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

 

Wolff: Wehrlein, Ocon deserve Formula 1 roles

SPIELBERG, AUSTRIA - JUNE 23:  Pascal Wehrlein of Germany and Mercedes GP drives during Formula One testing at the Red Bull Ring on June 23, 2015 in Spielberg, Austria.  (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images)
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Mercedes AMG Petronas team boss Toto Wolff believes that junior talents Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon have both earned their roles in Formula 1 for the 2016 season “on merit”.

Wehrlein will make his grand prix debut in 2016 with Manor Racing after winning the DTM title for Mercedes last year, becoming the youngest champion in the history of the series.

Ocon has been loaned to Renault Sport F1 Racing for its comeback season, and will work as the team’s reserve driver following his GP3 title success last year.

Wolff feels that both drivers deserve their chance in F1 this year, and also said that Mercedes will look to expand its junior program across the course of the season.

“We’re delighted that Pascal and Esteban will tackle a fresh set of challenges in 2016,” Wolff said. “Our aim is to build their experience in the best possible environment and, following positive discussions with our counterparts at Manor and Renault, it became clear that their respective Formula 1 programmes presented ideal opportunities to achieve that.

“It is very pleasing to see young drivers earning their spot in Formula 1 on merit and to see that talent is being rewarded by the system. Pascal and Esteban have proven themselves to be amongst the top young drivers out there – and both come into 2016 as champions of their respective series.

“But they still have plenty to learn and they will be staying humble, with their feet on the ground. This is an important year for them and we will be following their progress with great interest, while also looking to expand our junior program.

“Mercedes-Benz has a strong tradition of developing young racing talent and our eyes are very much open to other promising prospects for the future.”

Social roundup: When Mika Hakkinen met CJ Wilson, and other cool shots

SHANGHAI, CHINA - APRIL 15:  Former F1 World Champion Mika Hakkinen is seen during practice for the Chinese Formula One Grand Prix at the Shanghai International Circuit on April 15, 2011 in Shanghai, China.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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What happens when you put a McLaren P1 owned by baseball star and CJ Wilson Racing team principal, and occasional driver, CJ Wilson, with two-time F1 World Champion Mika Hakkinen, and you turn them loose at The Thermal Club for a track day?

Pure awesomeness.

Of course there’s other cars besides the McLaren and hockey legend, Teemu Selanne, was also on site.

This really isn’t a post so much that needs words, but one that does need proper photos and noise.

The CJWR pairing of Marc Miller and Daniel Burkett, who drive the No. 33 One Capital/Motor Oil Matters Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport dubbed “Darth Cayman” in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, have been coaching and driving at an event this weekend out at The Thermal Club, a luxury race track in California.

See a mix of photos and videos below:

Ecclestone gives Monza until end of February to resolve F1 future

MONZA, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 06:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP celebrates on the podium next to Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari after winning the Formula One Grand Prix of Italy at Autodromo di Monza on September 6, 2015 in Monza, Italy.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Formula 1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone has given officials at the Autodromo Nazionale Monza until the end of February to resolve the future of the Italian Grand Prix.

Monza has hosted the Italian Grand Prix for all but one year since 1950 when the F1 world championship was formed, establishing itself as one of the series’ most historic and legendary venues.

However, its future has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months following a cut in the amount of tax relief that the race receives by the Italian government.

Ecclestone said back in November that he had “no doubts” the race would remain on the calendar and extend its contract beyond the end of 2016 when it expires.

However, the 85-year-old has now cast fresh doubt on the race in an interview with Reuters, giving the circuit until the end of February to resolve its future.

“It’s Italian. A lot of conversations at the moment and not much action,” Ecclestone said.

“They said to me a few months ago: ‘Everything is sorted out, we know exactly where we are and it’s all agreed and no dramas.’

“And now I heard yesterday it’s become very political… They’ll get on with it. Or not. I don’t know what’s going to happen. Nothing we can do about it.

“The only people that can sort this out are the people that are currently involved in Italy. They can take as long as they like, provided it’s by the end of this month.”

The 2016 Italian Grand Prix is set to take place at Monza on September 4.

Here’s what a sub-4 second, 300-mph NHRA driver’s eye view looks like

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This was published earlier this week from NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series testing at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in Chandler, Ariz., but the timing of it being posted today is to serve as a teaser to the 2016 NHRA season at Pomona Raceway in California.

Ride on-board with Shawn Langdon of Don Schumacher Racing for a test run. This is simply nuts, as thousands of horsepower are put to the ground for a 3.77-sec, 316 mph pass in testing.