As overseer of the Brumos Collection of stunning classic cars, Don Leatherwood has what many people would say is the best job in the world.
The 75-car collection of Indianapolis 500 winners and vintage classics includes a 1919 cast aluminum Miller TNT Special, the oldest known surviving Miller in the world, and the Copenhagen Porsche 962 which can achieve 230 mph on the straightaway.
Because of Leatherwood, every one of them is spotless and in perfect running order.
On an unusually warm December day, Leatherwood is putting a new engine into a 1923 Locomobile and prepping cars for the 2016 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance.
“It’s been a heck of a ride,” says Leatherwood from his office. The walls are covered in celebratory pictures, including him next to a muddy racecar with a Rocky Patel cigar hanging from his mouth and a champagne bottle hoisted in the air.
“I walk in here and go, ‘How does it get any better than this?’”
Leatherwood acquired his love of tinkering with engines while hanging out in the garage with his father, a Navy machinist. He joined the Army in 1972 and avoided Vietnam, attending electronics school while he was stationed in Northern Italy.
After selling insurance and hating it, he joined the Knoxville Porsche dealership in 1979, staying in the town where he was born and raised. That year, he aced a technical challenge test and joined the Hurley Haywood pit crew team which helped the Interscope Porsche 935 win the 24 Hours of Daytona.
It was a prestigious and fortunate mission. Considered to be America’s most decorated endurance driver in history, Haywood began racing for Brumos in the late 1960s. He built his career behind the wheel of a #59 Brumos Porsche, racing for the Jacksonville-based company for more than 40 years.
The connection helped Leatherwood land a job with Brumos. He became the shop foreman from 1988 to 2000 and the race team manager. He was also the technician for the Brumos “war wagon,” a big red, boxy vehicle with computer telemetry which allows race engineers to analyze data in order to tune the car for optimum performance.
When he attended service schools around the country, Leatherwood says Brumos employees were always treated with respect.
“It was a dealership first, and a race team second,” Leatherwood says. “It was a dealership that raced cars.”
Over the years, Leatherwood worked with celebrities like Paul Newman, whom he describes as a “great guy to be around and a great driver.” Recently, he gave car enthusiasts Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld a tour of the private car collection.
A lover of all things mechanical, Leatherwood is also an instrument rated pilot. But he’s most devoted to motorcycles, the first of which he received from his father when he was six years old.
Married, with one grown daughter and two grandchildren, Leatherwood’s family grew unexpectedly with a life changing phone call 10 years ago. Adopted at eight months of age, Leatherwood learned he had a biological sister who wanted to contact him. She was also adopted as an infant. They began with conversations on the phone and emailing, but he was hesitant to meet her.
“It was a heck of a decision,” he says. “You’re afraid of what you might find out.”
Leatherwood took his time pondering the situation, but it became clear while driving his motorcycle across the country to a race in California. He met his sister several weeks later at her home in Alabama.
“We really hit it off,” he says, noting she, too, was raised as an only child, and they had much in common. “It legitimized me.”
Now the siblings are closer than ever. Some years ago, she bought a house across the street from his home in Jacksonville and they see each other daily.
While some doors were opening for Leatherwood, others closed. Having achieved legendary status in international racing, and promoting Jacksonville in the process, Brumos quit racing in 2013. It marked a sad time for him professionally.
Then this past December, Brumos Automotive announced it was selling its Mercedes-Benz, Lexus and Porsche dealerships to the Fields Automotive Group based in Evanston, Illinois. The deal, which requires governmental and manufacturer approval, is expected to conclude before the end of February.
“It’s kind of the end of an era,” Leatherwood says of the dealership, which opened in 1959. “It was a little sad. But the Brumos Collection will live on.”
Fields isn’t buying the Brumos Car Collection. Under the agreement with Fields, Dan Davis will keep the Brumos name and racing enterprises. He will lease the museum that houses the classic car collection for two years until he can relocate the cars. Leatherwood says he will stay on during that time and help move the car collection into its new home, wherever that might be.