Standing on pit road at a Canadian speedway, Brad Leighton needed to find shelter from a hard rain. His options were limited. “I saw two beaming human beings under one of those oversized umbrellas,” said Leighton. “I kind of snuck under it.”
Steve and Peg Griswold drew closer, giving their visitor room. Little did anyone know Leighton’s search for a dry spot that day would change lives for the next 20 years.
Steve Griswold died about six weeks ago at age 64. He had told his family to limit the fuss about his passing. The man who lived much of his adult life in the Portland area usually preferred to stay off center stage. That someone so prominent could do so was one of his many successes.
“For all of his accomplishments, he was a pretty modest guy,” said Leighton, a three-time champion stock car driver who drove for Griswold. “He made a boatload of money as a developer but making money wasn’t his passion. He loved living and he loved people.”
You could say April was his favorite time of year, when the auto racing scene in New England would start to come alive. It would be true but not accurate. Every month was Griswold’s favorite.
The business community will remember Griswold as a partner in the group planning the development of the Thompson’s Point project in Portland, although that was just one of his various enterprises. Included in the proposed complex is an event center that would seat about 4,000 and be home to the Maine Red Claws. Griswold was a part owner of the D-League team but typically just another excited face in the crowd in his barn coat and jeans.
He played college basketball at Bates but waved off questions about that career. Don’t go there, he once told me with his typically big laugh. It wouldn’t be worth my time.
He was the man behind Leighton’s three stock car racing championships, owning and managing the team that won the American-Canadian Tour title in 1995 and then NASCAR’s Busch North Series titles in 1999 and 2000.
Later, Griswold brought drivers Mike Stefanik and Andy Santerre into the fold, fielding a three-car team.
“He could see the trees and the forest,” said Leighton, “when often I’d look only at the trees. He knew how to put people together to make things happen. He would empower you and make you make decisions.
“He’d allow you to step out onto the edge, even on the racetrack. I don’t ever remember being questioned or reprimanded in the heat of the moment. Later he’d say maybe next time I should do things a little differently.”
Most players and team owners have inflated egos. Certainly they are competitive to the point of clashing, even when on the same team. Griswold balanced his fire with enthusiasm and it worked.
He didn’t agree with NASCAR when it shifted its emphasis from tour racing in New England to a broader area that covered much of the East. He unplugged Grizco Racing.
“Got any ideas?” he once asked me. “I have to do something. Would Portland support Arena Football?”
Griswold loved pro football. He had season tickets to the Patriots, although his got him special access.
Sometimes there would be a seat for him on the team charter. Or on the charter carrying the families of Patriots players when the destination was the Super Bowl.
Many times, Leighton was beside him. They had become friends and business partners. Monday, Leighton and his wife, Lynn, returned from Florida. Some of Griswold’s cremains were spread on the Atlantic Ocean waters off Fort Lauderdale, a favored place.
No one bought a ticket to watch Steve Griswold compete, but the sports scene in New England is emptier without him.
“What made Steve unique was his enthusiasm for everything, sports in particular,” said Bill Ryan Jr., the president and principal owner of the Red Claws. “I’d see him wearing a Patriots jacket and a Red Claws cap. He didn’t take himself too seriously.”
Leighton won’t forget the day he stepped under Steve and Peg Griswold’s umbrella. “It was a lengthy rain delay. He asked me what I wanted. I told him I want to win.”
Shortly after, Leighton became Griswold’s driver. He won races and championships. And a lot more than that.
“He made me trust people when I couldn’t. He makes you a better person. I couldn’t be more thankful.
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: