dirt track. There’s dirt flat karts too, I mean anything.

We’re going to drive minivans next week or this week. We’re going to race minivans. So, you really can race anything, for that matter. And just as long as you put your heart to it and you keep your mind set to it, you can pretty much do anything.

Tiongson: Minivan racing…. what will we think of next? Wow. That’s. My aunt would be happy about that. So, I should tell her about this.

Leadbetter: I just got a text message that said, “Hey, be ready to go to Florida next week and we’re going to race minivans.” I was just like, “OK, sure!” (laughs)

Tiongson: It’s awesome. Well, I hope you get to stop by the “Hot Seat” again because this was a lot of fun and just it’s nice to meet somebody refreshing who doesn’t want to be one track minded and is multi-dimensional as you, Gray. So, it was such an honor to talk to you for the “Hot Seat.”

Leadbetter: Thank you. I appreciate it.

Editor’s Notes

Special thanks to Gray Leadbetter for taking the time to talk after Rounds 4 and 5 of the Nitrocross season at Phoenix. Along with The Podium Finish, follow Gray’s efforts on her official FacebookInstagram and X accounts! Also, check out Gray’s interview in podcast and YouTube format now!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rob Tiongson is a 30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught his eyes. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by him or by one of his talented columnists who have a passion for racing. Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. He enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat. Tiongson, a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, pursues his Master of Arts in Digital Journalism at St. Bonaventure University. Indeed, while Tiongson is proud to be from Massachusetts, he's an everywhere kind of man residing in Texas.

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More in Nitrocross