Evansville, IN — Jeff Leka already celebrated his long-awaited first career UMP DIRTcar Racing Open-Wheel Modified national championship two months ago at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg , Ohio .
But the veteran driver from Buffalo , Ill. , still has his formal coronation to go.
That will come on Jan. 10, 2009, when Leka dons a suit-and-tie and accepts a $20,000 check during the 25th annual UMP DIRTcar Racing ‘Night of Champions’ Awards Banquet at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Springfield, Ill.
Leka, 43, will stand in the spotlight at the gala with the national champions of seven other UMP DIRTcar Racing divisions, including repeat Super Late Model title-holder Dennis Erb Jr. of Carpentersville , Ill.
No driver, of course, will deliver a championship acceptance speech dripping with more relief and satisfaction than Leka.
“We’ve been trying (to win the national crown) for a long time and came so close so many times,” said Leka, who ran away with the title by 159 points (2,979-2,820) over Randle Sweeney of Clifty, Ky. “To finally win the thing after all the near-misses – yeah, it does make it sweeter.”
Despite a sparkling Modified resume that includes over 200 career victories and a 1999 NASCAR Winston Racing Series national championship worth $150,000, Leka had annually fallen short in the chase for UMP DIRTcar Racing’s top prize. His national points finishes included second (2004 and 2007), third (1998), fourth (2006) and fifth (2003 and 2005).
Last year’s runner-up was especially heartbreaking for Leka. He led the circuit in feature wins but lost the title by four points to his good buddy Denny Schwartz of Ashmore, Ill. , who claimed his second UMP DIRTcar national title.
The eternally upbeat Leka didn’t hang his head after the dramatic battle for the 2007 title, which went down to the final lap of the season-ending UMP DIRTcar Nationals A-Main at Eldora. He seemed more excited about racing his friend for the national trophy than disappointed about losing it again.
“Last year was so much fun, battling it out with Denny,” said Leka. “We race the same racetracks and battle it out all year, and then we come to Eldora (for the finale) and I’ve got to do so good and he’s got to do so bad for us to tie or to win. It was good for the fans in the stands.”
When it was over, Leka simply stated that he’d just “try again to win it” – and not look back if fate continued to keep him from the brass ring.
“I thought, if I never do it, I can be like (NASCAR driver) Mark Martin,” said Leka. “He’s tried (for the Sprint Cup title) and come so close for so many years.
“And we still had that NASCAR national championship to fall back on. We could still always say we did something bigger than anybody (in Modified racing) has ever thought of doing.”
Ironically, Schwartz played a role in pushing Leka over the hump in 2008. Schwartz, who finished 10th in the national points standings, offered his rival some sage advice for the stretch run. What’s more, at Eldora’s UMP DIRTcar Nationals in early October, Schwartz stepped out of the seat of his Modified and gave the ride to Leka, who had already clinched the title, after Leka’s car was sidelined by a burnt piston during hot laps.
“Me and Denny are good friends and we work real well together,” said Leka, refuting any suggestion that the two competitors do not get along. “One day this year we were talking when I had the points lead and I was thinking about them, and he was like, ‘Jeff, just settle down and drive your race car like you always do and you’ll be good.’ When you sit back you realize, ‘You know, he’s right.’
“The NASCAR Winston Racing Series national deal in ’99 paid $150,000 and I wasn’t stressed out on that at all. This UMP deal pays $20,000 to win and it was a whole different story. I stressed on it quite a bit. It’s something we’ve come so close to winning before and have been wanting to do for such a long time to kind of fulfill what we’ve done over the years.”
Leka buckled down, regained his focus and rolled to the title. But even as his points lead grew and a crown seemed inevitable, he refused to think ahead to a championship celebration until he had first place officially cemented.
“I didn’t want to believe until I had it (clinched) until (the last week in September) when UMP put it on their website,” said Leka. “I kept telling my wife, ‘I think mathematically they can catch us.’ She was like, ‘Jeff, there’s no way.’ But you just keep looking at everything that can happen.”
Leka earned his title in much the same manner as Schwartz did in 2007. It was Sweeney who led the circuit in feature wins this season, but Leka came out on top of the points race because he performed well in events with higher car counts.
Under the UMP DIRTcar Racing points system, the national open-wheel Modified champ is determined using a driver’s best 35 finishes/points nights with an emphasis on car counts. A field of 21 cars provides one bonus point for each finishing position, with a one-point-per-car increase up to a maximum of 20 bonus points for fields numbering 40 or more.
Leka certainly gathered his share of victories, however. He won 25 UMP DIRTcar-sanctioned features and four unsanctioned events, including the $7,000-to-win Big Dawg 100 at Union County Speedway in Liberty , Ind. , and the Modified World 100 (worth $3,000) at Peoria ( Ill. ) Speedway . In addition, he captured the Farmer City ( Ill. ) Raceway and Lincoln ( Ill. ) Speedway championships; the UMP DIRTcar North Region and Illinois State titles; and the Monster Midwest Tour mini-series crown.
And Leka did it all with his own familiar No. 3L equipment. He runs cars built by Bob Pierce and uses powerplants from the Hovis Racing Engines shop in St. Charles , Mo.
“It’s taken so many people to do this,” said Leka, who works as a mechanic at his brother-in-law’s auto repair shop. “It isn’t just me as a driver. It’s everybody with this whole team – the guys on the team, the people who help us, our wives, my kids (a 24-year-old daughter and sons Jeffrey, 22, who finished third in the Lincoln Speedway’s Modified points standings, and Justin, 16, who debuted in the Kid Modz class in 2008).
“It’s a big deal for us to win this championship, and we’re excited about it,” he continued. “Nobody realizes how hard this is to do. There’s a lot of good racers out there. At our hometrack ( Farmer City ), I race against probably five of the top 10 (drivers) in the nation every weekend.
“So to win (the national title) means a lot. It gives us a boost. It takes a lot of pressure off, and hopefully we can come back next year and do it again.”
Tickets to the 25th annual UMP DIRTcar Racing ‘Night of Champions’ Awards Banquet at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Springfield, Ill., are on sale for $35 each or $65 per couple. They can be purchased with a credit or debit card by calling the UMP DIRTcar Racing office at 812-426-1200 during regular business hours.
Ticket reservations must be made by Jan. 3.
For more information on UMP DIRTcar Racing, visit www.dirtcar.com.