Vale Leo Geoghegan
The golden era of Australian motor racing has lost one of its most famous figures with the passing of Leo Geoghegan in early March after a long battle with cancer. He was 78. Leo was born on May 16, 1936 in Sydney and learnt to drive aged 10 in war-surplus jeeps and blitz-buggies. He was 15 years old when he left school and joined his father Tom at the family’s taxi business in Liverpool in south-western Sydney; a business which soon expanded to include a service station.
He followed his father into racing and quickly rose up the ranks.
Leo was primarily an open-wheel exponent, known for his precision in finely-balanced single-seaters. He was often the first of the Aussies home when grand prix aces journeyed ‘down under’ for the Tasman Series races in the 1960s. In post-race interviews his articulate and charming manner made him a fine ambassador for the sport.
The period 1968-70 dominated Leo’s own list of most treasured career memories, as AMC discovered when we profiled him in 2006.
“Coming second to Jim Clark at Sandown was fantastic. Next would be finishing third behind the two Ferraris in the 1969 Australian Grand Prix, then winning the Japanese GP. Then the Gold Star [title]. When we came third outright in the 1969 Australian GP we were invited to the Japanese GP, which we won. That made me a millionaire… I won two million yen,” he laughed. “That was about $5000, which was good money in those days.”
That win came in the V8-powered Lotus 39 (above), the fastest car Leo pedalled at Bathurst, lapping in the 2 minute 12s in 1970.
“We were hitting 300km/h down Conrod when it was an old bumpy track. So that was a bit of an adventure.”
That year Leo won the Australian Drivers Championship using both the Lotus 39 and the later 59, which had a four-cylinder Waggott engine. He won the title decider, at Mallala, sealing a narrow points win over John Harvey and Max Stewart.
It’s impossible to list all his successes and competition vehicles, but his family once tallied up the latter at 64. He retired in 1974 after clinching the F2 championship.
Despite his reputation as one of Australia’s finest single-seater and sportscar aces, Leo holds a unique place in Australian touring car history. He was the only driver to compete in the Bathurst classic for each of the big three – Ford, Holden and Chrysler – in factory-supported efforts.
All up, his Great Race record is 11 starts for nine finishes. Between 1967, his first Bathurst 500 in a Falcon GT, and 1973, Leo finished in the top five on five occasions. Most regular AMC readers would be aware of his Ford and Chrysler efforts, but he also drove for the Holden Dealer Team at the Mountain in 1973, finishing on the podium as partner to Colin Bond.
He and brother Pete suffered the ultimate heartbreak of crossing the line first in the 1967 Gallaher 500, only to be stripped of the win upon closer examination of the lap charts by officials.
The pair are, however, credited with victory together in a Daimler in the first ever production car endurance race at Bathurst, in 1962, the precursor to the Armstrong 500.
Leo also scored Holden’s first championship win, the 1956 NSW Sedan Car Championship, two years after his racing debut.
Despite racing a variety of marques, his name was most closely associated with Chrysler, thanks to his development role with the Charger and being the brand’s spearhead during the company’s brief time in Series Production competition.
Over the last two decades of Leo’s life he was a cheerful and enthusiastic keeper of the Chrysler flame in Australia. He was in demand as a guest speaker at car clubs until ill-health intervened.
Because his greatest triumphs were in formula cars and sportscars, he never attracted the mass adoration that came the way of the touring car specialists who raced on into high profile eras. Nonetheless, he and his brother were household names in their native NSW and in the homes of ‘car people’ nationally.
Leo was a friendly and approachable soul who will be greatly missed.