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After cutting his racing teeth at the down-and-dirty bullrings throughout Illinois in a lower divisions, 21-year-old Jeffrey Ledford of Pontiac, Ill., has landed where he’s always wanted to be.
“If I could race Late Models for a living the rest of my life,” Ledford said, “I’d be the happiest man on earth.”
Ledford is expected to be among entrants in Wednesday’s FALS Cup Summer Showcase at Fairbury (Ill.) Speedway with a $5,000-to-win purse on the line in the track’s long-awaited season opener.
A former regular of the DIRTcar modified ranks around his home tracks of Fairbury and Farmer City Raceway, Ledford says the stars were all aligned for the switch to a full-size DIRTcar Late Models for 2020. He acquired a 2017 Rocket XR1 Chassis over the winter and a new Mullins Race Engines LS7 to go with it. Before long, it was time to hit the track.
After a testing session at Farmer City, Ledford and his crew made the trip out to Federated Auto Parts Raceway at I-55 for May 9’s Karl’s Chevrolet 50 — his first race in the car against a sturdy field of racers looking for action as coronavirus restrictions eased. He finished the night one spot shy of transferring to the main event, but said he learned a lot in his first visit to I-55’s high banks.
“With every lap that I ran, I just got a little more comfortable, just getting a feel for it,” Ledford said. “It takes a lot of confidence to drive these cars the way they need to be driven.”
His next time out June 6, Ledford came from 14th to finish seventh as he displayed a knack for adapting to new cars and new racetracks.
Ledford’s talent behind the wheel started when he wheeled go-karts at the age of 6. His father Jay, a modified racer, helped move Jeffrey up to the modified division at the age of 14 in 2013. Since then, Ledford has seen plenty of success, totaling 15 feature victories including the modified portion of 2017’s Farmer City 74. He also captured Farmer City’s 2017 modified championship.
Hundreds of laps around the lightning-fast quarter-mile bullrings of Farmer City and Fairbury in have developed a thick notebook for Ledford, who will now adapt that to his full-fendered car. Competing weekly against Illinois top guns like Ryan Unzicker, Mike Spatola, Jason Feger and Allen Weisser, he’s going to need it.
“The tracks around here, especially Fairbury and Farmer City, they never seem to completely slick-off and seal-over,” Ledford said. “There’s always some traction in places that might be tough to find, but you’ve always got to keep an eye out for it. Usually, that could be right around the infield tires or right up against the wall.
“At the end of the day, if you’re in the hunt for a win, you can always throw it up on the cushion, even if your car’s not handling perfect. If you can drive harder than the guy in front of you, usually when you’re up on the cushion, you can make something happen.”
Racing in the Ledford family goes even further than Jeffrey and Jay’s efforts; younger brother Mikey is digging into his second modified season. All three racers drove modifieds built by Mark Bush Racing, who Jeffrey credited for his modified success and for jump-starting his Late Model venture by hooking the team up with the folks at Rocket Chassis.
“Those guys over at Rocket Chassis, they do a great job,” Ledford said. “We race Mark Bush Racing Modifieds, and in getting to know Mark, he introduced us to (Rocket co-founder) Mark Richards. We’re just familiar with those guys and they’re super helpful over there.”
A mechanical engineering student at Bradley University, Ledford wouldn’t mind trying his hand at chassis fabrication and design.
“Even if I can’t find a way to race full time behind the wheel, I’d like to, one day, build my own cars and have my own chassis-building business,” he said. “Try to use my mechanical engineering skills to make that work.”
For now, the young hotshoe is focused on getting more familiar with his new 800-horsepower chariot. He’s always looked up to the big Illinois Late Model names, but none more than his biggest inspiration, Shannon Babb. Ledford even runs the same car number as the four-time DIRTcar Summer Nationals champion — No. 18.
“I’ve always liked the way he races other people. He’s got that mentality where if you show him respect, he’ll show you respect back,” Ledford said. “That’s the way I like to approach it too. Plus, he’s just a hell of a race car driver.”