Former national champion making his final laps this season
Jeff Leka’s never been one to brag. He won’t tell you about his 40-plus years of racing around the Midwest, or his collection of over 350 Feature wins and a DIRTcar national championship, but he will embrace a well-deserved victory lap before calling it a career at the end of this season.
“From where I started to where I ended up … there aren’t too many people that could do what I did,” said Leka, a multi-time champion from Buffalo, IL, at several of DIRTcar’s most historic venues. “And I don’t brag on anything, but man, we did good. And now I’ll always have something I can look back on.”
In the meantime, he’s enjoying the new perks of the legacy he’s leaving behind with race fans across the nation.
“If you Google my name, it’s a big deal,” Leka said. “I just went to a place last weekend looking for a new camper and the guy Googled my name and said, ‘I can’t believe it, you’re Jeff Leka!’”
“It’s kinda neat.”
The 2008 DIRTcar UMP Modified national champion has seen a recent boom in business at Leka Tree Service, and at 55 years of age, he’s devoting more time away from work to family, friends and helping the next generation of dirt track stars.
“I started a small business that turned into a big business, and we just don’t have the time anymore,” Leka said. “I’ve raced all my life. It’s just time to call it quits.
“Next year, I just want to help a few people and just enjoy the races every night from the garage.”
His decision didn’t come easy, though it had been on his mind for some time. Winning races and track titles 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 quit racing. Well, when I turned 40 and I was winning races I was like, ‘Well, I ain’t gonna quit now,’” Leka said. “Then when I turned 50, I said I was gonna quit racing … I turned 50 and I’m still winning races and said ‘Well, I ain’t gonna quit now.’
“It doesn’t matter what you do, it always comes to an end. When you’re winning 20 Features a year and on top of the world, you don’t look at that. You don’t look down the road and think, ‘This is going to come to an end one of these days.’ You just keep racing.”
Jeff, nephew to 1989 DIRTcar Late Model national champion Jim Leka, learned from a young age the value of hard work in the garage, wrenching on and racing a UMP Sportsman with his father in the early 1980s. He’s applied that discipline to each of the different rides he’s piloted since then, but also recognizes the increasing amount of time and effort that requires to uphold that same success in 2022.
“Now, I haven’t been winning races because, like everybody says is true – you win races in your shop,” Leka said. “You have to work hard in your shop to be ahead of everybody else. When you don’t do that, you don’t win races, and the fun’s not there.”
“I don’t have the time like I used to. When I had an 8-5 job, I had time.”
Leka ate plenty from the fruits of his shop labor early on in his career, first strapping into the seat of a Charlie Hartung-owned UMP Modified in 1992. Just three years into his Modified venture, he was crowned both Modified and Late Model track champion at Macon Speedway in 1994 before repeating as dual champ in 1997 – the first and only driver in track history to accomplish the feat.
He later capped off the stretch of dominance with one of his biggest career accolades, clinching the 1999 NASCAR Winston Racing Series national title in his Modified, worth $150,000 in prize money.
By the early 2000s, Leka had gone all-in on UMP Modified racing to chase a trophy he did not yet have. He posted five-straight top-10 finishes in DIRTcar national points from 2003-2007, including two runners-up, and was getting tired of coming so close.
Leka and longtime rival Denny Schwartz battled neck-and-neck for the points lead throughout 2007, culminating with an exciting finish in the season-ending DIRTcar Fall Nationals at Eldora Speedway. Coming into the Feature, Leka needed a victory and Schwartz to finish outside the top-three to overcome the two-point deficit he faced. They both finished on the podium, and Leka was again left with the sting of a bridesmaid finish against the best in the nation.
“I was joking with my wife one time and was like, ‘I’m gonna be like Mark Martin; I’m never gonna win this. I’m always second,’” Leka said. “And then boom, I win it.”
Leka came back with vengeance the following year, winning a grand total of 30 Features, handily winning the 2008 DIRTcar UMP Modified national championship by a whopping 159 points.
“Back then, it was more of the driver and who had the smoothest foot and could feel the car,” Leka said. “In ’08, the car was just perfect. It didn’t matter where we went – Granite City, Fairbury – we were on fire.”
Week-in and week-out, Leka and the #3L team took down DIRTcar’s best racers. He recalls the battles he had with the greats in the region – Chad Kinder, Dan Hamstra, Mike Harrison, Gary Cook Jr. – but is most fond of the time he spent on track with Denny Schwartz.
“He was the guy to beat,” Leka said. “I started racing Farmer City and he’d come up there and we’d battle back-and-forth. He’d lead one lap, I’d lead one lap. The next night, we’d go somewhere else and we’d battle back-and-forth again.”
Leka most cherishes the mutual respect they shared as competitors, especially in times of need. He vividly recalls his 2008 Fall Nationals weekend at Eldora where he blew an engine in Friday Hot Laps, while Schwartz broke a rear-end component later on. Schwartz offered up his backup car to Leka to finish out the weekend and took the rear-end that Leka offered from his car to get through the weekend.
“Him and I being like we were and knowing the kind of friendship we had meant a lot,” said Leka, trailing off into deep reflection. “Everybody that’s helped me in my whole career – I’ve got to say thanks to them. If it wouldn’t have been for the help and the sponsors, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.
“From my Late Model days to my Modified days … I’ve just got to say thanks to everybody.”
And after 40-plus years of racing, more than 350 wins and a national championship, that’s no bragging.