Stephen Leicht's NASCAR career started with a bang. From 2008-2012, the Asheville, North Carolina native ran 39 races across NASCAR's national series. At the age of 25, he was the 2012 NASCAR Cup Series Rookie of the Year. Then, just like that, he was out of the sport for four years.
While Leicht returned to NASCAR in 2017, it wasn't until 2019 that he opened up about the depression and anxiety he battled, and continues to battle, as a result of competing in such a grueling sport.
"I took it really personal," Leicht told USA Today. "I felt like what did I do to cause this and be in this situation? Financial trouble -- racing was all I had ever done and was my only source of income. It's hard to reset your brain and start over."
Leicht joined NASCAR drivers like Bubba Wallace in opening up about the mental and emotional toll that professional auto racing takes on its highest-level drivers.
"At the level of racing we do, emotions run really high and everyone is passionate and competitive," Leicht said.
"When you try to hold all those emotions in, at some point there is a breaking point and I finally reached mine. I got to the point. I couldn't watch the races. I didn't want to go to the race track."
Though Leicht, who currently drives the No. 66 Toyota Supra for MBM Motorsports, returned to NASCAR in 2017 after his four-year break, his time away from NASCAR led to him developing an eating disorder and a dependence on alcohol. As Leicht describes, he used those crutches to fill the void created by the absence of a high-octane, on-the-track lifestyle.
"That was part of the eating disorder and the drinking a little too often was me trying to fill that adrenaline-rush void," Leicht said. "I'm not the type of guy that can sit and do nothing all day. When you are racing since you were 5-6 years old, every week, 40-50 weeks out of the year, it's not like you can just turn that off."
"Your brain gets used to that and craves that."
While Leicht still struggles with sleeping issues, he's confident in his ability to persevere, especially as he begins the second chapter of his career.
"I didn't want to admit I had a problem. It took me a long time to be OK with [therapy]," Leicht said. "It's been an up-and-down 10 years for me. And things are looking up again."
Stephen Leicht NASCAR Career
Though Stephen Leicht started racing stock cars at a high level by the age of 12, he got major exposure when he ran the ARCA Re/Max Series (now the ARCA Menards Series) events for Robert Yates Racing in 2006. Leicht began his full-time NASCAR Xfinity Series career (at the time, it was still the Busch Series) in 2007. He won his first race that year at Kentucky Speedway. So far, it is his only NASCAR national series win.
After a number of team changes, Leicht would go on to win the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (now the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Rookie of the Year. His best finish that year was 26th at Watkins Glen. After a four-year break from the sport, Leicht returned to NASCAR in 2017.
Upon his return, Leicht raced for several teams, including RSS Racing, B. J. McLeod Motorsports, and JD Motorsports. Currently, Leicht drives the No. 66 Toyota Supra race car for MBM Motorsports. With 146 Xfinity Series races run in total, Leicht has one win and 17 top-10 finishes.
This post was originally published on November 7, 2019.