Jason Leffler’s sprint car did what sprint cars everywhere do hundreds of times a season: it clipped a retaining wall at Bridgeport Speedway in New Jersey Wednesday night and started flipping. When it stopped, everybody expected what usually happens to happen: Leffler to get out of the car and walk away.
Rescue workers removed him from the car and he was airlifted to a nearby hospital where he was pronounced dead. He was 37 years old and leaves his 5-year-old son, Charlie (the photo of the two of them published with this post is from the driver’s personal website, jasonleffler.com).
And so ended the life of one of the most versatile and successful race drivers in the sport. And it’s also, once again, a sad reminder that automobile racing - unlike baseball, hockey, football and so-on - is very much a deadly game.
As mentioned, we watch the sprint cars and the midgets flip, and the big NASCAR stock cars ram into each other in what everybody calls “the Big One,” and just about 100 per cent of the time the drivers climb out and wave to the crowd and walk back to the pits and it’s just a part of doin’ business.
And then there are the times like this one that make you stop and think.
Leffler started racing, as just about all the good ones do, as a child. From the age of 12 until Wednesday night, he won four USAC open-wheel championships before trying NASCAR, where he won two races in the Nationwide Series (294 starts; 107 top tens) and one in the Craftsman/Camping World Truck Series (56 starts, 35 top tens).
He made 73 Sprint Cup Series starts, including last weekend’s race at Pocono. It was a start-and-park deal and he finished 43rd. He had one top ten finish but never won in the big league.
No matter. Over the years, his talent was appreciated and he was hired to drive for, among others, Joe Gibbs Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing and Kyle Busch Motorsports.
He was a veteran of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He raced in the Indianapolis 500 in 2000 and ran the Brickyard 400 five times. Statements mourning his passing were issued by the Speedway, IZOD IndyCar Series, World of Outlaws and NASCAR.
Of particular note was one issued by Panther Racing Indy car team owner John Barnes, who said:"Jason . . . was one of the most versatile drivers I have ever met. He reminded me so much of Parnelli Jones. We will miss his fierce spirit and his devilish attitude. He constitutes the old saying, 'It isn't the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog.' Jason was a small man with a huge right foot."
Leffler – like Tony Stewart, the late Rich Vogler, Kenny Schrader and Busch – was a racer’s racer. He wasn’t satisfied to just go out once a week in a truck or stock car or Indy car and glad-hand with the folks taking time out from the corporate boardrooms; he had to be out on a speedway someplace, pedal to the metal.
That’s why, for instance, in 2002 he was racing in the truck series, Nationwide and Cup and won the Night Before the 500 midget race at Indianapolis Raceway Park.
This season, as he announced on his website, he’d returned to his roots and was out racing two and three or even more times a week in sprint cars on dirt tracks in Pennsylvania and surrounding states.
It was during one of those races that he met his end. He was running second in a heat race and it all went wrong. He was one of the really good guys and will be missed.