One more time for Jeff Leka

BUFFALO, Illinois — Jeff Leka has never bragged about it. He won’t tell you about his 40+ years of racing in the Midwest or his 350+ feature wins and a national DIRTcar championship, but he will embrace a well-deserved victory lap before calling it a career at the end of the season.

“From where I started to where I ended up…there aren’t too many people who could do what I did,” said Leka, a multiple champion from Buffalo, Illinois at several of DIRTcar’s most historic venues . “And I’m not bragging about anything, but man we did well. And now I always have something to look back on.”

In the meantime, he’s enjoying the new benefits of the legacy he’s leaving to race fans across the country.

“If you google my name, that’s a big deal,” Leka said. “I was in a place last weekend looking for a new RV and the guy Googled my name and said, ‘I can’t believe it, you’re Jeff Leka!'”

“It’s kind of neat.”

The 2008 DIRTcar UMP Modified National Champion has recently experienced a boom in business at Leka Tree Service and at the age of 55 he is dedicating more time outside of work to family, friends and helping the next generation of dirt track stars.

“I started a small business that grew into a big company, and we’re just running out of time,” Leka said. “I’ve raced my whole life. It’s just time to call it quits.

“Next year I just want to help a few people and just enjoy the races from the pits every night.”

His decision was not easy for him, although it had been on his mind for some time. Winning races and titles on the track was a fuel source that kept his competitive flame burning even when the end seemed near.

“When I turned 40 I said I was going to stop racing. Well, when I turned 40 and was winning races, I was like, ‘Well, I’m not going to stop now,'” Leka said. “Then when I turned 50, I said I was going to quit racing…I turned 50 and I’m still winning races and I said, ‘Well, I’m not going to stop now.’

“No matter what you do, it always comes to an end. When you’re winning 20 movies a year and all that, don’t watch it. You don’t look down the street and think, ‘This is going to end one day.’ You just keep running.”

Nephew of 1989 DIRTcar Late Model National Champion Jim Leka, Jeff learned the value of hard work in the garage at an early age when he bolted and raced a UMP sportsman with his father in the early 1980s. He has applied this discipline to each of the different vehicles he has driven since, but also recognizes the increasing investment of time and work required to maintain this success in 2022.

“Well, I didn’t win any races because, as everyone says, it’s true – you win races in your business,” Leka said. “You have to work hard in your business to be ahead of everyone else. If you don’t do that, you don’t win races and the fun isn’t there.”

“I don’t have the time I used to have. When I had an 8-5 job, I had time.”

Leka ate much of the fruit of his workshop labors early in his career, strapping himself into the seat of a Charlie Hartung-owned UMP Modified for the first time in 1992. Just three years after his Modified project, he was crowned both Modified and Late Model Track Champion at Macon Speedway in 1994 before repeating himself as a double champion in 1997 – the first and only driver in the track’s history to do so accomplished this feat.

Leka Byjoshjames Artwork
Jeff Leka (Josh James photo)

He later capped the stretch of dominance with one of his biggest career honors by winning the 1999 NASCAR Winston Racing Series national title in his Modified, which was worth $150,000 in prize money.

In the early 2000s, Leka had gone all-in in UMP Modified races to chase a trophy he didn’t already have. He scored five consecutive top 10 finishes in the national DIRTcar points, including two runners-up, from 2003 to 2007 and was tired of being so close.

Leka and longtime rival Denny Schwartz went head-to-head for the points lead in 2007, culminating in an exciting finish at the season-ending DIRTcar Fall Nationals at Eldora Speedway.

Coming into the feature, Leka needed a win and Schwartz needed to finish outside the top-3 to break the two-point deficit he was facing. They both ended up on the podium and Leka was again left with the sting of a bridesmaids finish against the nation’s best.

“I once joked with my wife and said, ‘I’m going to be like Mark Martin; I will never win this. I’m always second,” said Leka. “And then boom, I win it.”

Leka returned with a vengeance the following year, winning a total of 30 features and winning the 2008 DIRTcar UMP Modified national championship with a whopping 159 points.

“Back then it was more the driver who had the smoothest foot and could feel the car,” said Leka. “08 the car was just perfect. No matter where we went – Granite City, Fairbury – we were hooked.”

Week after week, Leka and Team No. 3L defeated the best DIRTcar racers. He remembers the battles he had with the region’s greats – Chad Kinder, Dan Hamstra, Mike Harrison, Gary Cook Jr. – but what he loves most is the time he spent at the track with Denny Schwartz.

“He was the guy to beat,” said Leka. “I started racing at Farmer City and he came up there and we fought back and forth. He would lead a lap, I would lead a lap. The next night we went somewhere else and fought back and forth again.”

What Leka values ​​most is the mutual respect they shared as competitors, especially in times of need. He vividly recalls his weekend at the 2008 Fall Nationals in Eldora, where he suffered an engine failure in Friday’s hot laps, while Schwartz later ruptured a rear suspension component. Schwartz offered Leka his spare car to end the weekend and took the rear offered by Leka off his car to get through the weekend.

“He and I were who we were and knew about the kind of friendship that meant a lot to us,” Leka said and fell into deep thought. “Everyone who has helped me throughout my career – I have to thank them. I couldn’t have done it without the help and the sponsors.

“From my late model days to my modified days… I just have to say thank you to everyone.”

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