By Craig Murto
Auto racing safety has come a long way in the past decade, but the death of Jason Leffler proves the sport still has a long way to go.
By now most of you know about Leffler's death last week behind the wheel of a 410 Sprint Car at Bridgeport Speedway in New Jersey. He was qualifying for a $7,000-to-win feature race when his car veered into the wall at the five-eighths-mile dirt facility and flipped down the front stretch.
The 37-year-old racer was extricated from the car and flown by helicopter to a nearby hospital, where he died of "neck trauma." State police investigating the accident were reported to have said they believed mechanical failure led to a loss of control. The track ceased racing for the night following the accident.
Leffler was a talented racer. He'd won three straight USAC Midget titles and a Silver Crown championship in his career, and is in the National Midget Hall of Fame. He raced in all of NASCAR's top divisions, and had two Nationwide victories and a truck win to his credit. But making it big as a professional racecar driver takes as much luck as becoming a rock star; Leffler hadn't had a full-time ride for a couple years.
A single parent, Leffler raised his 5-year-old son, Charlie Dean, by himself. Maybe without a full-time ride he struggled to make ends meet. Maybe he simply suffered from the usual racer "it can't happen to me" attitude. Whatever the reason, one of the saddest parts of this tragedy is that he left his son without any life insurance.
It almost boggles the mind that someone can race automobiles -- as a hobby or as a profession -- in this day and age and not have adequate insurance. But insurance costs money ... as does safety.
Leffler wore a head-and-neck restraint, but it's been reported to me that it was not a HANS device or one of the similar devices; rather, it was simply a series of straps; OK, but not the best. More importantly, it's also been reported to me that Leffler's car was not fitted with one of the modern "containment" seats that prevent head movement in case of a crash. I cannot verify the above points, but it is a fact that such gear is not always mandated, especially at the local level. Containment seats cost money racers at the local level would rather put into their engines or shocks.
The main point is that the sport is still cruel, sometimes beyond belief. If you're a local racer, please do all you can to make yourself as safe as possible; if not for you, then do it for your family.
One telling thing about Jason Leffler is that he was well-liked by his competitors.
"Jason Leffler was a great racer and an even better friend," said Tony Stewart, who also cut his teeth in open-wheel racecars. "We raced together a lot, and our career paths were very similar. He loved racing, especially open-wheel racing, and that's a passion we both share. To not have him around to talk about whatever race one of us had just run, or were going to run, will be hard. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family, especially his son, Charlie, who Jason loved more than anything."
Drivers throughout the NASCAR garage and beyond have pitched in to help Leffler's son. The USAC Benevolent Foundation announced a $10,000 grant in the memory of the late USAC racing champion.
The 501-3C-designated foundation will also be accepting additional donations earmarked for use by Jason's son Charlie Dean and Charlie's mother, Allison. According to a USAC press release, a designated cap amount to be announced by the board of directors of the foundation will also result in additional dollar-for-dollar matching funds for this purpose.
"We are devastated by Jason's loss and recognize his long and loyal commitment to USAC racing and to the sport of auto racing in general," said USAC CEO/President Kevin Miller. "We encourage everyone to participate in this worthwhile endeavor as we honor the memory of one of our most cherished champions and appreciate the foundation board for their efforts in making this all possible."
All contributions earmarked for the Leffler program, which may include the Charlie Dean Leffler Education Fund, may be directed to the USAC Benevolent Foundation, c/o Executive Director Bill Marvel, 4910 W. 16th St., Speedway, IN 46224.
Racers will band together and help each other in crisis situations, as seen by the outpouring of help for Jason Leffler's young son in the wake of this tragedy. But this tragedy also demonstrates that as many strides toward safety auto racing has made in the past 10 years, it still has a long way to go.
Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.