Jeff Ledford Gets Up to Speed With His Plans

When he first drove a full-power race car onto the track, after breaking in with go-karts and reduced-horsepower vehicles, then-13-year-old Jeffrey Ledford got caught up in the bright lights, revving engines and crescendo of crowd noise swirling around him at the track.

His vehicle’s higher horsepower also played a role in what came next. 

“To put it in perspective. I was going from a 100-horsepower car in the (kid’s division) up to like a 650-horsepower car,” Ledford recalled. “I rolled out on the track and I immediately held the gas wide open and it spun the tires so bad I did a 180 (turn) and almost hit the flag stand.”

The senior mechanical engineering major’s poise and results have markedly improved. Ledford just moved up to the Super Late Model division, the highest level in dirt-track racing and a step below NASCAR. He got his first victory at that level recently at Peoria Speedway near campus. He usually races at tracks in Fairbury and Farmer City, an hour or so from his Pontiac, Ill., home.

Growing up watching his dad race dirt-track cars and getting an up-close view of the action from the pits spurred Ledford’s decisions about his future.  

“My main mindset when choosing my major was I wanted to make my cars go faster,” he admitted. “With all the experience I have working on race cars, I couldn’t think of a better fit for me to further my racing career.”

Ledford said preparation is key, estimating it takes one hour of prep time for every minute actually spent on the track. “Only one person wins each night and everybody else goes home and works even harder.” 

As a college student with school obligations, he relies on his father and a dedicated crew of friends at home to help with prerace work, allowing for a late arrival, if needed. Ledford credits his father, who still races occasionally, with guiding him into the sport. A younger teen brother races in a lower division and Ledford’s mother handles racing and business details.

 “I just remember (the track) was the only place I wanted to be. Whenever I couldn’t go to the races, it just killed me,” Ledford said, adding he was excited when his father did well but “whenever he had a bad night, it really took a toll on me.” 

While most feature races pay $1,000 to $2,500 to winners, national races command as much as $100,000 purses, even at smaller tracks. Although many racers do it as a hobby, Ledford said there are 30 to 40 Super Late Model racers nationally who make a living at the sport, where it can cost as much as $50,000 to build and maintain a car. 

And while there are limited career opportunities on the track, Ledford sees options outside of driving.  

“When it comes to the fabricating and making parts for people or doing setup services, even as crazy as it sounds, for how small of a sport it is, people are doing data acquisition where they're wiring up all these sensors on their cars and going out and doing laps.”

The pandemic and lack of fans caused a delay for 2020 Central Illinois dirt-track racing but when it did open up, Ledford said people looking for a safer family activity were drawn to the tracks.

Beyond the family atmosphere and friendly competition, Ledford said racing is a release. 

“When I'm at the race track, my mind completely disconnects from everything else in life. … I think that's why a lot of people like it. It's something I think about a lot. It's just something about being in your own little world for a little bit.”

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