Leeroy Poulter is a world champion racer. He has won countless local titles and in 2017, he finished fifth overall in the Dakar, the world’s toughest cross-country race. But some recent health issues have put a hold on his dreams of winning the Dakar. We spoke to Leeroy about his past, the present, and the future.
Leeroy Poulter was born in Johannesburg. By the age of four years he was competing in motocross events. When he was six, he competed in both karts and motocross. At 13 he won the World Karting Championship, and was also crowned the European champion. By the age of 15, he secured his first factory drive: a class F Opel Corsa.
Today he is only the second driver (after Hannes Grobler in 1986) who can write both the national rally and off-road championship behind his name, won in the same season.
This is his motoring story.
When did you first start to drive, and what was your first car?
I started riding off-road bikes when I was four. My dad owned a tyre shop, and at around 12 years, I took the cars for a short drive to check that the steering wheel was straight and everything was okay, after the fitment. My first car was an Opel Corsa, which I got as part of my deal with Opel, when I turned 18.
There’s a story behind that Opel drive, isn’t there?
Ah yes, the BMW M5. Opel flew a whole bunch of us down to Port Elizabeth, where we had to complete a number of driving tests. A few days later my dad picked me up from school and told me I got the factory drive. But there was a catch: the deal entailed that we had to buy the Corsa racing car for around R34 000 after the fourth round of the championship.
My dad said he just didn’t have that amount of cash to spend. A few days later, my dad was driving his BMW M5 home in heavy rain, and the car aquaplaned off the road. The car was written off, the insurance paid out, and my dad used that cash to pay for the Corsa. That year I won the Class F championship when I was 15, and my career was effectively launched after that, driving mostly for factory teams.
Most awesome car you’ve driven on a track?
That’s probably the McLaren P1 that I drove for a few Extreme Supercar races. It has around 800 horsepower and goes, handles and stops like a real racer car. It’s as quick as the old WesBank V8 racers around Zwartkops Raceway.
And off the road?
Definitely our latest Toyota Gazoo Racing SA Toyota Hilux V8. In the past, the off-road bakkies used to be pretty fast in a straight line, but in the corners they were top heavy, and didn’t handle so well. That’s all changed now. The latest Hilux V8’s engine is mid-mounted. This aspect, along with some other refinements, now ensures that the bakkie handles more like a rally car than a lorry. And it’s pretty quick, too, with a top end of about 210km/h.
You had a big health scare in 2017. What happened?
After the last race in the 2016 Rally Championship I was feeling under the weather and went for a check-up. Tests and scans revealed a growth on the brain. This was removed in an operation, and thankfully it was a benign tumor, and not cancer. But I still need more time to recover. So for now, I’m not competing.
We are currently speaking to the world motorsport authority, the FIA, to get approval to compete in the Dakar in the future. There are strict health and safety rules in place, for obvious reasons.
What do you do when you are not racing?
I’m into mountain biking, and also love to travel. We recently travelled to Thailand for a bit of a break. My racing has taken me to some awesome places, too, like Italy, Finland and many more. I also run a few businesses on the side, including a karting track and garden services.
Most prized motoring memory?
My dad used to be a technician that worked for Basil Green, who created the legendary Ford Capri Perana V8. My dad had saved up some money and in 1971 he bought the company’s pristine Perana V8 demo car. My dad kept it all these years and when he passed away a few years ago, we received a number of enquiries from interested parties, from all over the world.
It’s still in its original Gunston colours, and I take it for a drive every other weekend. We won’t sell it, even if it’s now apparently worth R1 million. The sentimental value far outweighs that amount.
Your family ranks recently increased by 33.3%?
Yes, Sebastian was born late last year. He’s proving quite a handful.
My wife Michela and I had a deal: if it’s a girl she could choose the name… if it’s a boy, I could name him. Turns out it was a boy, and we eventually got the potential names down to three: Sebastian, Enzo and Riley. Sebastian seemed like a good fit, with motorsport legends like Sebastian Vettel, Sébastien Loeb and Sébastien Ogier. So Sebastien it was.
What does one have to do to become a top factory driver?
Firstly, you need to start competing at a very young age. If you are serious about a full-time racing career, there won’t be much time for school, so home schooling or private tutoring it will have to be. Then you need to get into the European racing circuit as early as possible. The more seat time you can get, the better.
Money plays a big role too, unfortunately. Most Formula One drivers compete in the pinnacle of motorsport because they had more money than the 100 other guys waiting in the line. There are a lot of drivers who are only drivers because of the thickness of their wallets.
And your personal aims for the future?
To get healthy first, and 100% fit. Then I have to win Dakar. I’ve won every class I’ve competed in since I can remember. The Dakar is no different for me. The race is very much about experience, knowing when to play a strategic game and when to push 110%. In my first year, after the first few stages, I thought, after beating some of the ‘big name’ competitors: this is easy! I’ve got this!
And then the Dakar kind of said: pick a finger. The Hilux ground to a halt with an electrical issue, I damaged the bakkie after going off the road, and so on. I very quickly came down to earth, and finished in 33rd place. The next year I managed 16th, and in 2017 I finished fifth. So this year should have been pretty good, especially considering how good the Hilux V8 now is.
He started racing at the age of four. His dad pushed him hard in his formative years, entrenching the belief that second place is for the first loser. He has everything from karts to tin-top racers to classics to supercars to rally cars to cross-country racing cars on his CV. He is SA’s second national rally and off-road racing champ (in the same year). This is 36-year old Leeroy Poulter.
My late dad was a very tough taskmaster. I remember one day, practicing motocross jumps. He made us repeat the jumps until we got it spot-on. That day we loafed a bit, skipping some of the jumps. My dad came storming over, and kicked me right off my bike. He told me in no uncertain terms that I must decide if I want to win, or if I was wasting his time. He instilled the ethos that second place is for the first loser. That may sound harsh now, but if you are to make a career out of motorsport, that’s the ethos to live by.
Ironically, it is normally your teammate who is your biggest enemy. If you finish fifth and your teammate finishes second, that’s just not good enough. If you finish fifth and your teammate sixth, well, that’s not great, but it’s kind of okay-ish.
Your favourite driver of all time?
Probably Ayrton Senna. I also thought very highly of Sébastien Loeb, until I started competing against him, and beating him. He’s also not very friendly, it turns out.
And lastly, if you can indulge in any motorsport formula, if money is no issue?
I’m not a rally cross fan, I must admit. If I could compete in any off-road event it, I’d love to have a go in the World Rally Championship. Circuit racing? The Australian V8 Supercar Series is brilliant to watch, with 34 cars in the thick of things. I’d love to have a go in one of those.
In a (favourite) nutshell
Food: Spaghetti bolognaise
Drink: Fruit cocktail
TV Show: Top Gear
Favourite sport: Mountain biking
Movie: The Italian job
Singer: Khan Morbee (from The Parlotones)
Place on Earth: Top step of the podium, wherever that may be
Favourite campsite: Why camp when you can stay in a hotel? We just never got into that.