Mike Neff · Thursday June 13, 2013
I was watching the Stanley Cup, looking online to see Hell Tour results when a message pops up that says: “Jason Leffler was seriously hurt in a Sprint Car crash at Bridgeport”. My first thought is, “Damn, I hope he didn’t break something important that will keep him from getting back in the car soon.” Then, I jump onto Twitter and the misinformation is flying like crazy. He was in cardiac arrest. He’s fine. He was airlifted. He wasn’t airlifted he was in an ambulance. He’s dead. He’s not dead. What is true and what is speculation? You don’t know but one thing is for sure, it is more than a broken bone or two. Thoughts go back to seeing him at the track and giving him crap about his haircut. Isn’t it time for you to get a grown-up haircut?
By about 10:45 PM, NBC 10 in Philly reports he’s passed away. OK, now this is really a possibility. This isn’t some hack from Arizona reporting he’s dead, this is a television station in a major metropolitan area. Dustin Long passes it along. Then Jim Utter chimes in. It was then for me that the moment became real: Jason Leffler is not with us anymore.
Jason, who never won in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series in 73 starts visited Victory Lane twice in the Nationwide Series. He hadn’t been racing in the upper NASCAR ranks this year before a spot start last weekend at Pocono for Mark Smith in a start and park in the No. 19. But perhaps his biggest accomplishment was off the track, in the form of a little boy named Charlie. Leffler, a single dad loved his son and doted on him whenever he could. While he wasn’t running NASCAR much, he was still following his passion and racing on dirt. Leffler cut his teeth slinging mud and he could still wheel a 410 Winged Sprint Car, which we now know ultimately took his life.
After we lost Dale Earnhardt, the focus on safety was turned up 1,000% and many advancements came along that have made racing safer than it has ever been. For several years, we didn’t lose any drivers. Michael McDowell hit the wall at 200, rolled double digit times and walked away. Jeff Gordon drilled the wall head on at Richmond and, while it hurt, he walked away. Racing almost started to seem safe. While we pay lip service to not resting on our laurels, there haven’t been too many new innovations in the last few years. Some of the equipment that drivers wear is starting to age. Maybe some drivers aren’t being as diligent because they have the HANS device. Perhaps the seatbelts weren’t checked because we didn’t have time. Who knows why, but all of a sudden we’re starting to see drivers passing away again.
Dan Wheldon is killed in the IndyCar season finale in 2011. Tyler Morr dies after a crash at Auburndale in May 2012. Jeff Osborn lost his life in May 2012 as well. Tyler Wolf passes away at Calistoga in October 2012. Just last month, Josh Burton died in a crash at Bloomington Speedway. Auto racing is a dangerous sport and no matter how many different implements of safety are utilized or mandated, it will always be a dangerous sport.
Growing up in Indianapolis in the ’60s and ’70s, the Speedway was a larger than life cathedral where daring men cheated death every time they went on the track. That element of danger is what drew a young kid to be a racing fan before he grew up to be involved in the sport. I will never say I want to see drivers hurt or injured, and I am grateful for every single safety innovation, from fireproof suits and gloves to HANS devices and SAFER barriers. However, all of the safety has taken the feeling of impending doom and potential for calamity out of the sport. It is moments like tonight that are a stark reminder that injury and death are very real possibilities every time that a driver climbs into a car and speed is something that has to be respected.
Jason Leffler loved driving race cars. There are tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Jason Lefflers spread across this country who love driving race cars. Getting behind the wheel and trying to go as fast as possible around a track faster than anyone else is what drives them. The thrill of being on the edge, and sometimes stepping over it only to save the car and continue racing is the ultimate feeling of freedom and competition. If you don’t get it, you never will, and there’s no use in trying to explain it.
As expected, tributes to Leffler began pouring in. “NASCAR extends its thoughts, prayers and deepest sympathies to the family of Jason Leffler who passed away earlier this evening,” said the sanctioning body in a statement last night. “For more than a decade, Jason was a fierce competitor in our sport and he will be missed.”
Frontstretch’s own Jeff Wolfe got to the track late, right after the accident. He didn’t have much to say but this is what he shared: “I just knew he was gone. It’s one of those unmistakable feelings you get that don’t come along too often and don’t want to ever feel again. So, it’s all just sad, really, really sad. Jason Leffler was a racer. He did it because he loved it. And he did it because we as fans loved it. I don’t know what else to say.”
The World of Outlaws, where Leffler had been successful for so many years also released a statement. “The World of Outlaws extends its deepest sympathy and condolences to the family and friends of Jason Leffler,” they said. “A great racer and man whose life ended too soon tonight. We were always excited to see Jason enter the pits to race with the Outlaws, and he will no doubt be missed by everybody from his fellow competitors to officials to his many fans.”
Jason Leffler was a racer. He’d race a Cup car or a motorized scooter. Like any driver, he had an ego, but he was also one of the nicest guys you could meet in the garage. He wore his hair the same way for years because his sponsor Great Clips wanted him to. He had some good rides and he had some crappy rides. He took what he could get because he loved to race. He only had three wins in the national touring series of NASCAR but he always ran like a sprint car driver, wide open and on the edge. Unfortunately for Jason on Wednesday night, he stepped over that edge and couldn’t get it back and, as a result, we’ll never see him turn a wheel in a race car again.
RIP Jason, we’ll miss you.
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