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Leadbetter’s rise up the off-road ranks continuing in Extreme E

It’s been five months since the Extreme E season opener in Saudi Arabia, where Gray Leadbetter made her debut with Legacy Motor Club, but this weekend she’ll be back in action.

It was a strong first showing for the American teenager, who was competing internationally for the first time. Despite a lack of seat time ahead of the event, she helped the team to a pair of sixth place finishes, and this time around she’ll be racing in the mud, gravel, and grasslands of Scotland where she’s aiming to build on a positive first experience in the all-electric off-road series.

“It was quite funny actually as none of us had driven the Odyssey 21 before,” she says. “We were all stepping into the unknown a little bit, so we had to learn together once we got in the car for the first time.

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“We got as much input as we could from the mechanics and from speaking to those around the paddock, but we had not driven in the series before so it was all new. Between Travis [Pastrana] and I we managed to get on the pace pretty quickly, which was great.

“For our first event we focused on staying out of trouble and bringing the car back in one piece, which we accomplished and not by being slow,” she adds. “We did it with plenty of pace as we showed with our Continental Traction Challenge times in Round 2. For a first weekend in an all-new series we were pretty happy with our performance.

Leadbetter had a familiar face in Pastrana – who was filling in for team boss Jimmie Johnson – alongside her. The 19-year-old is seen as something of an heir to Pastrana’s throne in the off-road world, and has competed with the action sports icon in Nitrocross’ side-by-side division.

“I got a message from Travis asking if I wanted to take part and race in the series! It was incredible. He said, ‘do you want to go racing in Saudi Arabia?’ and kept it pretty vague – but I was really up for it,” Leadbetter says. “Jimmie had asked Travis to fill in because Jimmie was competing at Daytona over the same week, and so Travis played a big part in helping me get that seat at Legacy Motor Club. It was all a shock and it happened so quickly, but I was so excited to get to Saudi Arabia and race for the team.”

Pastrana and Leadbetter debuted together in Rounds 1 and 2. Sam Bagnall/Extreme E

Leadbetter admits that after a busy 2023 competing in Nitrocross and other categories in the U.S. off-road world, the idea of competing in Extreme E had been put “little bit on the backburner”, but while the opportunity came “out of the blue”, the championship wasn’t entirely alien to her.

“I had been to the Season 2 finale in Uruguay to check out the series previously with the Chip Ganassi Racing team, so I had always been interested in Extreme E,” she says. “I had such a blast when I went to that event – I knew quite a few people within that team already and straight away I just loved how the racing worked. It was very different from anything I had ever seen.

“I thought the male and female driver dynamic was really cool, and I always kept an eye on what was happening in the series. I have always been interested in it, but I was just looking for the right opportunity to get into it.”

Her vast experience, despite her age, and that brief venture into the paddock in 2022, helped Leadbetter get up to speed in what is regarded as a very challenging series for newcomers.

“As a driver you have to be pretty adaptable when you get behind the wheel to maximize the amount of seat time you get and in Extreme E it is no different,” says Leadbetter. “We made the most of our sessions beforehand, and then it was about tweaking what worked best for us as we went along. I think we managed to do that pretty well.

“Driving off-road cars before, and especially side-by-sides, helped me hugely to get up to speed. There are some similarities in how the car moves out on course and how it is weighted. It’s similar with the sprint cars I’ve driven in terms of track time and preparation. As a driver you have to do your best to nail it down as quickly as possible and then maximize your performance from there.

“Essentially though, everything I’ve taken part in before has been a big help, because at the end of the day it is all about driving the car as best as you can.”

But while Leadbetter shined, much of the attention was on her wildcard teammate, who had NEOM McLaren’s Mattias Ekstom in his crosshairs for the whole event. It was Leadbetter, however, who was the one to cross swords with him on-track, putting up a strong fight against the two-time DTM and 2016 World RX champion on the second race day – a day where Legacy Motor Club went on to set the fastest ‘super sector’ time of the weekend.

“It was so cool. If you take Travis’ goal of beating Mattias for the first time as an example, who would have thought it would come down to pairing up with a female teammate in electric cars in the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert to do it?” she says. “It was just an incredible opportunity. Getting to race with such a talented driver line-up was amazing.

“We were a little bit unlucky with the red flag situation as Travis only got one lap out on course in the Round 2 Redemption Race. That definitely shook things up. However, being that close to beating not only NEOM McLaren, but winning a race on our first time out, was an incredible feeling.

Scotland will provide a wildly different challenge to the sands of Saudi Arabia. Andrew Ferraro/Motorsport Images

“Although it did not finish how we wanted it to, it was so reassuring for us that we were up to speed and on the pace with the more established teams after just a couple of days in the car.”

Extreme E has provided a strong platform for female racers, both rising stars and established competitors, to compete on an equal footing with legendary male names of the sport, and it’s something Leadbetter has taken in her stride.

“I would never have thought there would be a series out there like this which would have everybody from this type of racing,” she says. “There are people out there who so many have looked up to for years and years, so to put them all on the grid, and then add in the most talented female racers to the line-up, means there are so many different aspects of racing and motorsport rolled into one championship, which is incredible.”

Attention now turns to this weekend, where Legacy Motor Club and Leadbetter will continue to learn the series. This time she will have another debutant alongside her in the form of Patrick O’Donovan, with Johnson heading back Stateside to prepare for next week’s Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Johnson will race in Extreme E, but not until September’s races in Sardinia.

“Jimmie has not competed in off-road racing for a number of years so that is an exciting prospect,” Leadbetter says. “He’s one of the best there is in the world and so it is going to be interesting to see him behind the wheel with an off-road racing mindset. We’ll be working hard to get our car in the optimum window and as fast as possible.”

Then, the series heads to North America for the first time, with the series set to conclude in Phoenix in November.

“I am so excited for it! It is going to be a really cool event and I am hoping the track will be awesome,” she says. “Getting the Extreme E car to the U.S. is long overdue and will make for a pretty amazing spectacle.

“Getting behind the wheel of a racing car is exciting no matter what and the racing in Extreme E has shown that. To know that we are driving a car like the Odyssey 21, which has the speed out on track, is pretty cool. That is especially so for my generation I guess because of what’s happening around the world right now in terms of climate change. It is definitely so cool to see how motorsport is growing and adapting to the health of the planet.”

Story originally appeared on Racer