He drives the Elma Auto Racing Hall of Fame

The draw of history hooked Rick Leighty early in his life, just as much as auto racing did.

The retired history teacher was a teaching jack-of-all-trades at North Beach Junior High, where he also attended. He was an intense educator in the classroom who was also laid back and more relaxed as a cross country and track coach.

So, it was natural for him to be a part of the Elma Auto Racing Hall of Fame. His racing career lasted 20 years, but his connection to auto racing — through his own experiences and through his family — spans nearly his entire life.

“That’s why I got into the hall of fame; I’ve always been interested in history,” Leighty said. “We wanted to tie in the old history (of auto racing at Elma) with the present and look to the future as well.”

Now, the hall of fame organization is 5 years old and the future looks bright. For Leighty, it is a labor of love and his full-time occupation.

Hall of Fame

What started as a one-night deal turned into a couple of meetings, a few bylaws and a full-fledged hall of fame in a couple of months in 2009.

“George Wade, who was the Grays Harbor Raceway promoter at the time, called me up and told me he was planning an Old Timers Night,” Rick Leighty said. “He was looking for some names to honor and recognize. He wanted to know if I knew some people and would help him set up something.”

Leighty, whose father, Rich, recently retired after 50 years of auto racing, brought his dad along and got auto racing veterans Jim Sutherby, Glen Walker and John Dickson to meet with Wade.

“It went from one night of recognition to ‘Hey, let’s get something going more permanent to recognize the history of auto racing in Elma,’” Rick Leighty said. “That is where it all got started.”

The junior high teacher became the point man, along with Wade and Cindy Badgett, to organize the hall of fame. He did the groundwork, borrowing some bylaws from other auto racing museums and hall of fames throughout North America, and set up the ground rules.

One of the adopted bylaws was the establishment of a scholarship program for family members within the Elma auto racing community, which was Leighty’s idea.

“For me, this was a total learning experience,” Leighty said. “Maybe had I known what it was going to entail, I wouldn’t have jumped in head-first like I did. It has been great. Also, what better way to set up the future than to establish a scholarship program. We wrote that into the bylaws right off the bat. I convinced the others to do that.”

“Our families go way back; I’ve known Rick since he was 10 years old,” said Badgett, a member of the hall of fame’s board of directors. “If it wasn’t for Rick, there wouldn’t be one.”

On Memorial Day weekend, the new hall of fame held its first fundraising dinner. By August, with some input from the newly minted board of directors and others inside the community, the first class was inducted — eight members out of 20 nominations.

Since then, the induction classes have come from publicly nominated candidates.

“Our intent from the beginning was to get nominations from the public,” Leighty said. “We didn’t have enough time to do that in the first year. We had (Vancouver, B.C.-based auto racing historian Robert Hunter) do a lot of research in the first year. He had been a part of the Victoria (B.C.) Racing Hall of Fame. He said that we’ll find names that’ll crop up that we’ve forgotten about. He said, ‘You’re not going to run out of names.’ ”

The hall of fame inducted its fifth class in March and the non-profit organization held a silent auction to keep it running.

Leighty is the president of the organization and helps research the nominees for each induction class. He was also a part of the 2013 induction class to recognize his 20 years of racing in Elma and throughout the Northwest.

“He was an all-around racer,” Wade said. “He’s an amazing man and the passion he has for the sport, it is great. He’s done just about everything in auto racing — driver, pit crew, car owner. The only thing left for him is to be a promoter. He does a lot of work behind the scenes and is a great ambassador to the sport.”

“He’s the heart and soul of the hall of fame right now; I’m just his backup,” Badgett said. “He’s the brains of the institution. He knows so much, so many memories of the history.”

“(In the past), I’ve always been one of those who’d like to be in the background, so now I’ve had to get used to being the one out front,” Leighty said. “It has been a change for me. That played a little bit into my decision to retire from teaching.”

Veteran teacher

Leighty was a 33-year veteran teacher in the North Beach School District, starting first in history before moving through many other subjects, grades and disciplines.

Within those 33 years, Leighty spent 13 of them in special education, which brought him through all levels of the school district. He retired after the 2011-12 school year.

“I started in history, then moved through special education, a long period of teaching reading and writing and also some math,” Leighty said. “I was fortunate to go back into history for my last 1 ½ years. I always enjoyed the American Revolution and really enjoyed Washington state history. I taught that during my student-teaching at Miller Junior High in Aberdeen. I didn’t get to teach that again until my last year. That was fun.”

During his teaching career, Leighty was a longtime cross country and track coach at the junior high level. He also coached junior high volleyball, basketball, and wrestling. At North Beach High School, he coached cross country for 25 years and he saw a strong connection between athletics and academics.

“In cross country, my goal wasn’t to develop state champions,” Leighty said. “If we did, great. My goal was for (the students) to learn a life experience and develop something they could do for the rest of their lives. There isn’t anything more that gives me pride than to hear from a former runner, ‘Hey coach, I’ve been out of running for 15 years and now I’m back. You knew that would happen.’ I used athletics, especially cross country, as relaxation. The kids would tell you that I wasn’t as intense on the athletic fields as I was in the classroom. One of my faults is that I take things very seriously. That probably led to me having a stroke in 2001.”

Fortune turns

In February 2001, a sneeze changed Leighty’s life.

After school, Leighty was talking with a janitor when he sneezed and instantly developed a huge headache. That triggered a stroke in the back right part of his brain, draining fluid into his spinal column.

The pressure from the fluid caused the headache and severe disorientation. The janitor kept talking to Leighty, who got his father, Rich, to drive him home.

The next day, Leighty got up for school, a half-day before a one-week winter break, and started to drive to school. However, he never made it to class.

“I couldn’t focus my eyes, everything was a blur,” Leighty said of the initial event. “I went to bed early, got up and headed down to school. I realized two miles from school that I was all over the road. I felt like I was drunk.”

The school’s nurse took his blood pressure. It was very high. He went home and agreed to get checked out, going to the Urgent Care Clinic later in the day. The clinic sent him home.

“They said I had a viral infection,” Leighty said.

All day Saturday and early Sunday, Leighty laid on the couch.

“We were watching the Daytona 500 and Rick asked me what race we were watching,” Rich Leighty said. “He had no idea what was going on. That was it.”

The Leightys waited for the finish of the race, and then drove to Grays Harbor Community Hospital’s emergency room. A doctor noticed Rick, took his blood pressure and quickly got him inside. While being checked out, he passed out.

“I must not have been looking too good at the time,” Leighty said. “I tell people that was my out-of-body experience. I could hear someone yelling my name, trying to get me to respond. I couldn’t. They got me revived and I spent the next week up in Harborview (Medical Center in Seattle).

“It was a brain bleed, the right back side of the brain above the spinal column,” he added. “When it bled, it filled up the column. It didn’t put all of the pressure on my skull, but it did feel like it did.”

At Harborview, they couldn’t determine what caused the stroke — Rich believes it was from hypertension — but did relieve the pressure. A spinal tap removed twice as much fluid as normally contained in the spinal column and the headache disappeared.

Leighty feels very fortunate that he survived the four days to find out what happened.

“Just before I left Harborview, they were giving me (comprehension) tests and found I was functioning at about 25 percent when I got there,” Leighty said. “(The doctors) told me that 60 percent of people who had the type of stroke that I had die from it. Then, of the 40 percent who survive, 60 percent of them have several disabilities from it.

“I came out of it with some cognitive problems — crowds bothered me for a long time and it affected my ability with names,” Leighty said. “It took a long time to overcome them, as well as get my ability to drive back.”

After two months of recovery, Leighty returned to work half-time for the rest of the school year, then back to full-time teaching. He credits his intensity to getting back sooner, but admits he may have rushed it a bit.

Today, Leighty considers himself 100 percent recovered. He does have some problems with endurance and memory loss and doctors noted he’s increased his chances of getting dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

“I’ve done everything that I did before the stroke, except for driving a race car,” he said. “I was cleared to go back driving, but it was recommended that I not. It was a period of time when there were a lot of (auto racing) head injuries. What I’ve been through, a head injury, even a slight one, could be serious.

“I pretty well accepted it,” Leighty said of the end of his racing career. “I was angry that I wasn’t able to step out on my own terms. Even to this day, that kind of angers me. I was one who enjoyed working on the cars, building and making things for them to go faster. With Dad still racing, if I didn’t have that outlet, it may have been more of a problem. I still have my brand new racing suit from that season still in the closet.”

Racing career

Leighty’s racing career didn’t start until he graduated from Western Washington University in 1979 (per agreement with is mother, the late Gloria Leighty), but his exposure to auto racing started young.

While his dad raced around Elma’s old half-mile race track, young Leighty sold auto-racing newspapers and programs in the stands. It wasn’t until the break between the half-mile and the construction of the three-tenths of a mile track did Leighty finally climb behind the wheel.

“We found an old limited modified that was crashed and not in good shape,” Leighty said. “We dragged it home, without Mom knowing.”

“And, she wasn’t very happy when she found out,” Rich Leighty added.

After a quick one-race run in Tenino in 1980, Leighty made his debut in Elma in 1981. Larry Spoon helped provide the motor to the car for Leighty, who finished third in the limited modified class in his rookie season.

In 1982, Leighty finished second behind his dad in both the Evergreen Auto Racing Association and NASCAR limited modifieds. The next year, Leighty won the supermodified title in Elma. In 1984, a broken part on the last weekend of the season knocked him from the top spot to second overall.

“The next year, they started a new traveling group — Washington Open Wheel — for super modifieds that traveled all over Washington and Oregon,” Leighty said. “We always enjoyed traveling, so we took off and went traveling.”

For the remainder of Leighty’s racing career, the entire family traveled throughout the Northwest racing on clay dirt and asphalt.

Leighty’s final race came in Roseburg, Ore. in August, 2000. After the stroke, Leighty worked as a crew chief for Rich’s racing team and had a few other regional drivers race his car.

Now, Leighty’s work with the hall of fame serves as an outlet and a foundation to the past, present and future of auto racing in Elma and the region.

“I want it to keep going,” he said. “I see a lot of volunteer organizations do good things at other tracks. But when the people running them move on, it dies out. We don’t want that to happen here. I want to make sure we have a strong foundation for whomever to step into and have something to follow and improve upon.”

Rob Burns is a Daily World sports writer. He can be reached at (360) 537-3926, via email at rburns@thedailyworld.com and via Twitter at @RobRVR