For Leo Pego racing isn’t just a good way to spend a summer weekend, nor could you call it a hobby; instead for the man most call simply “Chief” it is his life’s passion.
Growing up the three rambunctious Pego brothers would spend Friday nights listening to the distant rumble of race engines at Mt. Pleasant Speedway and Sundays parked in front of the television watching the Cup race. Leo’s father Maurice “Smiley” Pego well understood his youngest sons passion for the sport and while Leo was recovering from eye surgery at the age of 8 Smiley took Leo to Berlin Raceway to see his first ever short-track race. From that moment on there was no turning back, Leo was never again to far from the track or his neighbor Troy Courtney’s garage. Courtney was not only a racer, but also a sign painter and he soon became Leo’s mentor showing him the world of racing through the eyes of an artist. Leo first picked up a paintbrush at the age of 12 and the neighborhood never looked the same again as he practiced on everything he could get his hands on including a refrigerator that just happened to get pinstriped while his mom was at work. Even though some of their appliances were no longer conventional, Jean Pego always encouraged her son and simply laughed at what she deemed to be “The best looking fridge on the reservation”. By the age of 14 Leo was lettering race cars and already establishing himself as a reputable painter, and by his Mid-20’s he was already being billed as one of the best in the state.
Chief was already deeply entrenched in the world of auto racing through his business; lettering race cars and painting sponsor signs at Merritt Speedway when Ed VanDuinen approached him to step into the tower and announce. Not being very comfortable with the idea of public speaking Leo refused, but then as Leo said with a chuckle, “When he came up behind me at the pit fence, put his big paw on my shoulder and said, ‘Get in the truck boy, you’re going into the tower’, I had no choice but to go”.
From that moment on Leo’s life took on a new direction. The knowledgeable soft spoken kid from Mt. Pleasant has since become one of the most recognizable voices of summer, and every Friday night he can be heard loud and clear over the PA system at Mount Pleasant Speedway.
The 2006 Michigan Auto Racing Fan Club (MARFC) Tom Carnagie Award recipient and 2008 Michigan Motor Sports Hall of Fame Inductee has become very well known and well respected as a track announcer, from the early days at Merritt Speedway on through the nearly two decades that he was pulling double duty at both Mt. Pleasant and Merritt Speedways “Chief” has been a constant fan favorite with his clear voice and endless knowledge.
Even though Leo is most recognized for his achievements as an announcer, to this day he is still viewed as one of the most talented sign painters in the region. Pego Signs in Mt. Pleasant is the sign shop of choice for several competitors in the region, and Leo keeps a busy schedule with custom pin-striping, billboard designs, and various other projects. Although Leo has modernized and moved more towards the popular vinyl lettering in recent years, his true unique style is still prevalent in “Chief” designed cars. The clean, clear styling is one-of-a-kind and Leo is still known to break out the paint and brushes on occasion for a full or partial hand-painted job which I always enjoy seeing.
Pego is one of very few people who find their calling at a young age and he truly feels blessed to be able to do what he loves every day, “Not many people get to do what they enjoy and make a living at it. Sure, there are days that get a little monotonous or ones where I worry about the economy, but that is just what makes it a job instead of a hobby is the way I look at it. I just know I am pretty lucky”.
For the past two years Leo has been able to focus even more on the sign business. After making the very hard decision to leave Merritt Speedway prior to the start of the 2009 season Leo’s been able to spend Saturday nights traveling to various tracks, watching some of the drivers whose cars he’s lettered but never before seen on the track. Taking on the role of fan is one that was quite an adjustment Leo admits, “The first few times at Crystal it was kind of hard to just sit in the stands, and the first time I went to Merritt and didn’t get on the microphone was really hard. But since then I have announced a few events and races at both tracks and it was really nice to spend some time up in the tower, but also go pit side and visit with everyone and soak up the atmosphere. Being in the pits has such a fast-paced intensity that after years in the tower I had even forgotten existed”
2010 saw Leo announcing at Mt. Pleasant, making appearances both in and out of the tower at numerous other tracks, and working for Sonny Hall and the USA Demo Derby announcing Figure 8 events which is something that Leo has enjoyed greatly, and although the 2010 season is barely in the books, 2011 will probably bring much of the same, and although he is always open to the idea of announcing full-time two nights a week, for now Chief is content with life as it is and until next summer rolls around he has plenty to keep him busy.
Away from the track Leo enjoys spending time with his family and friends, taking in concerts at the Soaring Eagle Casino, and he has recently also begun competing in 5K runs.
In addition to Pego signs, Leo is also a board member on the Michigan Motorsports Hall of Fame, “I want to be a good board member and I just feel like there is a whole lot to give back to the people that have done so much for this sport”.