Sprint car racing needs to mandate NASCAR-style safety standards

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NASCAR has not lost a driver to death in a race car since Dale Earnhardt was killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

Earnhardt’s car went head-on into an outside retaining wall coming onto the frontstretch at an estimated 190-195 mph. He was killed almost instantly from blunt force trauma to his head, otherwise known as basilar skull fracture.

Since then, at least two drivers have suffered serious injuries – Steve Park and Jerry Nadeau – that were related to crashes. Earlier this year, Denny Hamlin suffered a vertebrae fracture that sidelined him for four races, while Earnhardt’s son, Dale Jr., missed two races during last year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup when he suffered a concussion (his second in three months) last October in a 24-car wreck at Talladega Superspeedway.

In less than a one-year span from 2000 to 2001, four drivers – Tony Roper, Kenny Irwin, Adam Petty and Earnhardt – were killed in wrecks across all three major NASCAR series: Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Trucks.

But since the man known as The Intimidator perished 12 years ago, no one has been killed in a NASCAR crash, clearly demonstrative of the safety procedures that the sanctioning body has put in place since then.

That’s not the case, however, in sprint car racing – more commonly referred to as dirt car or dirt track racing. Leffler is the third driver to die in a sprint car event since last October when Tyler Wolf perished in a wreck at Calistoga (Calif.) Speedway, and Josh Burton died at Bloomington (Ind.) Speedway nearly three weeks before Leffler’s crash.

Leffler was wearing a restraint system manufactured by safety expert Bill Simpson’s former company.

“There’s nothing wrong with that system,” Simpson told ESPN.com on Friday. “It’s good. But they don’t protect you after 30 degrees. You have to have some kind of a head support. Period.”

Dave Blaney, who made his mark in dirt track racing before moving to the NASCAR ranks, was also at the New Jersey track that claimed Leffler’s life. In photos of the wreckage that Blaney saw, it appeared Leffler indeed did not have a full headrest in the cockpit of his car.

“That would make that type of wreck extremely dangerous,” Blaney told ESPN.com.

NASCAR has remained death-free since Earnhardt’s crash because it implemented a number of safety enhancements and improvements including the head and neck restraint device, so-called “soft walls”, relocating the driver compartment to be more centralized within the race car, more padding and flame retardation systems within race cars, black box data recorders in every race car and more. Drivers also have seats molded to their body size and style to keep them from moving around, particularly from jarring upon impact.

And while Leffler was indeed wearing a head and neck restraint device on the night he was killed, he did not have the more all-encompassing containment headrest.

Former NASCAR Busch Series champion Randy LaJoie, who now has a thriving business building seats and restraint devices for various forms of race cars, told ESPN.com that he believes up to 50 percent of drivers in sprint cars do not use them, while drivers piloting late model cars don’t use them.

“The systems in those cars can be greatly improved,” LaJoie said. “On the short-track level, with better belt systems, seat mount systems and neck systems, I bet over 95 percent of the crashes are survivable.”

Had Leffler been wearing such a restraint device, it may very well have saved his life.

Graham Rahal survives Road America to finish eighth

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Graham Rahal and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing faced a roller coaster of a race during the Kohler Grand Prix at Road America on Sunday.

He was a rocket off the initial start, jumping from sixth on the grid up to fourth exiting turn 1, but was almost immediately ordered to surrender a position for blocking. He quickly slipped back to sixth, and then began plummeting down the order as he battled an oversteer condition that saw his car chew through its rear tires more quickly than others.

Forced to abandon the planned three-stop strategy, he and the No. 15 Gehl Honda team switched to a four-stop plan that saw him drop well outside the top ten at times.

However, they kept plugging away and rebounded nicely in the second half of the race to eventually finish in eighth. While he would have liked to finish higher up the order, Rahal knows that he and the team got everything they could out of it.

“The car was a handful today. I knew about five laps in that I didn’t have the pace for a three-stop strategy,” Rahal revealed post-race. “We tried as best we could to work with what we had during the race and overcome it. I would have obviously liked to have finished better, but eighth is about as good as we could do today. We struggled with a very loose race car all weekend and just couldn’t put a dent in the problem. We worked awfully hard but just missed it this weekend.”

The eighth-place finish keeps Rahal in the championship hunt. Rahal now sits seventh in the standings, 11 points behind fifth-place Josef Newgarden and 72 behind championship leader Scott Dixon.

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Ed Jones continues steady run with seventh at Road America

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Dale Coyne Racing’s Ed Jones has made waves in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season with a string of solid performances that belie his rookie status.

And Sunday’s Kohler Grand Prix at Road America was no different.

The 22-year-old battled an oversteering car most of the weekend at Road America, and had to navigate a little carnage late in the race as Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay both fell through the field with front wing problems.

However, Jones weathered all storms to finish an impressive seventh, his fifth finish inside the top 10 this year, and his best finish since his third place at the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade MotorOil.

“It was a really tough race,” Jones said of the effort. “We had a loose car yesterday. It was loose, but fast, for qualifying, and today again the car was really loose. I was hanging on the whole race, but the team had some good pit stops and we were able to move up.

“Obviously, the strategy was pretty similar to everyone else. Everyone was aggressive out there. It was hard racing but we came out with a seventh place and we moved up a little bit in the points.”

The seventh-place run sees Jones maintain his position in the top ten in the championship. He currently sits tenth in the standings, three points ahead of Chip Ganassi Racing’s Max Chilton.

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Vilander replaces Bird at AF Corse for Nurburgring WEC round

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AF Corse has confirmed that Toni Vilander will race the No. 71 Ferrari 488 GTE in next month’s FIA World Endurance Championship round at the Nürburgring in place of Sam Bird, who is tied up with Formula E commitments in New York.

Vilander currently races full-time in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with Risi Competizione, and appeared at the 24 Hours of Le Mans two weeks ago.

The Finn won the WEC GT drivers’ title in 2014 and last raced full-time in the series in 2015, but will return at the Nürburgring in place of Bird, who confirmed on Monday that he would be prioritizing his Formula E commitments on the July 16 weekend.

Vilander is relishing the opportunity to race alongside Davide Rigon in the No. 71 Ferrari, and is eager to bounce back from an early retirement at Le Mans.

“I’m happy to be able to return to the FIA WEC with the 488 GTE of AF Corse team. This is my chance to cancel the disappointment of the 24 Hours of Le Mans as soon as possible,” Vilander said.

“Car number 71 is in the top places of the championship standings, and I will give all I have to achieve the best possible result at Nürburgring, to help Ferrari in the manufacturers’ championship and Davide Rigon in the drivers’ ranking.”

British GP expands to four-day schedule, F2/GP3 practice set for Thursday

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The British Grand Prix weekend will expand to a four-day schedule next month as Formula 2 and GP3 practice running gets shifted to Thursday.

On-track running for all Formula 1 events traditionally takes place across three days – Friday to Sunday, bar Monaco, where practice is on Thursday – with support events following a similar format.

Silverstone has confirmed its schedule of events for the British Grand Prix weekend, with F2 and GP3 practice slated for Thursday July 13.

F2 practice will run from 15:30 to 16:15 local time at Silverstone on the Thursday, followed by GP3 running from 16:45 to 17:30.

Both support series will hit the track again on Friday for their respective qualifying sessions, taking place after F1’s second practice in the afternoon.

The remainder of the race weekend will go ahead as usual for F2 and GP3, having one race each on both Saturday and Sunday.

The F1 schedule for the weekend remains unchanged, with FP1 and FP2 on Friday, FP3 and qualifying on Saturday, and the race on Sunday.

Both Renault and Williams will take part in special show-runs during the grand prix weekend as part of their 40th anniversary celebrations.

You can see the full British Grand Prix schedule here.