Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images
Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

Grinding like a rock star: B.J. McLeod savors every moment in NASCAR climb

Editor’s Note: This story originally was published on May 20, 2020. NASCAR.com is resurfacing it with the news of Live Fast Motorsports — a team co-owned by B.J. McLeod — will field a NASCAR Cup Series team in 2021

Vinnie Miller remembers one particularly tense moment from his NASCAR Xfinity Series debut, an encounter he thought had the potential for physical harm. Then a 20-year-old rookie in September 2017, Miller had just completed final practice at Chicagoland Speedway, clocking his best lap on his final lap of the session before parking for the day.

After exiting his JD Motorsports No. 0 entry, Miller saw a dark, hulking figure walking his way. Oh jeez, he’s big, he thought, realizing his all-black wardrobe was the fire suit of a fellow driver.

As a first-timer, Miller’s weekend was as much about figuring out his way around the track as it was learning who people were in the garage. The second learning experience was coming quick, with steely eyes and an intimidating stance. Miller’s mind rewound: Did I cut someone off? Did I mess up someone else’s run?

Then B.J. McLeod broke the tension.

“He came over and told me, ‘Hey, man, nice lap. That’s impressive as a rookie,’ ” Miller recalled about his first encounter with the one-time acquaintance who would later become his car owner and friend. Relieved, Miller thanked him and asked for pointers, which were freely given.

That moment was Miller’s introduction not only to NASCAR’s national scene but to one of its busiest and hardest workers. McLeod has carved out his own niche as the owner of a scrappy three-car organization in the Xfinity Series, a driver for another Xfinity outfit, a part-time driver in the Cup Series and somewhat improbably the leading figure behind a start-up Cup Series team that bears his name, born during a worldwide health crisis.

Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images
Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

And McLeod has done it all with a skull-and-pinstripes appearance that’s a blend of Harley-Davidson chic and hard-rock couture.

“He looks like he ought to be in a metal band, which stands out a lot in our series,” said Tommy Joe Martins, who drove for McLeod on a part-time basis the last three seasons. “We’re doing this for sponsors, clean-cut and all this. I think B.J.’s just being himself. He showed me — that’s just how he’s always looked. This is not an act. He’s not going through a phase. This is just B.J. That’s just who he is. And he is the same B.J. with you when he’s happy, and he’s the same when he’s mad. He is a genuine person. I really mean that.”

It hasn’t been a passing phase for McLeod, who says he didn’t realize his look was distinct until his later teenage years. He laughs when he recalls one of Martins’ other assessments, telling him he would fit in alongside Sylvester Stallone with the cast of bruising special-forces mercenaries in the 2010 film “The Expendables.”

STATS: B.J. McLeod: The driver

“I have definitely always been this way,” McLeod said. “I’ve had black hair, pink hair, red hair, blue hair, blond hair. I have worn chains, worn baggy jeans. I’ve done all kind of different combinations, and it’s literally just because it’s what I want to do. I’ve never done anything for attention; I didn’t even know all the way through school that I would really be that different as far as wardrobe and stuff. It’s just something I’ve always done. I’m definitely happy to still dress the way I do and have fun as far as the way I look.”

The raised-eyebrow reactions he’s after now are less about his dress or his slicked-back, now nearly shoulder-length hair than how his B.J. McLeod Motorsports group has strived to make incremental gains in a competitive field, how he has managed to fulfill an ambitious childhood dream as a former stock-car prodigy and about how he’s branching out in hopes of cultivating ever-deeper roots in the sport he has always loved.

‘The real Boy Wonder’

When you ask drivers how long they have been racing, more than one will usually say “as long as I can remember.” McLeod’s history actually predates his memory. He can recollect fuzzy details of powering a four-wheeler on a flat dirt track against a field of preschoolers at age 2 1/2. The 70-cc Honda he rode required him to fumble with the gears to shift up and down. Or so he has been told.

“I have never known life without looking forward to a race,” said McLeod, who followed an accelerated path in racing growing up in the central Florida community of Wauchula, about 50 miles southeast of Tampa. ATVs led to go-karts by age 5, and eight state championships came after. McLeod made the sizable step to driving a Super Late Model by 12 and winning in the division at 13 at Orlando Speedworld. He then shattered another youth mark with a start on the competitive American Speed Association (ASA) circuit just before his 14th birthday. The series’ previous record-holder: an 18-year-old Mark Martin.

The rise drew notice from the area press. An offseason feature in the Jan. 8, 1998, edition of The Orlando Sentinel featured a smiling McLeod with checkered flag in hand beside his black No. 78 car above a headline reading: “The real Boy Wonder.” The banner was a not-so-veiled reference to the concurrent heyday of Jeff Gordon, another young star who had claimed his second premier-series championship just two months earlier.

STATS: B.J. McLeod: The owner

The headline may have alluded to Gordon’s ascent with a passing wink, but the 14-year-old McLeod embraced the comparison with brimming confidence. “My goal is to be the best,” McLeod told The Sentinel then. “Just like Jeff Gordon, all the way through. But better.” The article also included McLeod’s teenage blueprint for how he’d get there: Xfinity Series regular by 18, Cup Series driver full time by 20, Cup Series champion by 23.

“Well obviously, I didn’t get better than Jeff Gordon,” McLeod, now 36, said with a chuckle. “I couldn’t even come close to that, but I think at that point at that age, I just really wanted to set really high goals and work toward them. If I went back then or looked from now, I’m still very happy with where we’ve been able to get to. I had to do it a little bit different way than what I thought I would end up doing it, but it’s been a fun journey and met a lot of good people and had a lot of fun getting where we are right now.

“I think I just wanted to push myself to be better, even though just being the same would’ve been great.”

As with most journeys, his path to NASCAR’s national ranks wasn’t a straight line. After his teenage years, McLeod found no shortage of work with his family’s construction business once a particularly rough hurricane season tore through his home state in 2004. Gander Trucks or Xfinity Series rides didn’t come calling until 2010, but he continued to stay sharp by winning on local tracks and serving as a top instructor at FinishLine Racing School, a proving ground for aspiring racers outside of Orlando, Florida.

Becoming a driver-owner operating on a budget wasn’t part of the plan that the 14-year-old McLeod ambitiously detailed back in 1998. But having auto racing become his livelihood? He could see that coming for as long as he can remember.

“I’ve done a lot of cool stuff at a young age in racing and have always been working toward that,” McLeod said. “It’s been a lifelong deal. It didn’t start at 15 or 18 or any of that stuff. I’ve been in this forever. I never wanted to make a living any way other than racing.”

Building blocks

McLeod’s first steps into the Xfinity Series as a driver/owner in 2016 meant carrying reasonable aspirations, placing the team’s goals at the opposite end of what his 14-year-old self had imagined and maybe even a notch lower. He told a trusted member of his crew what his humble target would be — 35th place in the 40-car field. McLeod was told he could do better, but he wanted to keep his hopes on the modest side and build from there. He ran every race that year, cracked the top 20 four times and — buoyed by his persistence — took 20th in the series’ final standings.

McLeod adjusted the goal the next year, but only by a few spots.

2020 May20 Mcleod Martins Main Image
Twitter: @tommyjoemartins

“I started driving for them in 2017 with B.J.,” Martins said, “and I’ll say right now I thought that they were probably the worst team in the Xfinity Series, and I would tell him that, and he knew that when he called me. … That’s where we’re at. And so I drove for them the first three races and he literally was like, ‘Let’s maybe finish top 30.’ That was our goal, and if we did that, it was great.”

After a 29th at Pocono Raceway and a 28th at Michigan International Speedway, Martins kicked off the summer with B.J. McLeod Motorsports with a career-best 11th at Iowa Speedway — a finish that kept him in the fold and that helped the team realize some of its earliest performance benchmarks.

“He has been very smart and now he’s got his organization up to three cars and he’s able to start building, but it’s been a plan,” Martins said. “It’s been a long-term vision that he’s had.”

The process has been methodical, but it has gradually built to where McLeod can propose placing stakes among the top half of the Xfinity Series field on a week-to-week basis. It has helped having a keen eye for talent from his years as a driving instructor, identifying drivers who outrun better-funded names they maybe shouldn’t. It’s why he took a chance on Martins and part of how he made the choice to field full-time cars for Miller and teammate Matt Mills.

The goal now: Turning the stray top-15 finishes into more frequent occurrences before eventually trying to chip away at the top 12 or top 10.

“I’ve had to work and it will take longer than it would some, because we did come without that much of a budget, and I’m still happy with the way we’ve done it and the progress we’ve made because we literally have a top-15 team, give or take, almost each week right now and that’s something I’m very happy about,” McLeod said. “I’m telling you, you can watch it on TV and look at it and think about it, this series is hard. It’s unreal how hard it is to be able to run in the top 20, top 15. And it’s fun for me knowing that side, as a driver and an owner.”

One of the first pushes toward that goal came before the coronavirus shutdown with Miller’s Leap Day run at Auto Club Speedway. His No. 78 Chevrolet started last after an issue in qualifying, but Miller gained ground and stayed on the lead lap, still riding the used, scuffed-in tires the team had to rely on all day.

RELATED: Xfinity Series standings

By the time a caution flag flew with 23 laps left, Miller was eager to add to the team’s steady progress, even if came out of his own wallet.

“I was talking on the radio and I was telling someone to go buy me a set of stickers,” Miller said, hoping for fresh rubber for the final green-flag run. “I didn’t care what it would cost, I’d pay for it right after the race. I could’ve sworn to God that the set they put on were stickers, but when I got out of the car, they swore up and down it wasn’t. It was literally a mismatched set from four different sets we had on the ground.”

The result: 15th and on the lead lap, outplacing teams with Cup Series-level backing and all with pre-worn tires.

“I think we’ve proven that we want to be here a long time,” McLeod said. “I plan on being here decades as an owner and for a long time as a driver, and I want to be one of the mainstays for a long time in NASCAR as far as an organization. That’s what we’re working on making it happen, and I think everybody sees that and knows the effort we’re putting in. It’s going to take a little time, but we’re going to keep working and making progress.”

‘A racer down to the bone’

Who starts a race team during a pandemic? McLeod had already made 42 starts in NASCAR’s top division before the COVID-19 shutdown, but he and his wife, Jessica, always held visions of seeing the No. 78 from his Late Model days on a Cup Series car he owned, even if it only happened once.

McLeod’s group had already put its Xfinity Series operations on solid footing with a built-out fleet. Once stay-at-home orders lifted, it created almost another offseason for McLeod’s team to prep. He turned focus to making the Cup Series idea a reality, enticed in part by budget-friendly single-day shows without the wear and tear of practice or qualifying.

Chris Graythen | Getty Images
Chris Graythen | Getty Images

That first voyage in The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway ended after an unlucky 13 laps with a failed radiator hose, one of the perils of competing with used parts. But McLeod still sees the opportunity to run approximately 15 Cup Series races this season, taking care not to divert any resources from his Xfinity Series program.

McLeod said he aims to field the Cup Series car only when he’s able, both time-wise and budget-wise. With expansion of an already busy operation, spare time is in short supply.

“He’s just a racer down to the bone, man. Down to the heart,” Miller said. “He loves racing. It’s his passion, his business and that’s what he loves to do. I don’t think there’s a single moment of the day that he won’t pick up the phone or answer the phone to do business and make sure everything’s going right to expand his business. We’ll hang out on the lake a lot and even then, he’ll probably answer five phone calls an hour with something to do with the shop or getting to the track. Then when he’s at the track, you hardly ever see him. He’s always out trying to get tire deals for us and work on parts deals. He’s just always working at it.

“He does have a strong work ethic. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team owner run and do as much stuff as him.”

MORE: Jayski: B.J. McLeod driver news

That hustle is fueled as much by his desire to race as the relationships he has built along the way, whether it’s with sponsors, fellow competitors or series officials. Those bonds have made driver-owner partnerships feel more like family for Miller and Mills, and they’ve kept him friendly with Martins, even after he amicably left to drive elsewhere last season.

“I learned at a young age that networks are everything,” McLeod said. “You’re only as powerful as the people around you and able to make things happen because people like you. I’ve always thought instead of how do I get somebody to like me, I just thought, ‘You know, I’ll just treat ’em right and if they like you, they like you, and if they don’t, they don’t.’ If you keep treating people right and you’re up front and you say what you’re going to do business-wise, and if you can’t abide by it, then you look them in the face and say, ‘Hey, I made a mistake or I did this wrong.’ As long as you communicate and treat people right, I’ve found it very simple to build networks and be able to make stuff happen further than what my reach would have been from where I started out. That’s absolutely key to getting from where I was born to what I’m able to do now.”

That means making inroads up the Xfinity Series pecking order, expanding his team’s impact and walking the delicate balance between being a driver and a car owner. The kid in McLeod still enjoys the thrill of speed each week, but the ownership side of “moving the chess pieces” has its own appeal, of doing a lot with a little.

Either way, he’s savoring the ride — rock-star vibe and all.

“I have a lot of things going on every weekend that are a lot of fun to look forward to, whether it goes good or bad,” McLeod said. “It’s a lot of living, and I want to be alive. I love living life, trying to do everything I can with every day that I’m blessed with living.”