Source: USA TODAY
BROOKLYN, Mich. – Dave Blaney was watching at Bridgeport Speedway as Jason Leffler was killed when his 410 sprint car slammed into a wall twice.
It won’t preclude Blaney from continuing to dabble in open-wheel racing while moonlighting from his full-time Sprint Cup ride in the No. 7 Chevrolet of Tommy Baldwin Racing.
When Blaney’s NASCAR career is over, the champion of the World of Outlaws and USAC Silver Crown probably will return full time to racing’s minor leagues.
“That’s what I came from and that’s where I learned how to race and grew up racing,” Blaney said. “That’s my first love. You do all you can do safety-wise and use your head, and that’s about the extent of it.”
Defending Cup champion Brad Keselowski cited safety as a primary reason he doesn’t run short tracks very often.
“They don’t have the safety standards that we have here in NASCAR,” Keselowski said. “That’s not to say that all tracks in NASCAR have it right, either. But it’s even 100 times worse at the local level.”
A sense of trepidation mixed with resignation permeated the garage Friday at Michigan International Speedway in the wake of the death of Leffler. New Jersey State Police said Friday they were still investigating the cause of Leffler’s accident Wednesday at the 0.625-mile dirt oval in Swedesboro, N.J.
According to his team, Leffler was wearing a Simpson Hybrid head and neck restraint system, which is one of six approved for use in NASCAR. A blunt force injury occurs when an object strikes the body with force causing compression of tissue. Head and neck restraints are designed to prevent injuries resulting from deceleration trauma when the body is moving and strikes another moving or stationary object, causing stretching or tearing of body tissue.
Leffler’s resilient personality and versatile grit made him popular and respected among peers while racing in all three of NASCAR’s national series.
Those opportunities dried up this season for Leffler, 37, who responded by returning to his roots and racing sprint cars. The Long Beach native won three consecutive USAC Midget championships in 1997-99 before heading to stock cars in the footsteps of friend and mentor Tony Stewart, who provided a place for Leffler to stay for nearly a year when he moved to Indiana.
Stewart is one of many Sprint Cup drivers who still race at the grass-roots levels of short-track racing that produced them. Last year, the three-time champion ran 90 races between sprint cars and stock cars. He is on pace for more than 100 in 2013 with no plan to slow down despite the loss of his good friend.
“I am as careful as I am when I get in a car on a city street,” Stewart said. “There will be more people that die in car crashes today than die in race cars. It’s just part of it, and I am one of those that believe when it’s your time, it’s your time.”
Stewart defends short tracks
That doesn’t mean the three-time Sprint Cup champion isn’t stringent about safety in his sprint car, which is built by his team with a full-containment seat and other attention to detail.
Stewart, who owns the prestigious Eldora Speedway — where NASCAR’s truck series will run July 24 — along with short tracks in Marion, Ill., and Paducah, Ky., also vigorously defended the safety conditions at the facilities that play host to lesser racing circuits than NASCAR’s premier series, which generally has higher standards that larger speedways can afford to meet through costly upgrades.
“I think things are the best they’ve ever been at this point,” Stewart, who also owns USAC and World of Outlaws teams, said of the nation’s short tracks. “There are facilities that need some work and there are facilities that put a lot of effort into it. It’s like getting on a city street today. Can it be safer? Sure. There are always things you can do better.
“Am I scared to go to any racetrack or feel concerned of not feeling safe? No. I think for the majority just about everywhere you go does a pretty good job and the best they can under the circumstances they have to work with. The safety standards weren’t what caused (Leffler’s crash). It was an accident. Just like if you go out and there’s a car crash. It’s an accident.
“Short-track promoters are doing everything they can do to operate and just stay afloat and to keep having tracks for drivers that want to be NASCAR drivers just to have the ability to race and learn so they can come up to this level. It’s hard enough for these promoters and track owners to do what they’re doing, so please try to cut them a little slack this week. Nobody as a track owner wants to go through what happened this week, but it’s not due to a lack of effort on their part to try to make their facilities as safe as possible.”
As a driver-owner, Stewart also enjoys the luxury of having virtual carte blanche to race when he pleases (he said Stewart-Haas Racing sponsors don’t need any convincing it’s a good idea). Other teams consider sponsor conflicts, scheduling hassles and safety conditions before approving a driver to moonlight in another series.
Kahne checked on safety measures with his team
Hendrick Motorsports driver Kasey Kahne owns multiple sprint car teams but hasn’t raced his own since last May because he elected to focus on contending for his first Sprint Cup championship. He hasn’t talked to team owner Rick Hendrick about when he might race sprint cars again.
He talked Thursday with his Kasey Kahne Racing drivers and crew chiefs to ensure their safety measures were up to date before his team headed to a race Friday night in Minnesota.
“Racing can be dangerous, and we found that out Wednesday night,” said Kahne, who was sporting a black ballcap with a “LEFturn” logo that his team made in honor of his friend, Leffler, who had that nickname emblazoned over his driver’s door. “It’s what we all love to do. You just have to make the cars and seats and devices and all of that stuff to be as safe as you possibly can. Freak accidents happen every day, no matter what you’re doing.”
Michael Waltrip Racing’s Clint Bowyer, who often races Late Models on dirt, said “safety standards (are) as best as we know how to make them on any level, whether it’s a street stock competition or a Cup race. It’s still sad. Jason was such a good guy; fun to be around and it’s just weird to think that he’s not around anymore. Of course, it’s scary, but we’re all racers, and we love to go to the racetrack just like he did. It’s what we’ve done our whole lives, and it’s probably not going to stop now.”
Each series — be it Late Models or World of Outlaws — has a sanctioning agreement that the track must sign. The agreements include safety standards.
Some, though, might continue to pause at electing to race at tracks that aren’t outfitted with energy-absorbing SAFER barriers to cushion heavy impact or other safety measures that larger tracks can afford.
Safety measures a concern for some
That’s a major concern for Keselowski.
“My dad raced local short tracks and every once in a while, we’ll talk about some track that he went to with my brother, and I’ll ask him how it was, and he’ll tell me, ‘Well, it hasn’t changed since 1975 when I was last there.’ I’m pretty sure safety has taken some pretty big leaps forward since 1970-something, and I think that’s the issue facing safety at most local tracks.
“Obviously, it’s not a simple issue. They have funding limitations that kind of plague that level, but I’m nervous for anyone that races at those levels because I know what happens if something goes wrong and those safety standards aren’t there. … It’s a shame that our industry is reactive, and I wish it wasn’t. That’s a much bigger piece than NASCAR – that’s the whole industry of racing. We have a tendency to wait until something bad happens before we fix things, and we need to stop that. That’s how you prevent things like this from happening, but that’s just not in our culture. Unfortunately for the 5-year-old little boy that lost his dad, that’s our sport.”
Keselowski was referring to Charlie, Leffler’s son, who has been mentioned by many drivers over the past two days in a series of poignant tributes.
“It’s hard to believe the next time I go to a racetrack I won’t see Jason,” Keselowski said. “I don’t think that’s really sunk in for me, and I don’t know that it’s really sunk in for anyone because that’s the kind of racer he is. You could see him at any track, whether it was the Cup race at Pocono or some Late Model race or Sprint Car show on the other end of the country that you just show up to watch. He could be there.
“He was a pure racer who cared enough for this sport that even when there was a race that he perhaps wasn’t going to make a lot of money off of or make a strong living, he raced it because that’s what he does. Jason may not have had the most amount of success at the Cup level, but he had the respect of the garage.”
Leffler had two shots four years apart at trying to stick full time in Sprint Cup but washed out before making it to a second season with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2001 and with Joe Gibbs Racing in ’05.
Yet he kept plugging away – something that isn’t often seen in other pro sports when an athlete is knocked out of the major leagues.
“It’s risk vs. reward,” Jeff Gordon said. “If you can step down a couple tiers and get a good ride and be competitive and enjoy what you are doing and go out there and at least have a shot at winning races, then you adjust. You adjust your lifestyle. If a professional baseball player or a football player thought he could step away from the sport but come in and play a game or two and still be competitive, and they let them do that, I think he’d do it. It’s the fact that nobody really allows that to happen.
“I like to never say never, so I think that guys would like to step away and not necessarily say, ‘I’m never going to drive another race car ever again,’ because what if there was something on their bucket list that they wanted to do? Would it be the Baja 500 or the Baja 1000 or driving a Rally Car or riding a motorcycle? If you feel like you can do it, it’s your prerogative to go out there and do that.”
For some, Leffler’s wreck wasn’t viewed so much as a deterrent as a stark reminder of a driver’s job hazards.
“It’s just proof that we will never get to the stage where everybody is immune to getting hurt in a race car,” Stewart said. “That is just the scenario that we are in and there isn’t anybody that gets behind the wheel that doesn’t understand that going into it, and Jason was that way as well.”
Kahne flew to Pocono Raceway last week with Leffler, whom he said “was happy and in a good place” before making the final NASCAR start of his life.
“It’s just really sad,” he said. “He was just a good guy. Always had a smile on his face. Always would talk to you and say, ‘Hi.’ It didn’t matter who you were. It’s really hard to believe he’s gone.”
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