Paraplegic Races From Tragedy to Victory on Track

Times Staff Writer

He arrived at 11, barely in time to enter the preliminary heats. The pit area was already packed with racing machines whose motors screamed and squawked at the command of drivers, many of them kids in colorful uniforms. The sun, which had been late too, bored through air that held dust and gnats.

Michael Leckich, 28, who had overslept at his home in Long Beach Sunday morning, joked: "as long as I get to the finish line faster than I got to the track."

He then slid his 270 pounds out of his pickup truck and into a wheelchair.

He rolled next to his Honda Odyssey race car and prepared to transfer to it. Would he fit? With length as well as bulk, Leckich was a load. When he last stood a dozen years ago on the morning of the day he became a paraplegic at a motorcycle race, he rose to 6 feet, 4 1/2 inches.

The Odyssey looked like a dune buggy. A maze of Jungle Gym-type bars formed a sort of cage. The motor was in the back, exposed, and an aerodynamic foil served as a roof. The tires were thick and had no fenders.

Leckich's face trembled as he used his huge arms to struggle up from the chair and lean toward the car. His friend, Cordis Brooks, lifted Leckich's legs through the bars and pushed and wrenched the torso until finally, miraculously, Leckich was seated in the car. His stomach, a mound under a T-shirt, was strapped in tightly. A buckle was fastened over his dusty Nikes.

He put on gloves, goggles and a black helmet that hid his beard and curly hair. Then he revved up the engine and sipped a soft drink.

"It takes a long time putting this stuff on," Leckich said, "but I don't want to get hurt doing this."

And not just because he fears the ordeal--so familiar to him--of having to lie in bed for weeks. "If I got hurt, it would hurt my mother, who doesn't want me to race," he said.

The Odyssey competition would consist of two heats and a main event at the shadeless Carlsbad Speedway in northern San Diego County, where only rarely did all the engines stop long enough to let the crickets in the surrounding ridges get a word in edgewise.

'I'm Out Here' for Fun

"I expect to have a good time," Leckich said. "That's what I'm out here for."

There was no big money to be won but the purse (75% of the total entry fees) might be enough to cover the cost of gasoline.

Leckich, who ranked 35th in the nation last year in the Odyssey super modified class, roared onto the one-fifth-mile oval dirt track. While the other cars slid wildly sideways through the turns, Leckich kept his car at the bottom, or inside, of the track, as if it were on an invisible groove. He finished second in the first heat and won the second one. He would be a good bet in the final.

During the long waits between races, Leckich and Brooks--who also raced--tinkered with the car while Brooks' girlfriend, Joan Ahearn, sunbathed in a bikini in the back of the truck. When needed, she would grab a wrench and pitch in.

Leckich talked of his racing addiction, which started when he was in the seventh grade on the first day his father took him to a motorcycle race.

"I didn't go to dances," he said. "I'd just come home and work on my motorcycle, and on weekends I'd go to the desert and race."

He raced so well that he quickly progressed from novice class to expert.

Then, on June 2, 1974, three days before the end of his sophomore year at Pius X High School, Leckich flew over the handlebars during a desert race in Lucerne Valley and severed his spinal cord.

"You never get used to this ordeal, but less and less things bug me about being in the chair," said Leckich, who is paralyzed from the chest down. "As time goes on, things don't get better but they're not as bad. The frustrations are fewer and farther between. You avoid situations where your limitations show the most. I don't go to the snow because my legs get cold and that could be dangerous, and I'd just sit around wishing I could ski. I do go to the river where I can slide in right off my chair and swim."

Leckich lives with his parents.

"I'd rather spend money on (racing) than rent," he said. "I can't take out the trash or mow the lawn, but I can help by cooking and doing the grocery shopping."

He never doubted he would get back into racing--his first Odyssey race was in the summer of 1980.

"A lot of people tell me, 'I couldn't do it if I were in your position,' " Leckich said. "But it's not a big deal what I've done. I'm not a big deal."

Last June, in a race at Pomona, Leckich's car flipped several times and landed on a concrete barrier. He broke a leg, a foot and an ankle and was in a cast for 12 weeks. He felt no pain, of course, and the doctor who repaired the damage told him to feel glad about that.

Still, he keeps racing.

"It's good for me," he said. "I have no death wish. I want to live for a hundred years, and I want to do this (race) as long as it's fun."

The green flag came down on the main event just past 4 and the engines buzzed like angry insects. As about 100 people watched from a grandstand and another 100 from a hillside, Leckich started in second place in an eight-car field.

He stayed on the leader's tail for two laps of the eight-lap race, then passed him and pulled away, churning the dirt at 50 m.p.h. on the straightaways, then staying tight on the turns, just as he had planned.

He won $67, which did pay for the gas.

On the morning after the race, Leckich went to work at the Leckich Co. Machine Shop in Paramount. The shop is owned by his father, Jerry Leckich, a former electrician and race car driver who tries to build racing engines with enough horsepower to overcome his son's weight. Michael helps build the engines.

Jerry Leckich is a hulking 57-year-old man of 350 pounds, with enormous hands and a fleshy face. He wore a dirty blue shirt that had a dozen pens and pencils in one of its pockets.

"Proud of him? Certainly I am," said Jerry, whose voice confirmed that he once lived in Mississippi. "But sometimes I could pinch his head off."

He explained why.

"Michael's got a lot of potential, he's very intelligent. I hoped he'd amount to something in the business world; I didn't expect he'd be a small-time operator. He took off like a house afire in life, everything he tackled he could turn it into success. He was the best at riding motorcycles."

Michael, who said his 3.84 grade-point average made him the class valedictorian at Pius X, attended California State University, Long Beach, for 2 1/2 years but quit when his dad opened the shop in 1978.

'He Wants to Go Party'

"This was more important to me, for me and him (Jerry) to enjoy each other than for me to pursue a career," Michael said. "I could have been in a three-piece suit as a lawyer, but this was best for my situation."

Jerry hasn't been going with his son to races recently.

"He goes out for pizza and beer afterwards," complained Jerry. "I want to get home and work on the next project, but he wants to go party."

Jerry fears for Michael's safety.

"I'm afraid he's going to turn that sucker upside down and the fire will cook him," Jerry said. "I'm concerned with something that's going to put his lights out forever."

Jerry watched Michael maneuver his wheelchair.

"Just a catastrophe," Jerry said. "It's pathetic. I look at him in bed--I get up earlier than he does--and I feel so sorry for him I could cry."

Michael, who has had to endure the trauma of many people crying over his bed, understood his father's feelings but didn't share them.

"I don't feel sorry for myself," he said. "I'm too occupied with trying to get to the race track."

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