“We’re dirt around here,” contends Jeff Leka, of Buffalo, Ill., (pop. 485) with a tone of genuine pride.
By itself, the comment might appear to be disparaging, but Leka’s passion is driving racecars, and his races take place on dirt tracks throughout the heartland, so no offense is taken.
On the contrary, the 35-year-old’s mastery on dirt is a throwback to the earliest traditions of stock-car racing, when mountain moonshiners, proud of their ballistic vehicles that routinely outran the law, frequently would gather in some open field to determine who was the fastest gun of them all.
These fields of racing frenzy soon were worn down into rutted circular paths of mud and dirt. Legends like Curtis Turner, Tim and Fonty Flock, Junior Johnson, and Lee Petty, some of whom actually did run homemade liquor on moonlit rural back roads, emerged from these Sunday afternoon showdowns to become NASCAR’s premier pioneers of the 1940s and early 1950s.
And though today’s NASCAR headliners—the Winston Cup racing circuit, along with the highly popular Busch Series—are run on asphalt, it is to the racing organization’s credit that the days and ways of early dirt-track racing have not been forgotten.
Thanks to the NASCAR Weekly Racing Series, a 10-region division of nearly 100 local short tracks, both dirt and asphalt, in 39 states (including Alaska), Leka and other quality racers can compete for hometown prestige and earn some prize money, too.
Though his name may not rank alongside The King, Richard Petty, or the late Dale Earnhardt in terms of fan recognition, Leka does earn peer points as a former NASCAR national champion.
In November 1999, Leka, a mechanic for Bypass Auto Body in Springfield, Ill., lived the dream of anyone who’s ever gotten behind the wheel and envisioned checkered flags, Victory Lane, and a trip to the NASCAR Awards Banquet in Florida. There, at the annual fest saluting all of NASCAR’s racing elite, Leka heard his name called out not only as the top point-getter in the Heartland Region but in declaration as the NASCAR Weekly Racing Series national champion—an honor that carried a $150,000 check with it.
“What I did, I’m proud of,” Leka says. “I feel I’m one of those lucky guys that did something that a lot of people haven’t done.”
Claiming that national title on the strength of 34 feature-race victories in 43 starts was no one-man job, and Leka highly praises his seven-man racing team, consisting of car co-owners John and Jim Livingston and crew members Dave Rhodes, Danny Chumley, John Chase, and Leka’s father, Ed.
“I include them in everything,” Leka says. “We win together and lose together. We don’t have just one guy who is a tire changer or one guy who only changes the gears; everybody works together. My guys, you never have to second-guess ’em. Whatever they do, it’s done right. They’re just a good bunch of guys who like to go racing.”
Last year, Leka “didn’t want to have to fill them shoes again,” so he and his team opted to visit dirt ovals they hadn’t run before. In early February of this year, the entire team went to Florida, splitting six straight nights of racing between Volusia Speedway Park (DeLeon Springs) and East Bay in Tampa to open Leka’s 2001 season.
“It turned out real good,” he says, the smile in his voice unable to mask considerable satisfaction at the total count of two heat-race wins, two third-place feature finishes, and one feature victory—the last coming, incredibly, after a 24th-place start.
“We had a long way to go on that one,” he admits.
Firin’ it up
Leka’s undertaking in general could be a page from the back of any number of local short-track Friday-Saturday night heroes around America who slide counter-clockwise through dirt corners in homespun land rockets. These competitors, who have families and regular day jobs, spin racing dreams out of a backyard garage, working weeknights under the hood and chassis of their beloved car for a few moments under the lights when the weekend comes.
“When you get out of your truck after work and walk to the garage, and the lights are on, and there’s four guys standing there that beat you there to work on your racecar, that makes you feel pretty good,” Leka says.
After making the Illinois circuit each weekend—Friday night racing at Farmer City, Saturday nights at Macon Speedway, and Sundays at Danville—Leka and his crew try to take Monday nights off. Each Tuesday evening they unload the car, wash it, and scrutinize it.
“If nothing’s tore up, we jack the car up, put it on jack stands, take the tires and wheels off, and start checking every little thing there is; any bolts and nuts, any welds, wiring—everything,” Leka says. “Like they say, if you want to run up front, you gotta work on your stuff. Thursday night we’ll fire it up. Then it goes back in the trailer, and we’re ready to race Friday night.”
Leka’s thirst for racing developed early, arising not surprisingly through the interests of elder family members.
“I’ve been around it all my life,” he recounts. “My dad raced, my uncle (Jim Leka, reigning NASCAR Heartland Region champion) raced. When I turned 16, that’s when it started. Me and my dad did it for a couple of years but couldn’t afford to do it right, so we got out of it.”
After farming for nine years for his uncle, John, Leka returned to racing in 1992. Four years later, the magic began.
“The team that we won the national championship with was put together in ’96. Ever since, everything has just clicked for us. We’ve won track championships every year somewhere.”
In his weekend travels and short-track travails, Leka has seen the fan makeup at races change considerably and for the better.
“Ten years ago, it was nothing to go to the racetrack and see a fight. You don’t see that now. You see more kids today, and I’m big on kids.”
The Leka children, in return, are big on their dad. Indeed, this entire family supports each other’s ventures. On a road trip to Bulls Gap, Tenn., last year, Leka took along his sons, Jeffrey, now 14, and Justin, 8.
“For my youngest boy, you know, his dad’s a national champion—‘He’s the best,’” Leka says with a chuckle. “I try to support my kids’ interests. Jeffrey races go-carts, but the bad thing of it is, my racing interferes with his. My daughter (Jennifer, 15) is a cheerleader, so we try to make the basketball games. In turn, she comes and supports me at the races.”
Anchoring the Leka household is Jeff’s wife, Pam, a one-time crewmember for her husband in earlier racing years well before the current team was assembled. She still clocks qualifying times and logs points standings for the enterprise and, more importantly, is Leka’s primary confidante.
“Yeah, I’m usually his sounding board,” she says. “He can come to me and pretty much get anything off his mind. Then I can give him my opinion, and you know, I’m not always on his side. ‘Maybe you should’ve done this or done that.’ Everybody tells me I keep him grounded. It works out really good for us, because he doesn’t have to keep things all bottled up.”
This season, Leka will drive in two divisions—Modifieds and Late Model. Both yellow and blue cars will have the same numeral/letter on the side: 3L (Livingston, Livingston & Leka). Though he would dearly love a Winston Cup ride, as any driver in the country would, he is realistic.
“I realize that’s not going to happen,” he says matter-of-factly. “We’re little, we’re running on dirt. There’s a lot of good people out there that run on asphalt, and they’re young.”
It just makes the analogy with those old-time country stock car runners all the more plausible and appealing when you see Leka readjust his sights to those tight oval dirt tracks he loves so much.
“We want to do this as a sport,” he says convincingly, “where it’s fun for everybody, as far as family and everyone. We try and include everybody in on the whole deal.”