Jason and Charlie Leffler. (Photo courtesy of Jason Leffler's Instagram account)

Remembering Jason Leffler, one year after his tragic death

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It’s hard to believe but Thursday marks one year since the racing world lost Jason Leffler.

The former NASCAR driver – he raced across all three series: Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Trucks – was killed June 12, 2013 in a horrific crash during a sprint car race at Bridgeport Speedway in New Jersey.

Leffler was 37 at the time of his death and left behind a young son, Charlie, who idolized his dad, his hero, his best friend.

Nicknamed “LefTurn,” Leffler had gone back to his first love of sprint car racing when he couldn’t secure a full-time ride on any of the NASCAR’s premier series. Sure, he probably could have gotten a ride in a so-called “start-and-park” Cup or NNS or Truck team, but that wasn’t Leffler’s style. He would either be in competitive equipment or he would go find another series where he would.

That’s how he wound up back where he began his racing career in, sprint cars. Sure, he knew the danger and risks of the open-wheel rides: their propensity to flip over, the ease in which cars broke apart mechanically, and how any race had the potential to end in either victory or injury – or worse.

Sadly, all those figured in Leffler’s death. And as much of a cliché as it sounds, Leffler was a man who loved what he did and he went out in just that fashion.

Sure, it was a violent, horrible way to die, but if Leffler had a choice of how he’d leave this world, being behind the wheel would most likely be the way he would have wanted.

If he had his druthers, he likely also would have chosen to remain in NASCAR, with its outstanding achievements in safety that have resulted in no drivers being killed since Dale Earnhardt in the February 2001 Daytona 500.

But Leffler was a pragmatist, as well. He knew sprint cars were often described as rolling death traps, not having near as much in terms of safety features as in NASCAR. But he had to do what he had to do to support himself and Charlie.

Standing just 5-foot 3 inches, Leffler was a little guy in stature but was one of the most competitive drivers you’d ever want to meet. Likewise, he had a big heart, always willing to help a fellow racer.

He also loved interacting with fans, not because he had to due to sponsor mandates, but rather because – even though he was shy at times – he still liked to describe himself as a “people person.”

During one of the many times I interviewed him over the years, Leffler said he learned early on that when he met someone for the first time as a stranger, he made sure they parted as newly-made friends.

He loved to be around people so much. And Leffler also had a sense of humor that bordered on the mischievous. He loved a good joke and was known for sometimes playing practical jokes on friends, teammates, crew members and even fans – not with malice, but solely for the fun of it so that even the victim of his joke would come away busting a gut laughing at what had just transpired.

Leffler was not above making fun of himself, either. When he first debuted a Mohawk-style haircut – most likely the first NASCAR driver to ever wear that kind of ‘do – he knew it would draw and call attention to him.

But Leffler took it in stride. I can’t recall where I first saw him with the Mohawk, but when I asked him about it, he joked that his hair stylist made a bad cut on one side of his head, and tried fix it by replicating the job on the other side.

“Well, one thing kinda led to another – and here I am, the finished product, the last of the Mohawkins,” I remember him saying with a huge grin on his face.

Talk about taking lemons and turning them into lemonade, the Mohawk became Leffler’s calling card, the identifier that so many remembered him by and as.

Even fans that didn’t know or remember Leffler’s name would immediately recognize him as “the guy with the Mohawk.”

And while he eventually let his hair grow out, he started wearing what could be described as a hybrid Mohawk with a slight dash of Mullet thrown in.

Or as Leffler called it, “a FauxHawk.”

Leffler was a character, no doubt, in a sport that too often features overly-homogenized, overly-PC drivers. NASCAR needs less of the latter and more like Leffler.

And while he may not have been the greatest driver out there, he had talent that crossed over borders: not only could he drive midgets, Silver Crown and sprint cars, he also had a decade of NASCAR racing on his resume, not to mention three appearances on the IndyCar circuit, including competing in the legendary Indianapolis 500 in 2000.

He finished 17th in his one-and-only Indy 500, a race won ironically enough by future NASCAR (now back in IndyCar) driver Juan Pablo Montoya.

 

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According to both police reports and video of the wreck, Leffler was running second in the first heat race on the night he died, was closing in on the leader when his car suddenly jerked, went out of control, made a 180-degree turn and hit the outside retaining wall on its left side (the driver’s side), and then flipped over several times in front of the packed grandstands on the front straightaway.

Authorities estimate Leffler was doing about 135 mph when the accident occurred. He died before he the ambulance got to the hospital of blunt force trauma from his head and helmet slamming into the wall, according to an autopsy.

A subsequent investigation by New Jersey State Police found that a mechanical failure in the front suspension of Leffler’s race car was the likely cause of the crash that led to his death.

“As a result of this mechanical failure, Leffler’s front suspension failed and his steering became locked,” the State Police report concluded.

The wreck came just three days after Leffler’s last NASCAR race, at Pocono Raceway, where he finished last in the Sprint Cup event there won by Jimmie Johnson.

Leffler managed to take just eight laps around the 2.5-mile tri-oval before his transmission failed, ending his day.

No one knew that would be the last time we would see Leffler in person or on TV.

 

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As I said in the beginning of this column, it’s hard to believe it’s been a year since we lost Jason. The little guy made a big impact on thousands of lives, and even though he’s no longer with us, that impact will stay with us for the rest of our own lives.

For one of the best recollections of Leffler the man, racer, father and all-around good guy, I encourage you to read a column that my good friend Dave Moody from SiriusXM NASCAR Radio wrote the day after Leffler died.

Click here to read Moody’s wonderful tribute.

Also, check out the touching tribute video to Leffler by NASCAR.com below.

We miss you, Jason. The world of racing just isn’t the same without you. R.I.P.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

 

Verstappen: Surprise Red Bull promotion ‘an amazing opportunity’

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 29:  Max Verstappen of Scuderia Toro Rosso and The Netherlands during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 29, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Peter Fox/Getty Images)
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Max Verstappen called his surprise promotion to a race seat at Red Bull Racing for the Spanish Grand Prix “an amazing opportunity” following the team’s announcement on Thursday.

Verstappen, 18, has made a significant impact on Formula 1 since becoming the youngest driver in the history of the series last year when he made his debut with Toro Rosso.

Following Daniil Kvyat’s calamitous start to last weekend’s Russian Grand Prix, Red Bull took the decision to demote him back to Toro Rosso as of the Spanish Grand Prix.

Verstappen moves up to Red Bull in place of the Russian, marking his first opportunity to race with a top line team in F1.

“The next step in my relatively short career so far is an amazing opportunity,” Verstappen wrote on his official website.

“I really want to thank Red Bull Racing and Dr. Helmut Marko for the confidence they have in me. I’ll have the chance to learn a lot from the top team that is Red Bull Racing.

“I’m also looking forward to work with an experienced and proven team mate like Daniel Ricciardo.

“I can’t thank all the people at Scuderia Toro Rosso enough for all their hard work. Everyone back at the factory in Faenza, and Franz Tost in particular, have made an amazing contribution to get me this far in my career. We’ve had an amazing time together.

“Together with Red Bull Racing we’ll do everything to prepare me as best as possible for my first laps in the RB12 Tag Heuer, next week in Barcelona. I cannot wait for that special moment to happen.”

Verstappen will fly to Red Bull’s factory in Milton Keynes, England later this week for a seat fitting before completing some simulator work and getting to know the team ahead of his debut in Spain on May 15.

Verstappen promoted to Red Bull, Kvyat back at Toro Rosso from Spanish GP

SOCHI, RUSSIA - MAY 01:  Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Scuderia Toro Rosso talks with Red Bull Racing Team Consultant Dr Helmut Marko in the Paddock ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on May 1, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Red Bull has announced that Max Verstappen will take the place of Daniil Kvyat at its senior Formula 1 team for the Spanish Grand Prix.

Verstappen, 18, swaps seats with Kvyat, who returns to Toro Rosso – Red Bull’s junior team – having made his debut with the Italian outfit back in 2014.

Kvyat came under fire following the Russian Grand Prix after hitting Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel twice on the first lap and ruining teammate Daniel Ricciardo’s race.

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner and team advisor Helmut Marko had face-to-face talks with Kvyat this week, before taking the decision to demote him to Toro Rosso.

“Red Bull Racing will have a new driver line-up from the Spanish Grand Prix,” a statement from Red Bull read.

“Max Verstappen will be joining the team to drive alongside Daniel Ricciardo. Daniil Kvyat will continue to drive for Red Bull and will re-join sister team Scuderia Toro Rosso.”

Horner was pleased to give Verstappen the opportunity to race for the senior Red Bull team after an impressive rookie season in 2015.

“Max has proven to be an outstanding young talent,” Horner said.

“His performance at Toro Rosso has been impressive so far and we are pleased to give him the opportunity to drive for Red Bull Racing.

“We are in the unique position to have all four drivers across Red Bull Racing and Toro Rosso under long term contracts with Red Bull, so we have the flexibility to move them between the two teams.

“Dany will be able to continue his development at Toro Rosso, in a team that he is familiar with, giving him the chance to regain his form and show his potential.”

The immediate response to the news was that of shock, given that barring his errors in Russia, Kvyat has enjoyed a strong stint with Red Bull.

The Russian beat the highly-rated Ricciardo across their first year together as teammates in 2015, and charged to third place in China just three weeks ago for his second podium finish in F1.

Red Bull has been known to make cut-throat decisions in the past though, with the likes of Jean-Eric Vergne, Jaime Alguersuari, Sebastien Buemi and Sebastien Bourdais all being dropped from the energy drinks giant’s F1 programme in the past.

Bourdais was the last driver to be replaced mid-season in the RBR/STR setup, dropping the Champ Car legend after the 2009 German Grand Prix.

Verstappen now has the chance to prove his mettle and make the best of a top-line seat, but at just 18 years old, he still has plenty to learn.

As for Kvyat? It is difficult to see where his F1 career goes from here, at least with Red Bull. The sport is enjoying a boom in Russia and he is the face of it, yet being sent back to the ‘training ground’ of Red Bull is nothing short of humiliating.

Time will tell whether this was a canny move by Red Bull or a snap decision all parties will come to regret.

PIRTEK Team Murray rolls out several tidbits as Brabham preps for debut

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It’s been a busy last week or so for PIRTEK Team Murray and driver Matthew Brabham around the Indianapolis area.

And they haven’t even begun practicing or qualifying or even racing in the Indianapolis 500 on May 29.

* First, the team announced that the most decorated police officer in New York City Police history, Walter Wasilewski, has joined PIRTEK Team Murray’s CK Crew of Veterans and First Responders that will take part in the Tag Heuer Pit Stop Challenge for the Indianapolis 500 (photo below; photo credit: PIRTEK Team Murray).

056Wasilewski received over 200 medals and awards before retiring. He made over 3,000 arrests during his career with the NYPD, and also served at Ground Zero following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.

The CK Crew, will allow the Chris Kyle Frog Foundation to host 500 members of the military and first responders at Indianapolis Motor Speedway throughout the month of May. Kyle was a highly-decorated NAVY Seal and sniper who was killed in 2013 in his native Texas.

Seven of those 500 members of the CK Crew will train and crew Brabham’s PIRTEK Team Murray car in the Tag Heuer Pit Stop Challenge, to be held on Miller Lite Carb Day on May 27.

“This concept is unique and it will allow a number of guys and girls to come together and form a team to hopefully get PIRTEK Team Murray to victory lane in the Pit Stop Challenge,” said Walter Wasilewski.

“Everyone knows what Chris Kyle did for America and Taya (Kyle’s widow) is carrying on his legacy with such dignity and class. I’ve had the chance to meet with Taya on several occasions in New York and she is an amazing American.

“My career in the Police Department was through some of the most dangerous times in New York’s history. Period.

“That training is going to come in handy when standing waiting for the PIRTEK Team Murray racecar to come at me. In the Police Department, you have to have faith in those around you to protect you – in this case, I have to have the faith in Matt to stop the car on his marks so we can then go about our job.”

* Second, Brabham recently had the opportunity to take part in the Indianapolis Colts’ NFL Draft announcement (see main photo).

Brabham, 22, joined four-time and reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon in announcing two of the Colts’ draft picks: Hassan Ridgeway from Texas and Florida’s Antonio Morrison.

The draft announcement was made on the start-finish line of bricks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“I knew nothing about American football when I first moved back to the US from Australia in 2012, but I have really grown to love it,” Brabham said. “I have been to several Colts games and the more I know the more I am really starting to get into it.

“We had a fantasy football league with several of the drivers last year and I won it, so I must be learning something.

“It is great that we can combine two things as significant as the Colts and NFL Draft and the Indianapolis Speedway and the 100th Indy 500.

“To get up close to the Colts’ 2006 Super Bowl trophy (Vince Lombardi Trophy) was pretty cool. You don’t get to do that every day.”

* Third, Matthew Brabham’s grandfather, three-time Formula One champion Sir Jack Brabham, has been named to “The Top 100 Most Important People in Indy 500 History” by the Indianapolis Star.

“Sir Jack,” as he was called in the later years of his life, is ranked 56th on the list. The patriarch of the Brabham family passed away on May 19, 2014 at the age of 88.

Young Matthew is only the third third-generation racer to attempt to race in the 500, following his grandfather and father Geoff.

The other two families that have had three generations of racers compete at Indianapolis are the Vukovich family – Bill, Billy Jr. and Billy III – as well as the Andretti family: Mario, Michael and Marco.

“We have said it many times, but it is just an honor and a privilege to be part of this year’s Month of May and everything that goes with it,” Matthew Brabham said in a media release.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Marty Snider’s son Myatt Snider set for ARCA debut

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Photo: Cunningham Motorsports
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Myatt Snider, the 21-year-old eldest son of NBCSN NASCAR and IndyCar reporter Marty Snider, will make his ARCA Series debut later this month.

His series debut will come at Toledo Speedway on May 22, driving the No. 22 Ford for Cunningham Motorsports. It will be the first of nine starts for him this year.

“This is the big opportunity that I have been dreaming about for several years,” the younger Snider said in a release. “I feel so blessed to drive for Paul Andrews and Cunningham Motorsports. I’m confident the move up to ARCA will be a smooth transition, especially since Jeff Caudill will be coming with me and continue being my crew chief.”

With Kevin Lee’s son Jackson also a rising star in the karting ranks, it’s cool to see the next generation of talent start to grow and develop in the stock car ranks. Marty Snider will work on NBCSN’s IndyCar broadcasts through Road America on June 26 on pit road, before the return of NASCAR on NBC on July 2 at Daytona.

A more extensive report can be found here via NASCAR TALK’s Nate Ryan.