Brett Poirier · Tuesday June 18, 2013
My 17-year-old brother sent me a text on Thursday after the first news report emerged about Jason Leffler’s accident at Bridgeport Speedway. He spent the next couple of hours following the story closely, trying to find out the fate of a driver he grew up watching, mainly in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. I sent him a text in the morning telling him that Leffler didn’t make it, but of course he already knew. He commented on the situation being particularly sad because Leffler had a son.
“It’s rare that drivers get killed these days, but it still happens and it really sucks when it does,” he wrote to me.
This marked one of the few times where my brother, who started racing go-karts about three years ago and aspires to be a racecar driver, really had to confront death in racing. The generation before him felt the impact of the late 90s and early 2000s. From hearing about Adam’s Petty’s death at New Hampshire on television, to learning about Kenny Irwin’s passing at a gas station on the way to that same track, to being in the grandstands at Daytona, and watching others around me cheer as Dale Earnhardt crashed in his last race — only to find out in the morning that he had died — I certainly felt it.
I can’t remember what I ate for breakfast, or the names of people I saw, but I have vivid memories of what I was doing each time I learned about one of those deaths.
By brother was 4 years old, though, when Earnhardt died in 2001. And thanks to numerous safety innovations that was the last on-track fatality in one of NASCAR’s top three series. We’ve gone more than 12 years without a fatality, which is an eternity in auto racing — a sport where so many drivers have lost their lives.
When you go that long, it is easy to get complacent, get comfortable and forget just how dangerous auto racing is. I think that’s why Leffler’s death came as such a shock to the racing community. There have been other deaths in motorsports in the last year, but none matching the notoriety of Leffler.
The last death that really shook the auto racing community was Dan Wheldon’s in the IndyCar season finale at Las Vegas in 2011. That incident hit my brother particularly hard because his favorite IndyCar driver was Wheldon.
IndyCar debuted a new, safer car the next year — a car Wheldon ironically helped design. There haven’t been any fatalities since. Formula 1 hasn’t had a fatality since it lost one of its all-time greats, Ayrton Senna, in 1994. Times certainly have changed for the better in the top levels of auto racing.
The Car of Tomorrow looked and raced like a pile of garbage, but the innovations made in that car were carried over to the current Generation 6 model. The driver was moved away from the door with a layer of energy-absorbing foam placed in between, more headroom was added, etc. Drivers also now use head-and-neck restraints, have more protective seats and crash into cushioned walls.
Denny Hamlin’s accident at Fontana is proof that the threat of serious injury still exists, but NASCAR has come a long way since the days when there was no speed limit on pit road and most of the field raced in open-faced helmets. It’s amazing to look at all of the safety innovations made in the last 10 years alone in NASCAR.
The bottom levels of auto racing haven’t seen the same changes, though. Many drivers do wear head-and-neck restraints, but many still don’t. And the walls aren’t going to get any softer with the SAFER Barrier currently going for about $500 a foot.
Racing at the local level is still about as a dangerous as ever, and Leffler’s accident was a reminder of that. But the accident was also a reminder of just how lucky we’ve been in recent years to watch the greatest drivers in the world compete without having death on the back of our minds.
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