Police examine the wrecked race car that Jason Leffler was driving when he died on June 12.

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.

Button ‘lucky’ to escape injury after drain cover damages car (VIDEO)

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Jenson Button was fortunate not to be harmed after a drain cover came loose during practice for the Monaco Grand Prix on Thursday and caused a significant amount of damage to his McLaren Formula 1 car.

With the streets of Monaco forming the racetrack for the grand prix weekend, efforts are made to ensure that parts of the road such as drain covers are either removed or welded down to prevent them from damaging the cars.

Towards the end of FP1, Nico Rosberg sustained a puncture after running wide at Sainte Devote and hitting the drain cover, which then came loose and struck Button’s car.

The McLaren MP4-31 was left with significant damage to its front wing, with Button explaining that it had also affected a number of other parts in the process.

“The day was made tougher for my side of garage by the drain cover, which came loose and broke through my front wing, front suspension, brake duct and floor,” Button said.

“The mechanics did a great job to get the car ready for FP2, but we’ve still got a long way to go until we’re happy with our competitiveness.”

Button said he felt fortunate that the drain cover had remained at a low level and not come up near his cockpit.

“A racetrack is a controlled environment, and we take enough risks as racing drivers,” Button said.

“Normally, the safety standards here are very good, but that incident is something we don’t want to see again.

“It was lucky that the drain cover stayed quite low on the ground.”

McLaren racing director Eric Boullier added: “Jenson was fortunate to emerge unscathed from an incident in this morning’s session when a drain cover smashed into his car.

“The organizers work very hard to ensure this circuit is as safe as possible, but we need to look into exactly what happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Ricciardo targets Monaco pole, victory after strong practice showing

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 26: Daniel Ricciardo of Australia driving the (3) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer on track during practice for the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 26, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Daniel Ricciardo has set his sights on winning the Monaco Grand Prix for the first time this weekend after dominating practice on Thursday for Red Bull.

Ricciardo arrived in Monaco with an updated power unit, which combined with the aerodynamic strength of the RB12 car allowed the Australian to finish six-tenths of a second clear of the field in FP2.

The result came as a surprise given Mercedes’ recent dominance and pace in first practice, but Ricciardo is confident that he can carry this form through the rest of the weekend.

“The engine has helped a little bit but obviously we have a good car around here as well, I think it’s down to a little bit of both,” Ricciardo said.

“Let’s see how we go in qualifying on Saturday. We are in a good position, depending on what the track is going to do on Sunday. I have good confidence with the car which is very important around here.

“Come qualifying and race day Mercedes will turn it up but hopefully I can stay in front. I’ll be surprised if we can keep the gap we have today in qualifying but we will see how we go.

“If the weather stays the same for the race and qualifying we won’t change too many things.

“The goal here is pole and win.”

Ricciardo’s best result in Monaco came in 2014, when he finished third behind Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton in his first season with Red Bull.

Team Pelfrey restructures its operations, leadership structure

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Photo: Team Pelfrey
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You might remember earlier this year that Team Pelfrey acquired what had been 8Star Motorsports, for a two-car Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires program. The team is now outright owned by Dale Pelfrey.

While Pelfrey’s name was still on the team’s respective Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda and F16000 programs, the team actually had a different team principal in Nigel Tuckey.

On Thursday afternoon, that’s now changed. Pelfrey himself is now back in charge of all Team Pelfrey programs.

The Team Pelfrey teams in the Mazda Road to Indy this year have had a mixed bag.

The Indy Lights team with Juan Piedrahita and Scott Hargrove has one podium (Hargrove second at St. Petersburg), but struggled with a lack of testing and several other issues.

Pato O’Ward meanwhile has won five of the first six Pro Mazda races and is dominating that series title ahead of Aaron Telitz. Weiron Tan ran the opening two weekends at St. Petersburg and Barber but was sidelined at the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis weekend, doubtful for a further return.

Things are more fluid in USF2000. Robert Megennis is the team’s lone driver standing with Jordan Cane and James Munro both understood to be out, and T.J. Fischer’s status yet to be determined as Fischer was not on the entry list for this weekend’s race at Lucas Oil Raceway. Cane may reappear with another team later this year.

Here is the team release for more information.

One of the largest teams in the Mazda Road to Indy paddock, Team Pelfrey, is pushing into one of the most important race weekends of the year with a revised team structure, and ready to continue the great on track results.

Dale Pelfrey,founder and owner of Team Pelfrey, has re-acquired control of the team with the focus of bringing all of his teams under the same roof, providing a direct line from entry level open wheel racing all the way to the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“I am extremely appreciative of everything Nigel [Tuckey] has achieved with the team for the past few years.” Commented Pelfrey. “He’s helped build the team into a real powerhouse, and while I’m sad to see him go, what we have done is secure a stronger future for our team. I’m confident we’ve got the best crew and drivers around to keep winning races and championships, and I can’t wait to see what the second half of 2016 has in store.”

While Dale Pelfrey will oversee the outfit that competes in the Formula F1600 Championship Series, the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda and the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, Jonny Baker will continue in an expanded fashion as Director of Team Operations.

Team Pelfrey will be competing with their star USF2000 driver Robert Megennis and Pro Mazda drivers Pato O’Ward and Aaron Telitz at Lucas Oil Raceway this weekend as a part of the Carb Night Classic event. Team Pelfrey currently lead the Driver and Team championships in Pro Mazda and have also scored two podium finishes with rookie Megennis in USF2000.

Vettel unconcerned despite ‘scrappy’ Thursday in Monaco

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 26:  Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP) on track during practice for the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 26, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Sebastian Vettel remains upbeat heading into the remainder of the Monaco Grand Prix weekend despite enduring a “scrappy” practice on Thursday.

Ferrari once again failed to match the pace of both Mercedes and Red Bull in practice in Monaco, suggesting that its struggles in Spain may continue this weekend.

Vettel had a difficult second practice that saw him hit the wall twice, albeit without sustaining any major damage.

“It was not a ‘clean’ day in the office today,” Vettel conceded after finishing ninth in FP2.

“Our session was a bit scrappy: I touched the wall, damaged the rear wing, but luckily we were able to fix it and carry on.

“I just didn’t get everything out of the car, couldn’t find the rhythm and didn’t do good laps on the ultra-soft tires. If you look at the standings, we don’t belong where we scored today.”

Vettel believes that the Ferrari SF16-H car remains competitive, and is sure that Thursday’s struggles are not a sign of things to come in qualifying and the race.

“Overall the car is good and has the pace, so I am not worried for Saturday,” Vettel said.

“Today our focus was not towards ranking high up, we tried a couple of things and it is fair to say that some of them didn’t work.

“Being the first practice day, it is also difficult to see what other people did.”

Teammate Kimi Raikkonen fared marginally better than Vettel, finishing seventh in FP2 as he struggled to get to grips with the new Pirelli ultra-soft tires.

“It was not an ideal day, but it is still the first day of practice,” Raikkonen said.

“In the morning I was not very happy with the car but in the afternoon we were able to improve the behavior. There’s a lot of work to do but of course this is not the easiest place when things are not running exactly as you want.

“It’s the first time we use the ultra-soft compound in the race weekend, the feeling is that it’s the best fitting tire of all of those we have here, but we still need to find a way to make them work slightly better.”