RACING

NASCAR driver BJ McLeod’s dream of winning races, the will to achieve it remains strong

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Whether it’s never finishing in the top five of a NASCAR National Series race or penchant for the color black, heavy necklaces, multiple metal rings and t-shirts with images of skulls and flames that make it sound like he’s the lead singer of some tough rock band, it’s easy to develop misconceptions about BJ McLeod.

But to really know McLeod is to know one of NASCAR’s most respected personalities. He’s a driver that other drivers hold in high esteem and a team owner that NASCAR executives listen to when he speaks.

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The admiration for McLeod, 38, can be seen in a variety of ways. On the NASCAR side, McLeod owns Cup and Xfinity Series teams operating on reduced budgets, which is a prospect that has proven invaluable as NASCAR works with team owners on various revenue reduction initiatives. costs. At owners’ meetings, McLeod is known for his silence, only raising his voice when he feels he has something worthwhile to contribute. When it comes time to have the floor, he makes it count.

“You probably underestimate BJ at the start. You see him in the Cup series or the Xfinity series probably finishing up the back end, and you’re making assumptions about BJ that are completely wrong,” said Steve O’Donnell, director of NASCAR operation.” But he’s an incredible Super Late Model racer and he’s got a ton of wins. And then when you sit down with him and talk about the business and what we want to do as a sport, he has some of the best ideas I’ve heard.

“He has a great perspective. When he talks to you about the direction he would like to see the sport take, he totally agrees. It’s really difficult for a driver and an owner to have a global view of the sport. Of course, everyone wants to go faster; they want to win races. But it’s rare for someone to say, “OK, maybe it’s not in my interest, but it would help the sport to grow.” He has that perspective, which is great.

Among the drivers, McLeod is seen as someone who goes out of his way to try not to interfere with a faster competitor. This is all the more important as McLeod’s Cup team Live Fast Motorsports are at the bottom of the competition ladder, which often puts them in a position where they are likely to be overtaken by the leader several times during a race.

The respect McLeod has for those he races against has not gone unnoticed.

“He’s one of my favorites in the garage because I feel like BJ is the driver for the driver,” Kevin Harvick said. “For me, I always pull over and have good conversations with BJ about anything. It could be anything. You never know.”

Harvick isn’t the only former champion to be a member of the BJ McLeod Fan Club. Kyle Busch’s disdain for slow car racing is well documented, yet McLeod avoided Busch’s wrath and earned his respect.

“He’s got this persona, or this look of him, and you’re like, ‘Man, I don’t want to talk to this guy. He’s gonna kick my ass,” Busch said. “But he’s super cool and super cool about the things we talk about.

“Like when I had the whole run-in car deal a few years ago (involving Garrett Smithley in Las Vegas, September 2019) where we got into it during the race, (McLeod) came to me and told me says he doesn’t understand how these guys can’t understand this and just be on the sidelines not looking at what’s happening behind them when they’re four laps away from the race and why do they have to run in the pacing. He just takes a different point of view. He takes it upon himself to make sure he’s not a story, and I love him for that. I think it takes a lot of character.”

When McLeod is informed of the praise offered by Harvick and Busch, he nods and a broad smile spreads across his face. Understanding the competitive limitations of Live Fast, McLeod doesn’t want to be the reason other drivers don’t earn a finish they otherwise deserve. Hearing Harvick and Busch compliment him is something McLeod really appreciates.

“Kyle Busch helped me every time I asked him a question,” McLeod said. “He answers it and spends time with me. And Kevin does the same. To be at the top level of any type of sport for 20 years like he did is very, very rare. Not a lot of people get away with it. And asking him a question and getting an answer is very valuable to me. And I’ve always tried to do that when I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by successful people.

“They were both really, really cool helping me out with the time they had. It’s special for me to have that.

A look at McLeod’s modest record might make one wonder if he has the chops to run at Cup level. But again, that’s another misperception about him.

Growing up in Southwest Florida, McLeod’s racing career began when he started racing ATVs around the age of 5, which quickly progressed to getting behind the wheel of a go-kart. Success soon followed. He won several races and championships, and within a few years moved up to full-bodied cars, eventually settling into racing a Super Late model at the age of 12.

The following year, McLeod won division championships at two different tracks in Florida. His many accomplishments combined with his youth seemingly put him on the fast track to stardom as NASCAR experienced a meteoric rise in popularity and opportunities were plentiful for young drivers.

But McLeod’s path to NASCAR’s top tier deviated as the opportunities never fully materialized. The pursuit of stardom was put on hold as he focused on working in the family’s construction business while continuing to race short tracks all over Florida. It wasn’t until 2010 that he made his first Truck Series start, with his Cup and Xfinity debut in 2015.

“I definitely took too long (to get to this point), but I had to do it the way I had to in order to be able to survive and stay here,” he said.


BJ McLeod made his first Truck Series start in 2010, and his Cup and Xfinity debut came in 2015. (Denny Medley/USA Today)

McLeod has since become a cult favorite within NASCAR since starting to field his own truck team in 2014, followed by the creation of an Xfinity team two years later and a Cup program in 2020. the latter part-time.

But the move that turned heads and further solidified McLeod’s place in NASCAR came after the 2020 season. Teaming up with former driver Matt Tifft, whom McLeod had known since he was an instructor for Tifft in a driving school in Florida, they formed Live Fast and partnered with Joe Falk to secure a charter guaranteeing entry to every Cup race. McLeod drives the car in the majority of races, with other drivers taking the wheel when deemed best for the team based on performance and budget.

Buoyed by NASCAR’s evolving business model, McLeod has been among a group of team owners to build full-time Cup teams since the start of the 2021 season. But while he has visions of grandeur , his plan to build his team at this level is different from how 23XI Racing’s Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan, Matt Kaulig (Kaulig Racing) and Justin Marks (Trackhouse Racing) have built their respective organizations.

The Live Fast team members understand the challenges that a small team with modest finances faces. The reality of the situation keeps expectations in check. But McLeod and his wife of 19 years, team CEO Jessica, are confident they can make Live Fast a winning team.

“We said it would be a dream to reach the top,” Jessica said. “Our goal has always been to get to this point, and that was achieved last year. We’ve just been pushing and building together all this time.

McLeod added: “She was the one who always gave me the backbone to go do the crazy stuff I did. We had to take risks together. She was the one who, when I had an idea, didn’t shoot me down or drag me back or say, “Well, that’s never going to work.” She did nothing but push and be positive, and I can tell you now why we have a Cup team.

NASCAR executives and drivers aren’t the only ones who appreciate everything McLeod has done to establish himself. Fans also took note.

When JR Motorsports needed a last-minute replacement driver for an injured Michael Annett for last year’s Xfinity summer race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the team first asked McLeod to fill in. A deluge of enthusiastic tweets hailed JRM’s decision. And when JRM later changed course, tabbing Austin Dillon, messages emerged encouraging McLeod.

“I think the thing about BJ is he loves racing,” Harvick said. “And he’s in the race for all the runners’ reasons and building a successful business, and they’re just good people, that’s the most important thing.”

O’Donnell said, “I think he’s a cool guy. I think if more people knew him he would be a superstar. Because he’s a really cool guy, a smart guy and a great runner. And it looks cool when it walks (in the garage). The guy is a badass.

The two McLeods laugh when asked about BJ’s affinity for skulls, including a tattoo on his left shoulder and Live Fast incorporating the symbol into his logo. He knows he has a unique look among Cup team owners, and that’s okay. Roger Penske prefers starched white shirts and ironed black trousers; McLeod’s thing is black T-shirts and skulls. Everyone has their thing.

“I’m actually going to help with that answer,” Jessica said with a laugh. “It’s kind of funny because it’s not just a random thing. Really, there are pictures of him when he was probably 3 years old in a skull costume. It’s just something he likes. And it was appropriate when we were choosing a logo, I was like, ‘Well, this is really who you are, so I’m telling you to stay true to yourself, and let’s go.'”

McLeod has stayed true to himself every step of the way. And while the dream he had as a teenager racing in Florida of winning a NASCAR race may never come true, that dream and the drive to make it happen remains.

“I want to prove that I’m a competitor,” he said. “I know once you get to that level you can be 20th and be a winner. You can be 30th and be a winner. It is extremely difficult there. But I just want to prove that I could be a competitor with the right equipment under the right circumstances. Even if it’s just one for a run. Because once you are, people around can see it, and that’s what I’ve always tried to do.

(Photo: Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today)

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