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

 

Vandoorne re-upped with McLaren for 2018

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Heading into his first home Grand Prix, Belgian driver Stoffel Vandoorne will continue with McLaren Honda into 2018. Perhaps more notable was the continued inclusion of Honda as well within the confirmation.

Vandoorne made his Grand Prix debut at Bahrain 2016 and scored a point filling in for Fernando Alonso. He now scored his first 2017 point last race in Hungary, ending 10th as he did in Bahrain.

The Belgian was always expected to continue and it’s been confirmed the team won’t waffle on that.

“I’m delighted that the team has now formally announced that I will continue to race for them next year, because I’ll be able to approach the second half of my rookie season with total focus on the job in hand: namely getting the very most I can out of my car, my engineers, and everything and everyone around me,” Vandoorne said.

“I’ve already learned such a huge amount in the first half of my first season in Formula 1 – from my engineers, from my mechanics, from Eric [Boullier], from Zak [Brown] and from Jonathan [Neale], and also from Fernando [Alonso], who is a brilliant driver and also an excellent team-mate.

“Last but not least, I want to say thank you to McLaren’s partners and fans for their loyalty and enthusiasm – they are the best in the business – and also to McLaren’s Executive Committee Principals, [Shaikh] Mohammed and Mansour [Ojjeh], who continue to put their faith in me.”

Boullier added, “When we announced at the end of 2016 that Stoffel would be a McLaren Honda race driver for 2017, we indicated that our plan was that he’d race for us for a number of years.

“That plan hasn’t changed, and I’m very happy therefore to be able to confirm that he’ll continue to race for us next season.

“Like all rookies, he’s had to learn a lot in the first half of his first Formula 1 season, but we have great confidence in him, and he’s getting better and better all the time. His team-mate is a tough opponent – that’s an understatement in fact, because he’s arguably the best driver in the sport today – but Stoffel’s robust talent and fierce ambition make us sure that he’ll achieve great successes with us in the future.”

Brown confirmed the multi-year number without putting a specific number down on it.

“Echoing Eric’s words, I’d like to add only that I regard Stoffel as a super talent – a future Formula 1 world champion in fact – and that’s why I’ve always been adamant that he should race for us on a multi-year basis,” he said.

“Before anyone asks me any questions about duration, we don’t want to go into that kind of confidential contractual detail, but let me put it this way: when we signed Stoffel, we intended that he would race for us for a significant number of years, and that remains our firm intention.

“We all know Stoffel’s potential, and when we have a package fast enough to win grands prix again – and we will – Stoffel will be in the right place to score his first Formula 1 victory.”

Alonso’s future, of course, remains a hot button topic set to be decided in September at the earliest.

Toro Rosso extends contract for technical director James Key

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Scuderia Toro Rosso technical director James Key will continue with the team for the foreseeable future, following a contract extension announced on Tuesday.

Key joined the team in 2012 and has seen the Faenza-based squad solidify its role in the upper midfield, with occasional surprise finishes that have pushed the team near the top three or four teams on the grid.

“I am delighted to continue with Toro Rosso and remain part of the Red Bull family,” he said. “This is a team which I have great respect for and have thoroughly enjoyed working with for the past 5 years; now I look forwards to continuing our project into the future.

“STR is unique, facing the challenges of being spread over two countries and fulfilling the roles of both a team in its own right and an important part of the Red Bull driver program: they are challenges that the team takes in its stride and, whilst doing so, continues to grow and improve year on year.

“Most importantly, the people I have had the pleasure to work with at STR are second to none: professional, ambitious and focussed, they have all worked incredibly hard to improve the team’s performance and will continue that hard work with the same dedication and optimism in the coming years too. I would like to thank Franz Tost and Red Bull for their continued support and confidence. We have more work to do, and I look forwards to taking the next steps with Toro Rosso towards our goals.”

Team principal Franz Tost added, Formula 1 is a team sport, but one in which an individual can still make a difference. So far, in his time with us, James has proved that he can indeed make that difference, leading the technical side of the operation.

“Not only has he been adept at producing chassis-aero packages that are well regarded throughout the paddock, he has also shown the management skills necessary to get the most out of all the various departments that work together both here in Faenza and in Bicester. I am therefore delighted that James will be with us for the foreseeable future to continue this fruitful process.”

Teams load up on supersoft tires for Italian GP

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There’s almost no variety in team Pirelli tire selections for the Italian Grand Prix, with nearly all teams going with two sets of softs and 10 sets of supersofts for next week’s race. All teams have selected just one set of mediums.

The only variance comes with Mercedes, Force India and Haas going with three sets of softs and nine supersofts. The rest are all the same choice, two softs and 10 supersofts.

Monza comes a week after Spa this week.

Pirelli’s tire breakdown is below.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee to serve as Gateway grand marshal

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The Verizon IndyCar Series’ return to Gateway Motorsports Park for the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline will feature quite an excellent grand marshal, in the form of three-time Olympic gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

The full release from the track is below.

An Olympic champion has been selected to give the command to start engines for the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline comes to Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Illinois on August 26. Jackie Joyner-Kersee, considered to be one of the greatest athletes of all time, will serve as the grand marshal for the Verizon IndyCar Series event.

“I am humble,” said Joyner-Kersee, who is a native of East St. Louis, Illinois. “I do not take this honor for granted to be the INDYCAR race’s grand marshal at Gateway Motorsports Park. Very few people are asked to give the command and I am grateful to be one of the few. Thank you!”

Track-and-field star Joyner-Kersee has won three Olympic gold medals, as well as one silver and two bronze. She was the first American to win gold for the long jump and the first woman to earn more than 7,000 points in the seven-event heptathlon, making her the most decorated female athlete in Olympic track and field history.

As a teen, she won the National Junior Pentathlon championships for consecutive years and received widespread honors in high school in various sports, including track, basketball and volleyball. During her junior year, she set the Illinois high school long jump record for women, with a 6.68-meter jump. Joyner-Kersee attended the University of California, Los Angeles on a full scholarship and continued to gain fame on both the court and field. In 1981, at the age of 19, she began to focus on training for the Olympics, specifically for the heptathlon — an Olympic track-and-field competition comprised of seven separate events, including the 200-meter run, 800-meter run and 100-meter hurdles. She graduated from UCLA in 1985.

Joyner-Kersee won a silver medal in the heptathlon at the 1984 Summer Olympics, as well as gold and bronze medals in the long jump in 1988 and 1992, respectively, and is currently the heptathlon world record-holder.
Following her retirement from competition, she founded the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Youth Center Foundation. The mission of the foundation is to instill youth in the a Greater East St. Louis area with the dream, drive and determination necessary to succeed in academics, athletics and leadership. “Winners In Life.”

Chuck Wallis, Vice President of the Bommarito Automotive Group, will serve as honorary starter and will wave the opening green flag.