MECHANIC: Ryan McLeod, from Peter Brock to MARC Cars (Part 2)
By Mat Coch
Sunday 29th November, 2020 - 2:00pm
Careers are defined by seemingly insignificant decisions, sliding door moments that can unwittingly define the path one takes.
And while Ryan McLeod was well on the way to forging a successful career in the motorsport industry, an exchange with Peter Brock at Queensland Raceway in 2002 certainly nudged it along.
McLeod is something of a self-made man. He’s a racer in his own right, owner of a successful retail business and, until recently, headed a race car manufacturing business too.
Things didn’t start off like that, and the early part of his career was spent building or fixing the cars he would race himself.
A turning point came with the arrival of Europcar money, and the prospect of putting together a programme with Mike Imrie to race at the 2002 Supercheap Auto Bathurst 1000.
It was that deal which effectively signalled the end of McLeod’s racing career (which saw him lead the V8 Lites Series for a time in 2000), though he continues to dabble to this day, and he instead began calling the shots from the garage.
Having worked with John Faulkner, an opportunity courtesy of Europcar saw McLeod join up with Imrie.
James Brock was brought in to drive the car, while a shootout at Calder Park was held to determine the identity of his co-driver.
“All these people had been ringing up to drive, and that’s where I met Steve Owen,” McLeod told Speedcafe.com.
“He rocked up there, and he just stood at the back of the trailer all day, and I didn’t really know what was happening or who he was.
“Peter Brock had a little drive of the car, thought it was good. James was driving it as well.
“Then, all of a sudden Steve appeared, and the only way that I recognised he was actually a racing driver, was that he appeared in his Gary Rogers overalls at the back of the truck.
“We put him in a car and we knew pretty much straight away, we didn’t have to look any further.
“I think the first time he went around the track he was two second a lap faster than anyone else had done that day, or a second and a half, or something.”
With Owen secured alongside Brock in the team, there was just one catch; to race in the Bathurst 1000 they would first need to pre-qualify at Queensland Raceway.
It was a notable gamble for the team whose funding from Europcar depended on making the Great Race. Failure, quite simply, wasn’t an option.
“It was sort of loaded bases for everyone,” McLeod admitted.
“After the practice, there was a practice before the pre-qualifying, Steve was faster than James.
“Of course, we needed everything.
“We’re having this briefing about what we’re going to do for the pre-qualifying and Peter was in it.
“I was saying, ‘Right, what we’ll do is we got this set of tyres, and we got that set of tyres, so we’ll send Steve out, he can do this, then we’ll test this’.
“(Brock) said, ‘Hang on a minute. James is doing the pre-qualifying’.”
After some back and forth, James Brock was installed in the car for the session.
“As it transpired, he went out on the track and went into the pre-qualifying and he couldn’t do the time,” McLeod said.
“I think he locked a brake and ran up through the sandtrap and came in.
“There was, literally, five minutes to go in the pre-qualifying session and he just got out of the car and said, ‘Mate, I can’t do it. You’re going to have to put Steve in’, which we did.”
With time for just a single lap, Owen improved on Brock’s time, and in doing so confirmed the team’s place on the grid for both the Queensland Raceway event and, more crucially, the Bathurst 1000.
Over the coming years the Imrie Motorsport team morphed into the Smith’s Trucks operation, fielding Lee Holdsworth for a time alongside a number of customer entries.
McLeod’s story took another turn when he was presented with two similar but very different opportunities.
As the team’s Racing Entitlements Contract was sold to Jason Bright, McLeod had the opportunity to stay on with the new Britek operation, or head to Queensland and join Paul Morris.
He chose the latter, and worked as engineer to Morris alongside Paul Ceprnich who engineered Paul Radisich in the other car.
The relationship with Ceprnich would prove pivotal in future years, but it was a combination of two separate events that would write the next chapter in McLeod’s career.
Having worked for Faulkner earlier in his career, McLeod was asked by Morris to help his former boss close down the operation and sell off its assets.
He rented a workshop and began selling off the assets, using the proceeds to buy stock and lay the foundations of what would become Racer Industries.
“Nearly simultaneously with that, through another friend of ours up here, which is Mark King from King Springs, we’d met this Japanese guy who had come to Australia and he had brought with him some brake pads, which was Project Mu brake pads,” McLeod explained.
“Project Mu is a company in Japan that made brake pads probably really for street drifting and gymkhana and some performance, but they decided to make some racing compounds to race in the Japanese GT Series to promote the product.
“He ended up with some of them here, and Mark King pointed him in the direction of Paul.
“The pads turned up at Norwell, a few boxes of pads, and they basically sat there under the benches; things that eventually we’ll get around to trying, (but) never really did.
“Then I scooped them up one time and gave them to Barry Ryan, who I had worked with at John Faulkner’s, and he put them in Steven Richards car at the Grand Prix to test them for me.
“Steve couldn’t believe them; he won the races that weekend in the Jack Daniel’s car.
“He credited the braking performance of the car and that was a bit of a standout moment for the brake pads.”
From there, interest only increased and soon he was supplying a large percentage of the Supercars grid with brake pads.
It didn’t stop there, and word of their performance reached the United States which opened doors into NASCAR.
Racer Industries, courtesy of a box of brake pads that had been dumped under a bench, was flying.
Growth has been almost exponential ever since, with McLeod’s business emerging as a leading player in global motorsport.
And yet, he can still be found, helping customers in the retail store, offering a wealth of first hand advice.
While building Racer Industries, McLeod also came across an opportunity to diversify into car manufacturing.
In 2008 he purchased a Holden Astra with a view to racing it with his father and brother in the Bathurst 12 Hour, which at that stage was still a production car race.
“That started the whole cars thing a little bit because we thought, ‘We’ll, this car goes really well for 12 hours, we need a bigger race’.
“Through Racer Industries, we were supplying parts to customers who were starting to race in Dubai.
“We said, ‘We’ll take it to Dubai’, but then I got the rules. I read the rules and really, you could do a lot more to the car than what you could in production cars.
“Because we knew everything about the Astra as it was Holden helped us out, got us another car.
“We picked that up and went off and that was the start. We went to Dubai and did the 24 hours race.”
Run by the Creventic organisation, it started what has proved to be a fruitful relationship between the pair.
That saw McLeod run the Astra at Barcelona, too, before a deal through Ceprnich offered another opportunity.
“Paul got a bit of a deal to design a car or a prototype car for South Africa,” McLeod explained.
“He came and sat down with me and said, ‘Ryan, what parts do we need?’
“I laid out, if you want to build a car and these are the parts that I’d use and they’re still the parts that we use now, all driveline parts and the mechanical components and different bits of pieces.
“He designed the car, I supplied the bits, the prototype got made, and then when it was finished, we went, ‘That would be a pretty cool car to do these 24 hour races with’.”
The South African deal never went ahead, but it left McLeod and Ceprnich the blueprint for what would become the MARC Car.
Originally the plan was to build one car, but then orders began to arrive and three were made.
The orders didn’t stop, and today 30 of the bespoke racing cars, sporting a thumping eight-cylinder engine, have been built.
“We built the cars and they went fantastically well, and then people started ordering cars,” McLeod explained.
“We took them overseas. We raced with our own team in 2014 and ’15.
“In ’16 we did, I don’t know, 20 Crevantic races overseas, we raced at all the major circuits.
“We went and did the 24 hours out of Zolder in Belgium, and we finished that race on the Sunday afternoon.
“We stayed and worked there in the pit boxes for two days and put the cars back in a rented truck that we had and drove to Spain, got there on Thursday and did a 24 hour race in Spain with all the same people.
“We had a really cool time, and we had these cool cars and everyone came and looked at them; they were loud, and they did big wheelies out of the pit boxes, and they blew flames, and they were V8 powered Ford Focuses and things. No one had seen stuff like that.”
The MARC Cars were a representation of everything McLeod had achieved in his career to date; his ability as a team manager, driver, supplier, and in many instances mechanic.
It was all encompassing, all the while Racer Industries continued to grow.
Inevitably, something had to give, and at the start of 2020 McLeod made the decision to step away from MARC Cars.
“The thing that people don’t see is that whole operation was self-funded,” he reasoned.
“I hadn’t just sold my business for $360 million and I was just going to whittle away a portion of it on setting up a race team.
“I was trying to do that and trying to earn a living.
“Also, I didn’t start with anything. It was self-funded from selling the first three cars off the plans to moving forward.
“(The) Financial side created a lot of stress and then there’s obviously hiccups along the way.
“You have problems, you have failures, you have things that people don’t see, silly things.
“I was so central to the whole thing and maybe I just didn’t give enough of it away to other people to look after.
“Maybe I thought I couldn’t, I don’t know, but it was probably more a bit of burnout than anything else in the end, because it had been a massive programme to be, not singly, but majority responsible for those cars over those years.
“It sort of got to the point where it needed to go to someone that had some more money and could put more people around it, and I needed to let go of it a bit.”
While McLeod may have sold MARC Cars on to new owners, he hasn’t lifted his foot off the throttle.
He’s developed three production car-spec Ford Mustangs, though they’re yet to compete in anger courtesy of the interruptions caused by the pandemic.
His own kids are also now embarking on their own racing careers, and he’s busy preparing cars for them and instilling in them the lessons learned over a career in the industry.
“That’s where my racing energies want to be focused for the next few years,” McLeod reasons.
“I’d probably rather, those boys didn’t have a career in car racing, but if they wanted to, then there’s a few opportunities there for them.
“I think they can still learn a lot of the basics of life out of how to do things properly and how to put effort into things and it equals reward and that works.
“I’m happy to spend some time with them going through that process and showing them how to, hopefully, do it as properly as we can.
“I’ve been lucky that I met (wife) Belinda when I was doing the trade training at Wagga, and so was she, and I actually had the Formula Ford back in that time, 1991.
“So I met her at a time when racing was my focus, So it wasn’t something I inherited along the way, it was already happening.
“I’ve had her support all the way through which has been really good, but, man, I’ve spent some time away travelling, going to racetracks.”
McLeod’s career is remarkable, and the impact he has had on the sport has been widespread; from grass roots racing locally to working with the biggest teams and brands in the motorsport world at a global level.
Throughout there have been moments of triumph and misfortune, with just a little luck sprinkled in for him to capitalise on.
While he may be best known for his involvement in the MARC Cars project, he is one of the key figures in Australian motorsport.