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

 

NHRA: JR Todd to Kalitta Funny Car, Troy Coughlin to Top Fuel

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Photos: Kalitta Motorsports
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In the wake of Del Worsham announcing he was leaving Kalitta Motorsports for his family team, the DHL Funny Car needed to be filled.

Today Kalitta Motorsports has confirmed Worsham’s replacement, with JR Todd the replacement there as he moves from Top Fuel to Funny Car. Meanwhile, Troy Coughlin Jr. will step up into Top Fuel.

The release is below:

Kalitta Motorsports is pleased to announce that current Top Fuel driver J.R. Todd is moving to the DHL Toyota Camry Funny Car seat vacated by Del Worsham. In turn, Troy Coughlin Jr. will move from the planned part-time sixth team to a full-time seat aboard the SealMaster Top Fuel dragster.

Todd is making his return to the Funny Car class, but for the first time as a driver. He worked on Bob Gilberston’s Funny Car during the 2003-2005 NHRA seasons with current Kalitta employees Nicky Boninfante and Tommy DeLago.

“Connie told Jim O the DHL Toyota is a special car and that I was the right guy for the job, which was a huge compliment to me,” said Todd, who will make his Funny Car debut at the Circle K Winternationals in February. “I am going to miss Del as a teammate as he has always been one of my heroes. I want to also say a huge thanks to SealMaster and their awesome franchisees. They are great people and it was an honor to represent them.”

Todd turns to the Funny Car class after a career season aboard the SealMaster Toyota Top Fuel dragster. In 152 Top Fuel events, Todd has earned nine victories, 19 final round appearances, nine No.1 qualifiers and 149 round wins. He was the 2006 AAA Road to the Future rookie winner and has placed in the top five in the point standings two times, including a fourth-place effort this year.

“Ever since I worked with Nicky and Tommy D on a Funny Car, driving one has been in the back of my mind and most people have known that. The DHL Toyota has quite the legacy and it is a huge honor to be picked to drive it.”

DHL will continue as the primary sponsor on Todd’s Toyota Camry Funny Car for the entire season.

Coughlin, Jr. will have an elite team to drive for during his rookie season. In 2016, Todd took the SealMaster machine to a race win in Sonoma, 37 round wins and a top five finish in the point standings.

“I am thrilled to be competing full-time for Kalitta Motorsports in 2017 with an incredible backer like SealMaster and their franchise owners,” said Coughlin, Jr. “The car is one of the best looking machines on the race track and it is awesome to be able to know I will have a car that can compete for the title.”

Coughlin, Jr. won the 2013 Super Gas title in division 3 and is a two-time NHRA U.S. Nationals winner. In, 2015, he drove in the NHRA J&A Service Pro Mod series and was named Rookie of the Year. In his career, the 26-year-old driver has driven Junior Dragsters, Super Comp, Super Gas, Top Dragster and Pro Mod machines. Earlier this year, he earned his Top Fuel license.

NHRA Lifetime Achievement award winner and drag racing legend Connie Kalitta will continue alongside Rob Flynn in their roles after their outstanding 2016 season. SealMaster remains as the primary sponsor on the machine for all 24 events.

“I am excited for the future of our team,” said Jim Oberhofer, Vice President of Operations, Kalitta Motorsports. “First, I want to thank our incredible partners, DHL and SealMaster, for helping make this transition seamless. Both J.R. and Troy are ready for the 2017 season. J.R. is a very motivated driver and continues to be a perfect fit at Kalitta Motorsports. I know he will be a great ambassador for DHL and Toyota and I look forward to see what the season holds.  I am also thrilled to be able to get Troy into a full time seat. He proved to be a very precise driver during our test session in Las Vegas and I know he is going to do a great job in the SealMaster Top Fuel dragster.”

Finally, the Kalitta Motorsports Funny Cars will also see a reorganization of the team’s crew chiefs. Todd’s DHL Toyota Camry Funny Car will be led by Jon Oberhofer and Todd Smith as co-crew chiefs. Smith comes from teammate Paul Lee’s Funny Car. Former DHL co-crew chief Nicky Boninfante will join Tommy DeLago on the Tequila Patrón Toyota Camry Funny Car driven by Alexis DeJoria and Glen Huszar will lead Lee’s McLeod Racing Funny Car. All five Funny Car crew chiefs are former NHRA champions.

Both Coughlin, Jr. and Todd will have solid teammates backing them up. Coughlin, Jr. will partner with 2016 championship runner-up Doug Kalitta in the Top Fuel ranks, while Todd will be joined by Alexis DeJoria and Paul Lee in the Funny Car ranks. Coughlin, Jr., DeJoria, Kalitta and Todd will all compete full-time with Lee planning a part-time run.

Stefan Johansson’s latest blog: Sizing up Nico Rosberg’s retirement

SUZUKA, JAPAN - OCTOBER 09:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP celebrates his win in parc ferme  during the Formula One Grand Prix of Japan at Suzuka Circuit on October 9, 2016 in Suzuka.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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The pieces and thoughts written after Nico Rosberg made his shock announcement to retire from Formula 1 following his World Championship victory have been fast and furious in the last few days.

Stefan Johansson added his thoughts in his latest blog entry, looking back at the announcement and how much this must have taken out of Rosberg to make the decision he did.

This is the latest conversation with Jan Tegler live on Johansson’s website, and continues with what we’ve been chronicling throughout the year on NBCSports.com.

Excerpts from the blog are below, while a full read is recommended:

“It is obviously a shock announcement and a major surprise to everyone. It’s also likely a testament to how intense the situation at Mercedes has been all along. You can sympathize with him, having to go through that again is a major thing to consider.

“Still, I would have thought that now having one title in the bag it would have been a lot easier to carry that momentum forward. But more than any other influence, I think it’s an acknowledgement of just how hard he had to work and how much it took out of him to win this title.

“You really have to admire the strength of character it takes to make that decision at this stage of his career. You might say it’s early in his career but we can’t forget that Nico and so many of these guys started racing at a pretty high level in their early teens. (Rosberg mentioned that he has been racing for 25 years in comments on his retirement.)

“So this has been pretty much all that Nico has been involved with his whole life. Since he was a little kid he’s been racing – and on a very intense level. So it may be a bit easier to understand his perspective when you think of that.

“However, I also think he might get the itch again after being away for a year or so, which we saw with a number of the guys who retired at an early stage in their careers. It’s an enormous hole to fill when you have been used to the intensity and focus every minute of your life pretty much for most of your life. I’ll be very surprised if we don’t see him back in some form of racing after a year or two.”

“Look back to what he did while Michael was in the team. He made Michael look pretty average overall. Looking back now, Nico is probably the toughest teammate Michael ever had, certainly a lot more competitive than Eddie Irvine or Rubens Barrichello ever were.”

“I’d say most people have underestimated how good Nico really is. Let’s not forget that Lewis is already the second most winning driver in F1 history, and to be basically on even par with him every weekend is definitely not something that just any driver would be capable of doing. I also feel that maybe this was Nico’s way of finally sticking it to Lewis as he won’t be there to defend the title.”

Other nuggets touched on in this blog include:

  • Johansson’s thoughts on a Rosberg replacement
  • A reunion with an old Ferrari in Adelaide
  • Max Verstappen’s latest recovery drive in Abu Dhabi
  • The “other two” retirements of Jenson Button and Felipe Massa
  • More thoughts on the F1 season, and Zak Brown’s arrival at McLaren
  • The Macau Grand Prix, both for F3 and GT, and Felix Rosenqvist racing Antonio Felix da Costa for F3 win
  • New LMP2 regulations for 2017

Previous linkouts to Johansson’s blog on MotorSportsTalk are linked below:

Additionally, a link to Johansson’s social media channels and #F1TOP3 competition are linked here.

Here’s 30 great James Hinchcliffe videos to celebrate him turning 30

AVONDALE, AZ - APRIL 02:  James Hinchcliffe of Canada, driver of the #5 Schmidt Peterson Motosports Honda IndyCar is introduced before the Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 2, 2016 in Avondale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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James Hinchcliffe turns 30 today, which seems hard to believe for the perpetually candid, humorous, self-deprecating and fast “Mayor of Hinchtown.”

Hinchcliffe’s junior open-wheel career from karting to the Formula BMW and Star Mazda days, before three years in Atlantic (when I met him in 2007) and onto Indy Lights, eventually led to his finally making it to the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2011, a year when he won rookie-of-the-year.

He took over in what had been Danica Patrick’s GoDaddy car in 2012, won his first three races in 2013, then moved on from Andretti Autosport to Schmidt Peterson Motorsports at the end of 2014.

Of course, you know the story of his accident in practice for the 2015 Indianapolis 500, his recovery, his comeback in late 2015 and then into 2016, then his star turn this year with pole for the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and his phenomenal run on “Dancing with the Stars” this fall.

Hinchcliffe is a driver, showman, comedian, philanthropist, business owner, podcast host, burgeoning dancer, and actually pretty damn smart.

But one of his hallmarks throughout his career has been his videos. Here’s 30 of them, throughout the years, to chronicle how funny and insightful he’s been for such a long time.

PRE-INDYCAR (10: 2010 AND EARLIER)

A disclaimer first: there are more of these, which made condensing the list down to 10 a challenge.

Hinchcliffe’s Kimi Raikkonen imitation is legendary. See the roots of it from 2007, when Hinchcliffe was a sophomore in the Atlantic Championship, and Raikkonen was in his first season at Ferrari. Of course, little did we know then that Raikkonen would win that year’s World Championship, and Ferrari’s most recent.

Remember the old A1GP series? Where it was pitched as a country-versus-country winter series of open-wheel racing? Of course you don’t. And so this is why we show you Hinchcliffe, who raced for A1 Team Canada, going upside-down at a race at Eastern Creek Raceway in Sydney, Australia. He jokes he was “right-side up.” A then-unheralded German driver named Nico Hulkenberg won both races.

We all hate going to the dentist. By hate, I mean love, right? The simplicity of Hinchcliffe describing a trip to the dentist, in his office/studio/room is something we can all appreciate.

“I love fishes ’cause they’re so delicious.” Say no more.

Cooper Tires sponsored Atlantic’s pole award at this time for $1,000. Hinchcliffe then explains the travails and exploits of attempting to cash or deposit said “novelty size check.”

IndyCar merged in 2008, as Champ Car and the Indy Racing League came together. Here was Hinchcliffe’s take on it at the time.

In 2008, IndyCar merged, and Road America was not part of the merged schedule – until it returned this year in 2016. But the Atlantic Championship did race at the picturesque road course. And Hinchcliffe, then in his third season in Atlantic, went around the paddock to introduce them to the famous Road America Johnsonville brats (hat tip to my friend and colleague, IMSA PR ace Nate Siebens, who was the videographer on this one). During 2008, Hinchcliffe did a number of experiential videos in Atlantic paddocks; honorable mention goes to this luge one from Mont-Tremblant.

Hinchcliffe’s second season in Indy Lights, 2010, featured a number of funny videos. One of the more underrated ones was when Hinchcliffe, Logan Gomez and Gustavo Yacaman among others set out to paint doors for Habitat for Humanity. Hilarity ensued.

Here’s another one. Hinchcliffe and “Beaver” – who may or may not be Martin Plowman (it is) – tag up international flags in the paddock (honorable mention to the pair of them sitting through a rain delay at Kansas).

Additionally, in 2010, this one featured Hinchcliffe, Conor Daly, Sebastian Saavedra and a couple others in a famous – or infamous – road trip to Iowa.

HOW HINCH GOT GODADDY (1: 2012)

Hinchcliffe’s IndyCar career nearly stalled out after one year through no fault of his own, because the Newman/Haas Racing team he drove for ran out of sponsorship. Andretti Autosport had signed Dan Wheldon to replace Danica Patrick in 2012; however, tragically, Wheldon was killed in the 2011 season finale in Las Vegas. Hinchcliffe got the nod in the No. 27 GoDaddy Chevrolet, and naturally, the story of how he got the nod was done in classic Hinchcliffe form.

A further campaign followed of “Hinch for Homepage” to see him supplant Patrick on GoDaddy.com’s website. Hinchcliffe played tribute to Patrick when in his debut in St. Petersburg in the new car, he wore a Patrick-esque wig for driver introductions.

MORE EARLY INDYCAR (3: 2012) 

One of my all-time favorite IndyCar videos. Hinchcliffe, Charlie Kimball and JR Hildebrand were all part of IndyCar’s 2011 rookie class – arguably its strongest class in years. And, because they have similar sounding names and two of the three are from California, they attempt to explain who they are in this 2012 video.

In 2012, Hinchcliffe was a sophomore, and Josef Newgarden was a rookie. The immortal “we don’t speak of the gnomes” line from Newgarden, when Hinchcliffe toured Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing’s shop, was born here.

Hinchcliffe scored his first IndyCar podium at Long Beach 2012, benefiting from a late-race penalty assessed to Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, which came with a sidebar. After losing a bet to Wade Cunningham because he made the podium, Hinchcliffe’s trademark beard was shaved off.

INDYCAR WIN RECAPS (4: 2013-2015) 

Hinchcliffe broke through as an IndyCar race winner in 2013, following a spirited defense against Helio Castroneves at the St. Petersburg season opener. Adding to the emotion of the moment was the fact Hinchcliffe won in the Wheldon’s adopted hometown, in what would have been Wheldon’s No. 27 GoDaddy car.

Also in 2013, Hinchcliffe delivered his most famous IndyCar win to date. His second win came at the Sao Paulo Indy 300, following a last-lap, last-turn pass of Takuma Sato to secure the victory.

Hinchcliffe’s most dominant win in his career to date came at Iowa in 2013, when he led 226 of 250 laps in a beatdown.

Rain and cautions peppered IndyCar’s lone trip to NOLA Motorsports Park in 2015. In an otherwise forgettable weekend, the strategy call from Robert Gue stood out to position Hinchcliffe for his fourth career win, first with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and most recent of his career.

THE RECOVERY FROM INDY CRASH  (1: 2016)

A number of good videos were produced in the aftermath of Hinchcliffe’s accident in practice for the 2015 Indianapolis 500. Our NBCSN one from earlier this year is below; several other good ones are linked in this sentence (Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital; Arrow Electronics; INDYCAR with Spyder), among others.

THE INDY POLE RUN (1: 2016)

Hinchcliffe’s pole run for the 2016 Indianapolis 500 is featured in the highights from INDYCAR, linked above.

OFFSEASON VIDEOS, ALMOST ALWAYS STARRING HINCH (3: 2012-2016)

One of IndyCar’s hallmarks is utilizing Hinchcliffe in its offseason arsenal of videos. See a few of them, below:

Fall 2014: Hinchcliffe signs with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and a beer ride down to the Indiana Pacers’ Bankers Life Fieldhouse happens (a certain MST writer makes a cameo here).

Early 2015: IndyCar vs. Mardi Gras

Fall 2016: IndyCar Test Drive (featuring multiple drivers)

DANCING MAN (6: 2016)

Here’s six of the best dances/moments between Hinchcliffe and professional partner Sharna Burgess on the 23rd season of “Dancing with the Stars,” where Hinchcliffe finished second to Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast Laurie Hernandez.

Rumba: After this performance, judge Julianne Hough called Hinchcliffe the “best male dancer” in the show’s history.

Halloween Viennese Waltz (with interim professional partner Jenna Johnson). This one went viral.

Paso Doble Team Up where Hinchcliffe and Calvin Johnson were in the same group.

Tango: When Sharna came back after a knee injury, and was promptly blindfolded.

Trio Jive, where James, Sharna and Jenna danced together and where the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda made an appearance.

Finals: Freestyle, that is the dancing/artistic representation of closing that “blank space” to his accident in Indy.

THE MONTAGE THAT SAYS IT ALL (1: 2011-2016)

If the above clips didn’t capture everything we were trying to set out for here, we hope this one created by this YouTube user does. The respective INDYCAR 36 (2012) and IndyCar Chronicles (2015) episodes of Hinchcliffe, done by IMS Productions, are linked here.

As you can see, Hinchcliffe has been in a lot of videos over the last decade, and this post only scratches the surface of all he’s been in.

But it’s been a great 30 years – with the last 11 in particular since his debut in Atlantic in 2006 where he’s firmly been part of the open-wheel racing establishment, and the last six in IndyCar from 2011 to 2016 where he’s taken that next level.

Happy birthday, Hinch. May there be many more years to come with many more videos added along the way.

Wehrlein “feels ready” for job of replacing Rosberg, if he gets seat

MONTMELO, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 20:  (EDITORS NOTE: This image was processed using digital filters) Pascal Wehrlein of Germany and Mercedes GP poses for a portrait during day three of Formula One Winter Testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 21, 2015 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Pascal Wehrlein is the potential lynchpin in the race to replace Nico Rosberg, now fully underway after the shock news of the 2016 World Champion’s decision to retire has come down and now set in.

The Mercedes AMG Petronas reserve driver and Manor race driver from this season did a thoroughly good – if not outstanding – job in his first full season in Formula 1 and could well be the pick to replace Rosberg alongside Lewis Hamilton next season.

Wehrlein is confident in his ability and expressed his candidacy for the job while accepting rookie-of-the-year honors at last night’s Autosport Awards.

“One season in Formula 1 of course is not a lot, but I feel ready for the job,” Wehrlein said. “I feel confident enough.

“Now the decision is on the bosses. I guess Toto’s (Wolff) phone is overheating since Friday! I respect that process and that they want to go to the best option.”

Pushed a bit further, Wehrlein also offered a sneaky sense of humor in noting how much testing he’s already done on a modified chassis with Pirelli’s new-for-2017 tires.

“I’ve done the most days with 2017 tires. It’s very important to have that experience,” he laughed.

Wehrlein could well get the nod by way of his availability. However if Mercedes opts to buy out another tied-down driver’s contract, it could well end up that Wehrlein might be placed elsewhere on the grid.

Despite losing out on the Force India seat to fellow Mercedes junior Esteban Ocon, Wehrlein’s stock has never been higher.