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

Remembering Jason Leffler, one year after his tragic death

1 Comment

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.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

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.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

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

 

Karam: “A tricky qualifying run for the Gas Monkey Energy car”

JHH_5170
Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

Editor’s note: Sage Karam, a past champion in both the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda series who finished ninth in his first Indianapolis 500 with DRR in 2014 at age 19, will file a series of blogs for NBCSports.com this month. Here’s his third entry, after qualifying and a crazy Monday practice session. You can read his first and second blogs here.  He’ll run the No. 24 Gas Monkey Energy Chevrolet for Dreyer & Reinbold – Kingdom Racing. 

Hi there, Sage Karam checking in again from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It’s Monday, and we put our No. 24 Gas Monkey Energy Chevrolet back into race trim after two days of qualifying for the 100th Indy 500. It was wild out there today! You saw some crazy action out there after qualifying.

But as I mentioned in the lead up to qualifying, the past week’s practice sessions saw a multitude of weather changes from cool to hot, from windy to not. All the time, my Dreyer & Reinbold–Kingdom Racing team did a super job making all of the adjustments for race conditions.

We then put the race car into qualifying trim; you take off the downforce you needed versus when you were running around other cars on track. In qualifying, it’s a four-lap sprint by yourself, and you attempt to get the maximum speed possible.

On Saturday, the first day of qualifications, I think the track really changed from the rest of the week, and I think it threw a lot of guys off, me especially. The car balance did a complete 180 on us. We were loose Friday, as the rear end of the car wants to come around on you.

But, on Saturday, we had a lot of understeer, so it kind of caught us off guard in the morning. We went back to the garage before qualifying and did some changes as we were not really sure what we had, and it was just kind of a gamble.

I mean I was flat (on the throttle), and I told myself I was going to go flat. I put my left foot over my right foot and that was it. I worked with my tools in the car (weight jacker, etc.) and I went flat three laps. On the fourth lap, the car started understeering again and I had to crack the throttle about five to ten percent going into turn one. So, there’s more left in the car. We’re low on downforce then, just because we didn’t know what we were going to have.

I knew the car had a lot more speed left in it, and I knew I have a great team with DRR-Kingdom Racing and Gas Monkey Energy on board. So we went back to the garage and we look at the computer charts and numbers. I thought there was at least another mile an hour left in the car, just in downforce. We were looking to come in to Sunday be in the 229-mile average range. I thought we could be at 228 or 229 for Sunday’s final qualifying runs.

On Sunday, I was not pleased with our qualifying attempt. We just had too much downforce in the car. The track temperature kept climbing throughout the afternoon. So the team wanted to keep a little more downforce in the car to handle the hotter track.

But some clouds came over the Speedway right before our qualifying attempt. The cloud cover definitely cooled off the track surface and we just didn’t need that much downforce. The car was good Saturday that I thought we had a shot at tenth, which is the best you can get if you miss the top nine on the first day.

The track was changing every time you go out there. We thought we needed more downforce with the hotter track temperatures, and the temps went down 10 degrees with the clouds. I wish we could have taken the wedges out of the car and put in some of the speed ramps for straightaway speed. The weather was constantly changing and it just caught us out.

Photo: IndyCar
Photo: IndyCar

All this week, the Gas Monkey Energy crew have been outstanding on race setups, and I feel confident going into next Sunday. Fortunately, it’s not all about qualifying. It’s about next Sunday. It would have made my job easier for the race if we could have qualified a bit better than 23rd.

But it’s been nine months for me since my last race. It’s an incredible feeling to be back here at Indy. Anytime you are turning laps here, it’s still a magical feeling. I can’t wait to get back into Turn 1 with 32 other cars, and make 200 laps again.

This Friday will be our final one-hour practice before Sunday’s 100th Indy 500. It’s Carb Day, and it’s a fun event for the fans too. In addition, we will be in the Pit Stop Challenge on Friday afternoon. The last time I was with the DRR-Kingdom team, we finished second overall to Scott Dixon. Our crew is a fast one with the four-tire change and fuel. I feel we have a chance to win the Challenge this Friday.

Thanks for reading and we’ll have another blog before race day. Lots of media interviews and promotions are ahead the next few days, including having the Gas Monkey (on my shirt) meet up with animals at the Cincinnati Zoo on Tuesday.



Pippa Mann on Monday’s practice: “Like Carb Day on steroids”

KZ5_0915
Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

INDIANAPOLIS – A strong day at the office for Pippa Mann in her No. 63 Susan G. Komen Honda saw her end fifth on the speed charts, top Honda on the day, with 116 laps completed (second on the field only behind Simon Pagenaud and Max Chilton, who both ran 117 laps) and feeling much more confident about her Dale Coyne Racing car in race trim ahead of Sunday’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

While she acknowledged her best lap came courtesy of a tow – most of the quick ones did – it was still a relief to know her repaired chassis was back and good to go after the team found some additional niggling issues before her qualifying attempt on Sunday.

“It was not fun not being able to warm up, and go straight to your qualifying run,” she admitted during today’s post-practice press conference. “But I’m so grateful to the Dale Coyne Racing crew for giving me such a great car.

“I was very happy to be back in race trim today. We still have some work to do. Most of the people here caught a big tow – I’m no exception – but I hope we have a top-20, top-15 race car. People were better than me today, but there were people I was better than too.”

Mann was no exception to the frantic craziness that made up the session, in significant group running during the day that saw a grand total of 2,886 laps turned.

“It was Carb Day Mark 2.0… or potentially Carb Day on steroids,” she said. “We did that for four hours. It got a bit hairy a few times. No one wants to tear up a race car this close to race day for sure.

“But the good thing is that’s representative of what it will be like in the race. In the race when we have that many cars in a groove, you’re not gonna be able to run fast times,” she explained. “You use all the gears, occasionally the brakes – and yes it sounds weird at this place. You’re reacting after everyone.”

On Saturday, Mann and the No. 63 team faced adversity when a rear wing end fence failed, which pitched her into a spin for her initial qualifying attempt off Turn 2.

That being said, Mann did a rather good job to keep the car largely intact on corner exit, save for slight front wing and left front tire and upright damage – it could have been much, much worse.

The Saturday blip interrupted an otherwise productive week of practice not just for her, but the entire Coyne team. Mann – who’s better at setup and feedback than most probably realize – was keen to note the improvements she’s felt coming into her fifth Indianapolis 500, both from a team and from a Honda standpoint.

Photo: IndyCar
Photo: IndyCar

“The really big thing is after Indy last year I worked with Rob Ridgely, who was the engineer on (No.) 18 last year,” she said. “When I was talking to Dale about coming back and him going to four cars, he said, ‘We’ll bring “Ridge” back,’ and that made me smile.

“We got on really well, and it creates that continuity. All the races I’ve done after I’ve been missing, it’s often new people to learn and to work with. To have that continuity is fantastic, and I think it’s really shown.

“What’s really interesting for me is that my last reference point is coming off Pocono,” she added about Honda’s development.

“Honda has worked really hard this winter. To drive it again after last year, both of the actual platform – even though they haven’t changed it much – the (operating) window is better and bigger. In engine department, they’ve worked hard. We’re pleased with they’ve shown up with so far.”

Mann said her car appears to work better in cooler conditions than hotter ones – today saw ambient and track temperatures peak at 82 ambient and 122 track, per Firestone, at 3:30 p.m.

If it’s cooler, that may help her on Sunday, as she’ll start 25th.

“I can’t speak for Josef (Newgarden) but our car with a little bit of cloud cover, we’ve been very, very good,” said the driver who’s also doing the #GetInvolved campaign fundraiser.

“Better than today actually. We were OK. When the track temp came down we were looking quite good, and I’d move our target then from top-15 to 20, to maybe top-15 to low top-10 car? It makes quite a big difference.”

Newgarden leads frenetic, crazy Monday practice at Indy

MH17051916_0684
Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

INDIANAPOLIS – Sunday is race day for the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, but today may as well have been a warm-up act following one of the craziest days of practice in recent memory.

Josef Newgarden led the day’s running in the No. 21 Preferred Freezer Chevrolet at 227.414, ahead of three other Chevrolets – Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon and Sage Karam.

“I think today is the most representative day that we’re going to get going into Sunday, which was great,” Newgarden said in the post-practice press conferences. “Everyone was in a pack together, which was great, because that’s what we need to see. Everyone needed to see what’s going to happen in a pack.

“To me, some guys looked good at certain points, and then they looked really bad at other points. I think that’s how it’s going to be on race day. You’re going to be good at one point. You’re going to be bad at the other. It’s about making your race more good than bad. You need to minimize the bad stints and maximize the good stints. I think that’s going to be the game.”

In fifth place, Pippa Mann turned her first practice laps since her qualifying attempt in the No. 63 Susan G. Komen Honda and was the top Honda at 225.833 mph.

Jack Hawksworth had a fire out the back of his No. 41 ABC Supply Co. Honda, and it was the third mechanical issue of the month for Honda.

In another Foyt car, Alex Tagliani made it out in a “Franken car,” either Hawksworth or Takuma Sato’s backup car, following his accident in qualifying.

Forgetting the times, in the 2,886 laps completed, it was just an insane amount of action with trains, passing, repassing and near-misses.

IndyMonday

Hinchcliffe’s recovery and pole is an incredible kickoff to Indy 500 (VIDEO)

Leave a comment

INDIANAPOLIS – Today marks the final full day of practice for this year’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. This practice day last year (then May 18), James Hinchcliffe suffered a near-death accident when going through Turn 3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

You know the story by now. The suspension piece pierced his upper thigh, he lost a lot of blood, and he was saved by both the Holmatro Safety Team and later, the Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital team.

It was a miracle Hinchcliffe even recovered but the fact he didn’t just recover – quicker than he anticipated – but is almost stronger after the fact is pretty dang cool.

He was back in a car in September for a test at Road America to kick off his testing process through the offseason. In the opening five races of the Verizon IndyCar Series season, Hinchcliffe has now banked three straight top-10 finishes, including his first podium since his return with third place in the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

Now, the drama has ratcheted up another level with Hinchcliffe first ending fastest in the first day of qualifying on Saturday, and then scoring the pole position on Sunday as the final driver in the Fast Nine Shootout to run.

“I get it (about the accident). It was a big deal. It was a big deal to me, too,” Hinchcliffe said in the post-qualifying press conference.

“And I understand that. And I really appreciated that people wanted to hear the story, wanted to tell the story for me. There was a lot of really, really nice pieces done, a lot of nice tributes done in that sense. But no, then you’re coming back to this place and you want to focus on the here and now and not remember or focus on hitting the wall at 125 Gs.

“So there was definitely a point where it’s kind of like, ‘Hey, is there anything else you want to talk about? Let’s lead with that and kind of see where we go from there.’ But we’ll see.

“Hopefully this is the topic of conversation for the next week and a week from now we’ve got an even better story to tell.”

One of those aforementioned “really nice pieces” referenced is that earlier this year, NBCSN shot this piece of Hinchcliffe’s accident and his recovery before he got back in his first race of the season at St. Petersburg.

Produced by Taylor Rollins, it premiered during our first show of the year, the pre-show for the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix.

You can see it above, as preparations intensify for the biggest race of the IndyCar season.