Chris Gleason

While other youngsters emulated baseball or football players, Johnstown native Chris Gleason read about and admired the likes of open-wheel race car drivers Jim Clark and Peter Revson.

"They were my heroes and role models growing up," said Gleason, who for nearly 50 years has been involved in some facet of auto racing with a passion that has taken him across the globe. "They gave definition to what I wanted to do."

Gleason attended Our Mother of Sorrows and Westmont Hilltop schools before finishing his high school career at the Valley Forge Military Academy.

He went on to graduate from the University of Pittsburgh and the Owner/President/Management program at Harvard Graduate School of Business. He also holds a master's degree in history from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

In 1988, Gleason started Gleason Financial Ltd., serving as president. He is now retired.

Gleason's love of racing began when he was a spectator, watching road course events.

"I thought that it looked like a lot of fun and would be challenging," Gleason said. "Road racing grabbed my attention because every course is different, every turn is different, and the variety of it really excited me."

He bought his first competition car, a Triumph Spitfire, in 1965 and then began his racing career in 1968, attending drivers school at the Brands Hatch circuit in Kent, England.

While in England, Gleason competed in several Formula Ford races and eventually traveled to South America to hone his craft.

"At the driver's school, they taught you some basic techniques and I ended up going to Brazil with one of the competitors that I met while there," Gleason said.

In South America, he entered a number of races in a variety of cars, returning to Johnstown in 1970 – when he began to compete in the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) regional races.

Behind the wheel of a car called "Spirit of Johnstown," Gleason claimed the 1973 SCCA Northeast Division championship, finishing a close second in the national title race.

Competing in the Formula Super Vees and Formula Atlantic Series, Gleason tied for Rookie of the Year honors in 1978 – in the latter series while competing against such drivers as Indianapolis 500 winners Danny Sullivan and Bobby Rahal.

Gleason shifted into the Trans-Am and IMSA series in the 1980s.

After a break, he returned to racing in 1996, finishing sixth in the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans in France the next season.

"That was probably the most memorable race for me," Gleason said. "I had watched Steve McQueen in the movie LeMans and there I was sitting in this race in a blue-and-white-stripped Viper in sixth place, and yet it was like a dream come true, because it was so amazing to be there on that course in that race.

"Most people would remember a race that they won. But me, that's the one that stands out, because it meant so much to just be there, competing at LeMans."

His team had success in the GT national point standings in the Grand Am Road Racing Association, where he competed in both the Rolex and Koni Challenge Series. One of the highlights was a third-place finish at Daytona International Speedway in 2004.

In addition to Daytona, Gleason has also raced at Watkins Glen, New York, and Michigan International Speedway.

"I liked Watkins Glen, because it was a traditional course with a wide variety of turns and challenges," Gleason said. "Another of my favorite courses was Road of America in Elkhart, Wisconsin. And Daytona. Because I raced there so many times, I got to know it pretty well."

In all, Gleason's racing resume includes 15 victories and a podium, or top three, finish in more than 40 events.

The Cambria County Sports Hall of Fame inducted Gleason in 2004, making him just the third driver to receive the honor.

Indy car, stock car and endurance sports car team owner Chip Ganassi, a long-time friend, presented Gleason for the award.

"If Chris had stuck with only racing, he could have had a career as a professional race car driver. But that's not the complete Chris Gleason," Ganassi said at the induction ceremony.

"If he was from some other area of the world like Indianapolis or Monte Carlo, Chris would have had a career at the top levels of professional motorsports," Ganaassi continued. "But each time, he came home to the small town of Johnstown, Pa. He had commitments there, as he was helping with the family business and helping to raise a family of his own."

Gleason's son, Kevin, is following in his father's footsteps – road racing, most recently in Barcelona, Spain, and is headed to Singapore and Malaysia.

Cory Isenberg is a sports reporter and columnist for The Tribune-Democrat. She can be reached at (814) 532-5080.​ Follow her on Twitter @CoryIsenbergTD.