At just 18 years old, North Carolina native Gray Leadbetter has already accomplished so much in her racing career. From being discovered by WRC and Global Rallycross standout Patrik Sandell as a teenager to establishing herself with some of the top teams in short course and rallycross, Leadbetter scored the biggest championship of her career last year when she took the Championship Off-Road Pro Spec class title with Ryan Beat Motorsports. In doing so, she became the first woman to win both a race and a championship at COR’s pro level.
Leadbetter is back with R/BM to defend her title this year, taking the points lead after scoring two second place finishes in the opener from Antigo Lions Roaring Raceway, and will also compete in the Nitrocross season opener at MidAmerica Outdoors in the SXS class. We caught up with her to talk about her career so far, driving so many different cars in her career, and what she’s looking to accomplish next:
First things first: you’ve had quite the career already for somebody who’s just 18, from rallycross to now coming into the 2023 Championship Off-Road season as defending Pro Spec champion. How did you get started in racing, and what have been some of the biggest highlights of your career so far?
I got started when I was technically two years old. I wanted one of the plastic toy Barbie cars you get at Walmart. And my dad essentially said no, because we have a gravel driveway, and he just didn’t wanna listen to it! <laugh> So instead—we had friends that raced dirt bikes and they were like, “Hey, get her this electric formula type thing. She can ride it at that young of an age. And so I ended up loving it, which I don’t remember cause I was only two years old, but I fell in love with it.
And then they were like, “Okay, when she turns three, put her on a PW, put training wheels on it.” I started riding that. There are pictures of me jumping it with training wheels! I started racing that at four—without the training wheels, obviously—but the youngest you could race. And I guess I just fell in love with it. Then around 10 I got into go-karts, and now, somehow, we’re here!
How has your seat time in so many different cars sharpened your skills, and how do the things you’ve learned in one type of racing translate to others?
Yeah, there’s an incredible number of things that I’ve raced and I forget half of them when I’m going down the list! I’ve raced go-karts, mini outlaws, micro 600s, sprint cars, midgets, legend cars, rallycross, side by sides, off-road trucks. I think that’s everything, but I might be missing something. But the levels and types of racing definitely go hand in hand with each other. This past month when I went and drove the electric E car with Travis Pastrana, the 900 horsepower sprint car that I raced actually helped so much before driving that. It’s the same thing with go-karts—they actually help a lot with driving my off-road truck. The Pro Spec truck doesn’t have a lot of power, so you have to drive it more like a go-kart. Because if you start sliding around the turns and spinning the tires, you’re just gonna be slower.
Last year was a historic year for you—you won your first Pro Spec race in the opener at Antigo, and eventually became the first woman to win a Championship Off-Road Pro class title at year’s end. What does it mean to you to have your name in the record books, and what were some of the biggest challenges you faced in taking that title?
When I came out and won the first race, that was completely unexpected. I only had one test day in the truck prior to that race. My goal for the whole year essentially was to just finish every race, stay clean, don’t wreck anything, and do the best I can. And when I came out and I won the first race, I was like, “Okay, well this is gonna go a lot better than I expected!”
It’s crazy to think that I’m the first female to win a Pro championship and a pro race within the series. It’s not something that I actually had recognized or noticed until I came off the track after winning the first race and they were like, “Hey, by the way, you’re the first female to win a pro race.” I was like, “That’s really cool!” It’s something that I didn’t even realize, because yes, I’m a female, but I’ve grown up around all the guys and I just don’t think of myself any different.
But it’s definitely such a good feeling to know that the way the mindset is between males and females (in racing) is changing. Making strides in the sport and knowing that the little girls can like look up to you is amazing, because when a little girl comes up to me in the pits and says “I look up to you!” or “you’re really cool!” or whatever it is, it’s just one of the best parts about the sport.
It also looked like everything was pretty evenly matched on that title hunt. You had four wins out of 12 on the season, but all of you were close in points.
Yeah. There were obviously not many trucks, but the competition was within half a second every single time we went on the track for qualifying, and we were all racing each other very aggressively the whole entire year. Which I absolutely loved, even with there being so few trucks. But we would get up to the podium or we’d get up to staging, and for the most part everybody was friends with each other because there was so few of us, we all raced each other clean for the most part, and we all just had fun even though the competition was tighter than you would think.
I mean we went down to the last round… I think we went into the last event tied for points, and then we went into the last race again tied for points I believe—or at least we were within a point or two of each other, like we were the whole entire year. So even with there being so fewer trucks, I think it actually made winning the championship that much harder, because even if you had a bad race you wouldn’t fall back in points. So everybody was so close all year.
You’ve been fortunate to race with (and for) many of the biggest names in short course over the past few years, from the Greaves family to now Ryan Beat through his team. How valuable has their guidance been over the past few years to help get you to where you are today?
It’s helped a tremendous amount. Getting with the Greaves, Johnny and CJ, was kind of just a fluke thing. A friend of a friend was like, “Hey, we know them, we’re gonna introduce you,” and then I was one of the first drivers they had on their team that wasn’t Johnny or CJ. They brought me on and helped me like grow up, and they treated me like family. I would go up to Wisconsin and stay with them at their house and just have fun all summer. Like we’d go racing, but I would also go and do things with them all summer. I don’t know them as the Johnny and CJ Greaves until I go to the races and there’s everybody coming up to them. But they have helped me such a tremendous amount. They’ve been some of the biggest supporters of my career.
And then I was walking past Ryan Beat’s tent, I believe, in the last race of 2021 at Crandon, and he kind of just called me over. I had never spoken to him before— I knew who he was, I mean I’ve been racing around him for years, but I didn’t know him personally—and he was like, “Hey, if there’s an opportunity next year, depending on what you’re doing, I might want you to have come over and drive this truck for me.” It kind of went dead silent for about two months, but then he messaged me on Instagram and was like, “Hey, here’s my number, call me, I wanna talk to you about this.” He called me up, we talked for a little bit, I learned that his race shop was actually 45 minutes from my house in North Carolina. And next thing I know, I went to the shop, started talking to him. Now here we are!
The short course offseason is long, but you’ve been keeping busy with all sorts of other racing, like a World of Outlaws 410 sprint car and even running the Chili Bowl. What’s most interesting to you about the challenges of dirt oval racing?
The sprint cars—I always say that what I drove last is my favorite thing because I simply can’t make up my mind, but I really think the sprint car is definitely at the top of the list just because it’s so insanely fast and it’s one of the craziest things I’ve ever driven in my life. Everybody that you talk to says it’s really easy to be fast, but it’s really hard to be competitive and be up front, and that’s 100 percent true. It’s definitely helped with racing the truck because it is so fast. Then I get in the truck and it’s slower and there’s not as much happening, if that makes sense, because you’re not racing on a quarter mile over track with 30 other cars. So it definitely translates over because it just helps me mentally slow everything down when I get into the truck.
Just last month, you had the opportunity to go join Travis Pastrana at MidAmerica, see the new track they’ve been building there, and test the Nitrocross Group E car with him in the passenger’s seat. What did it mean to you to get that opportunity, and what was it like to drive that car?
It was crazy, let’s just put it that way! I actually had gone out to an event in Vegas, the Nitrocross Summit. Travis messaged me and we had started talking to him about (Nitrocross), and he was like, “Hey, come out to this thing, I wanna talk to you in person,” because we had talked over the phone a bunch, but never in person. I went out there and we had those meetings, there were a ton of people out there from Nitrocross, drivers included. As we were leaving Las Vegas on Tuesday night, he said “Hey, I’m going to test in Oklahoma next weekend, meet me at the airport Thursday morning and we’ll get you to Oklahoma.” And I was like, “Okay, I’m not gonna say no!” <laugh>.
We went out there and he was like, “I’ll get you in a side by side, you’ll be able to test and make a few laps in a side by side, but it is not promised that I can get you in the Group E car.” And I was like, “I’ll do whatever it takes. I’m just here to hang out, have fun, and learn.” So we went out and I rode passenger with him for most of the time, and so did Terry Madden because he was out there also. Eventually, Travis said he could give me three laps in the car because they were short on tires and obviously they have to do their own testing and that’s more important. And the deal was that the only way I was allowed to drive the car was if Travis were a passenger, which is fine by me. But he was like, “You came all the way out here, I wanna at least give you three laps—by the way, I absolutely hate riding passenger!” <laugh>
I backed out of the pit and put it in drive, and I looked at Travis and I was like, “Well at least I know how to do that!” Because everything’s electric—think of like a Tesla, you have a whole screen on the dash. I’m like, “This is weird, I don’t know what anything does.” But we took it out, and the first three laps that I did, Travis was screaming at me to slow down! <laugh> The whole entire time—we actually have in car audio of it. He’s literally screaming at me telling me to brake and slow down because he was scared. That was just like a surreal feeling, just because of who Travis is.
A few days later I was able to make another three laps because we ended up having a few extra tires on the last day that I was there. He told me he was going to try his best not to scream, and he didn’t that time. (After the run) he was like, “Okay, well it seems like you do a lot better when I’m not yelling at you. You just slow down!” I was like, “Well, when there’s not somebody in my ear yelling at me to brake!” <laugh> And he said, “Yeah, you have a lot more trust in the car than I thought you would!”
The whole weekend was just surreal. Travis was always somebody that I’ve looked up to for my entire life. He doesn’t really know this, but there’s a picture of me holding a school project that I did in third grade of me picking Travis as the person that I wanted to look up to in life. So to be able to go out there is just surreal, and to be able to now have his guidance and help along with my career, just is an incredible feeling. I couldn’t be more thankful to have him help me out.
Going back to your Pro Spec title defense—that class is going to have a few new faces in it this year. What are some of the challenges that come with the bigger field, and how much of an advantage do you have over the newcomers with an extra year in the class?
Having Ryan Beat definitely helps a ton! He’s had two years with the truck. But even with that, I’m just excited to get back in the vehicle. I had been losing my mind, not racing anything for the past few months, and everyone around me has been telling me the same thing. Even after just having two days in the truck testing, they said I had calmed down a lot more. I’m just so excited to get back in the truck in general, and I’m very excited for the level of competition that’s going to be in Pro Spec this year with how many vehicles there are. I think everybody’s going to be super close because it’s a spec truck.
Which tracks are you looking forward to getting back to the most this season? Are you looking forward more to getting back to the tracks where you won, or the tracks where you have unfinished business?
I’m excited to get back and redeem myself at Bark River for sure up in Michigan. That’s one of my favorite tracks, I just made a few mistakes on my end and it cost us winning the races there, so I’m definitely excited for that one. And of course getting back to ERX out in Minnesota. I don’t know about Oklahoma, how it’s gonna race with the truck, but I think ERX is by far my favorite just because of how much banking and how flowy the track is there, and it also just races really well.
Finally—besides the obvious answer of repeating as champion—what are some of your biggest goals for this season?
Yep, I obviously want to win the championship again. I mean, coming off of a championship in general, everybody wants to repeat that. But my biggest goal with off-road this year is to just clean up the little mistakes that I made last year. Even though I won the championship, it wasn’t perfect by any means. Away from that, it’s just whether or not I’m able to get the chance to race the Group E car. We’re going into the MidAmerica round with Nitrocross racing the side by side. I just wanna keep it clean there because I haven’t been in a side by side in two years. So if I can just keep it clean and not make any mistakes, I’ll be happy and content with that. Obviously the goal is to win, it always is, but if I’m just able to do the best I can out there, I’ll hopefully be able to work my way into a bigger class within Nitrocross this year.
Images via Gray Leadbetter