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


IndyCar: Tony Kanaan keeps his word, much to fans’ delight

Phoenix International Raceway - Day 1
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Tony Kanaan has long been one of the classiest drivers in the IndyCar world.

He proved that once again – as well as being a man of his word – recently.

Kanaan was slated to speak last Thursday, Oct. 13, to the Boys and Girls Club of Wayne County, Indiana. Among topics he was slated to talk about in the fundraising event were life lessons and the importance of keeping your word/promise.

But Kanaan also had to take part in a Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone tire test at the same time at Gateway Motorsports Park, nearly 300 miles away from the B&GC event in Richmond, Indiana.

Even though he agreed to speak at the club meeting several months ago, Kanaan could easily have simply cancelled. But he went the extra distance by reaching out to former IndyCar driver and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Arie Luyendyk to substitute for him.

Luyendyk had to travel all the way from his home in Phoenix, but was glad to fill in for Kanaan.

B&GC executive director Bruce Daggy was happy that Luyendyk stepped up, but also “I was sad we weren’t going to have Tony here,” Daggy told IndyCar.com. “We had invested in it.”

Indeed, Kanaan’s appearance had been heavily promoted, including posted on nearly 20 billboards in and around the Richmond area.

Even with Luyendyk as his fill-in, Kanaan still felt bad about cancelling.

“I hate to make commitments I can’t fulfill,” Kanaan told IndyCar.com. “I put myself in their shoes. If I was coming to an event to see a person and they didn’t show, I would understand, but I would feel bad. So, I didn’t want to let anybody down, especially in Indiana.”

MORE: Click here for the full IndyCar.com story

That’s when the 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner and 2004 Verizon IndyCar Series champion hatched a plan. Close friend and fellow driver Scott Dixon got on board by chartering a private plane to fly Kanaan from St. Louis to Richmond as soon as the tire test concluded at 6 pm ET.

When the plane landed about an hour later, Kanaan was given a police escort to Richmond High School, where the event had been moved to accommodate the large crowd when it was announced Kanaan would be the featured speaker.

“I just felt that there is always a way and we would make it happen,” Kanaan said, even though he arrived close to the event’s scheduled conclusion. Instead, his arrival extended the event, to the glee of those in the audience.

“The guy chartered a plane,” Daggy said. “That tells me he is a real man of character.”

Added Kanaan, “Getting me here was everybody’s effort. I had a blast. It was worth it.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Marquez takes Australia MotoGP pole, Rossi struggles to 15th

PHILLIP ISLAND, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 22:  Marc Marquez of Spain and Repsol Honda Team rides during qualifying for the 2016 MotoGP of Australia at Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit on October 22, 2016 in Phillip Island, Australia.  (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
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Fresh from clinching his third MotoGP title last Sunday in Japan, Marc Marquez continued his impressive late-season form by scoring pole position for the Australian Grand Prix on Saturday at Phillip Island.

After seeing much of Friday be washed out by rain, Saturday’s qualifying session took place on a damp track that left riders debating whether to head out on slick or intermediate tires.

Q1 claimed some big-name casualties, including nine-time world champion Valentino Rossi who could only finish 15th, marking his worst qualifying result since 2011. Future Yamaha teammate Maverick Vinales was also knocked out early, and will start 13th on Sunday.

With rain forecast to hit the track midway through Q2, riders had to judge their tire calls perfectly, with Marquez nailing his strategy. The Honda rider braved the track on slicks to turn in a lap of 1:30.189, giving him pole by almost eight-tenths of a second.

Marquez will be joined on the front row of the grid by LCR Honda’s Cal Crutchlow and Yamaha Tech3 rider Pol Espargaro, both finishing within a second of the pole-sitter.

Aleix Espargaro and Jack Miller qualified fourth and fifth, the latter lamenting a missed opportunity to hit the front row for his home race, while Danilo Petrucci will start sixth.

American rider Nicky Hayden qualified seventh for his stand-in appearance in place of the injured Dani Pedrosa, while outgoing champion Jorge Lorenzo was the slowest rider in Q2, finishing 12th.

McLaren marks 40 years since Hunt title win with “Tooned” special

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McLaren’s hugely popular animated series Tooned has returned with a special edition episode to mark 40 years since James Hunt’s Formula 1 championship victory.

Tooned enjoyed a two-season run in 2012 and 2013, profiling the escapades of the McLaren drivers (voicing themselves) as they worked with the fictional ‘Professor M’ (Alexander Armstrong).

The second season focused on McLaren’s history as the team celebrated its 50th anniversary season, profiling a number of its most famous drivers, including Hunt.

The episode revealed that Hunt (voiced by James’ son, Tommy) was in fact a secret agent who was called on an mission midway through the 1976 Monaco Grand Prix.

To mark 40 years since Hunt’s championship win with McLaren, Tooned has returned with a remake of the Hunt episode that sees Fernando Alonso make his debut alongside Jenson Button.

The episode is packed with Tooned‘s regular dose of wit and charm. Keep an eye out for “my little chorizo” Alonso on his famous deckchair, as well as an appearance from 2017 McLaren driver Stoffel Vandoorne later on.

You can watch the episode above.

“The 40th anniversary of James Hunt’s Formula 1 world title made for an obvious decision to revisit the Tooned archives and create a fun and compelling new chapter in the series,” McLaren group brand director John Allert said.

“Combining pre-existing elements, but incorporating a fresh narrative involving McLaren-Honda’s drivers Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button and Stoffel Vandoorne, this new episode is destined to reach an all-new and highly engaged audience online.

“Tooned is a showcase for the power of storytelling: it’s concise, funny and rammed with delightful detail. This one-off episode offers an all-too-brief return to the Tooned universe and a tantalizing glimpse at just what’s possible with the brand in the future.”

Made it: Haas F1 at ‘home’ at US Grand Prix

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 21: Romain Grosjean of France driving the (8) Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari VF-16 Ferrari 059/5 turbo on track during practice for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 21, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) Gene Haas heard the snickers, shook off the doubters and ignored the suggestion that he didn’t know what he was doing.

Looking up at his name in bold letters above the Haas F1 team tent in the paddock this week at the U.S. Grand Prix, it’s easy to allow him a few moments of self-congratulation heading into his team’s “home” race this weekend.

“Everybody made it sound like we were clueless getting into Formula One, that we’d be bumbling idiots. The Europeans were going to teach us a lesson,” Haas said. “I think when we showed up and were prepared with a competitive car that scored points, it set a very high bar … People didn’t think we could do it.”

The Formula One season has been dominated by Mercedes and the duel between teammates Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton. But the American rookie outfit has been one of the surprise stories from the rest of the grid.

An industrialist with roots in NASCAR and North Carolina, Haas jumped into Formula One with a flourish. His team has 28 points in its maiden season, all of them scored by veteran French driver Romain Grosjean. While far from the top, it’s also well above the bottom with a chance to climb over the final four races of the season.

Sunday’s race will be a chance for Haas F1 to wave the flag in front of American fans, too, during F1’s only U.S. stop.

“There is some pride for having and American flag on this car,” Grosjean said.

Haas F1 is the first American-led team on the grid in 30 years and the road getting here wasn’t easy. It actually crosses two continents, as the team is split between a design base in North Carolina and racing operations in England.

Haas was first granted his F1 team license in April 2014. The initial goal was to be racing in 2015. That proved to be too ambitious, so Haas and team principal Guenther Steiner took aim at 2016. Powered by a Ferrari engine, Haas debuted with an impressive first testing session, then took a step back with engine problems that kept them off the track.

“A lot of people lost sleep over that. That was not easy having to sit off the track and watching the other teams go round and round,” said Haas driver Esteban Gutierrez.

“We broke a lot of stuff,” Haas said.

The problems were fixed by the first race when Grosjean finished sixth in Australia and took two more top-10 finishes over the next three races. The success proved hard to maintain and Haas has only one other top 10 finish all season, none since the British Grand Prix in July.

Haas F1 got a boost two weeks ago when both cars qualified in the top 10 for the first time in Japan. But that came with a rookie mistake: teams that make stage three of qualifying have to start the race on their qualifying tires, forcing a change in pit strategy from one stop to two, and they finished out of the points.

Still, the qualifying performance raised hopes for more points over the final four races.

“We finished seven times in 11th,” Steiner said. “It’s about time we finish four times 10th.”

Grosjean left the former Lotus team to join the Americans, and Haas credits him with being a steady hand in the car all season.

“He didn’t know what we had and we could have been a complete and utter disaster,” Haas said. “He took a big risk.”

Haas won’t commit to a driver lineup for 2017. Gutierrez was a test driver for Ferrari when he signed with Haas, but he hasn’t scored a point this season, finishing 11th five times. Haas understands American fans want an American driver but suggested that’s not an option anytime soon.

Some fans had hoped Haas would sign Alexander Rossi, who finished 2015 driving for Manor. Rossi instead landed in IndyCar and stunned nearly everyone by winning the Indianapolis 500 in May as a rookie. Haas does have an American development driver, 18-year-old Santino Ferrucci.

“That sounds like simple equation: American team, American driver, American race track. It’s all American. The reality is there’s not that many American (Formula One) drivers,” Haas said. “Not exactly a good idea at this time. We really wanted experienced drivers.

“We don’t need to have everything perfect this year or the year after,” Haas said. “American drivers or American sponsors, those events will happen. It will be up to us to put it together.”

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