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

 

Tony Kanaan had a blast despite finishing 100th Indy 500 in fourth

during the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
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He wasn’t in winning contention until late after starting 18th, but after back-to-back DNFs from accidents the last two years, fourth was almost a welcome tonic for Tony Kanaan and the No. 10 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet in Sunday’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

“I had a blast,” he said post-race. “I had the time of my life.”

Kanaan was one of the favorites to win, after setting the fastest lap in final practice for the race with a speed of 226.280 mph. It was clear the Ganassi team had made enough strides to his car on race setup to pull it off.

“When you have a good car all day and you’re fighting for the lead you cannot say it wasn’t fun,” Kanaan added.

Kanaan was still running fast at the end of the race, but rookie winner Alexander Rossi’s fuel mileage strategy made the difference in victory.

Among the top five drivers, Kanaan posted the fastest last lap with a speed of 220.294 mph. On fumes, Rossi was running 179.784 mph. Kanaan pitted with eight laps remaining in the race.

“Obviously toward the end there it got a little messy with where we were going to finish. We had to pit; this is racing.”

Hinchcliffe ends Indy 500 seventh, doubts victory was possible

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 29:  James Hinchcliffe of Canada, driver of the #5 ARROW Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Chevrolet, leads a pack of cars during the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
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James Hinchcliffe felt content with his run to seventh in Sunday’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil despite starting from pole and remaining in the lead group of cars for much of the race.

Hinchcliffe spent much of the first stint of the race exchanging the lead back and forth with Ryan Hunter-Reay, but a fuel issue cost him time at the opening round of pit stops in the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda.

The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver battled his way back into contention for the win, only to suffer a loss in grip in the closing stages as temperatures rose at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

A late splash-and-dash for fuel with four laps to go ended Hinchcliffe’s hopes of a famous victory, just over one year on from his devastating accident, leaving him to settle for P7 at the checkered flag.

“I have to give everybody on the Arrow crew a ton of credit for the effort the entire month,” Hinchcliffe said after the race.

“Coming in third at the GP of Indy, qualifying on the pole and the race here, it was a solid effort.

“We were super strong the first half and definitely had one of the cars to beat. It was really just track temperatures that caught us out there.

“We started losing grip as the temperatures came up late in the afternoon and the last two stints were a real struggle when we tried to make the tires last. Well, more than a stint because we came in for that splash of fuel at the end.

“A couple guys out there took a punt on fuel – congrats to Alex [Rossi, race winner] and great to see Honda back on top.

“Realistically, I think we had a third or fourth place effort today, which is nothing to turn your nose up at.”

Combined with the points for pole position, the ‘500 has seen Hinchcliffe rise from eighth to fifth in the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers’ championship, ranking as the lead Honda driver on 205 points.

Third in Indy 500 a bitter pill to swallow for Newgarden, ECR

during Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
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INDIANAPOLIS – This month at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it was generally accepted that Josef Newgarden and the No. 21 Preferred Freezer Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing was best of the “Bowtie brigade.”

And the 25-year-old American was ready to unleash a full serving of awesome sauce on the field in Sunday’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil starting from second on the grid.

But despite running in the top three to five all day and leading 14 total laps – including Laps 179 to 181, 184 to 190 and 192 to 193 – Newgarden was one of most of the field who needed a late-race splash for fuel inside the final 10 laps.

It meant that Newgarden, along with runner-up Carlos Munoz, fell back behind rookie Alexander Rossi once Rossi’s Bryan Herta/Michael Andretti combo pack pulled off a strategic stunner to perfection and ran 36 laps on the final stint.

For Newgarden, third was his best career Indianapolis 500 result in five starts.

Yet in many ways, it was the worst feeling: a crushing disappointment knowing his first best chance to win this most prestigious of races had slipped away.

“Yeah, I mean, it’s really heartbreaking, to be honest,” he said in the post-race press conference. “The reason is because I think we had a car to win. I’m not saying we should have won the race definitely because we had the best car, I just think we had a car that could have won.

“What I wanted was an opportunity to try to race those guys at the end. We didn’t get that. That’s no fault to my guys. I think that’s just how the race fell. Sometimes it doesn’t fall your way. Today was a day it didn’t fall our way.”

Newgarden admitted that he was underwhelmed by the fuel conservation finish that allowed Rossi to pull it off. That being said, he said had he been in Rossi’s shoes, he’d have been OK with the outcome.

“I think if I was in Alex’s position, I’d be the happiest man in the world right now. I wouldn’t care how we won the damn race. We won the damn race. So that’s one part of it,” he acknowledged.

The thing was though, a Newgarden and Munoz shootout likely would have been a better show for the fans rather than the somewhat anticlimactic final lap. And again, that’s with no disrespect to what the No. 98 team achieved.

“Congratulations to Rossi and Honda. It’s a huge achievement to win around here,” he said, graciously, in defeat. “I just wish we had an opportunity to race those guys straight up at the end. I really think we would have had something for them if we could have gone flat out there at the end and tried to beat them straight up.

“Just proud to be here, though. Shoot, just having an opportunity to be here with as good of a car as I did, not many people experience that. Today was something new to me.”

Newgarden described his would-have-been strategy had it come down to a he-and-Munoz shootout.

Sort of.

“To be honest, I was going to wing it at the end,” he explained. “My priority was staying up front, going flat out, trying to get as much speed out of the car at the end of the race as possible. I thought we had to trim this thing to win it. We had a lot of downforce at the beginning. We tried to trim and trim and trim. My sole focus was, Let’s get to the last three, five laps and be up front, then I’ll do whatever I got to do at the end to win the thing.

“That kind of sounds silly. Well, didn’t you have a plan? Weren’t you thinking of a plan the whole race? I was. I was sticking to my priority of ‘Let’s get this car up front, the keep it there for the last five laps’. When we’re up there, we’re going to have a great shot at winning the thing.

“Really, you can’t predict what’s going to happen at the end of the race. I could see how Carlos was, I could see where he was good, where he was bad. I think he had a little bit more straight speed than us, which was going to be difficult to overcome. I was going to wing it on those last three to five laps and kind of feel out what I had to do to try to beat him, if he was the guy I had to actually race at the end.”

For Newgarden though, long regarded as America’s brightest IndyCar hope the last five years and on the heels of his best month ever at the Speedway, this was a particularly bitter pill to swallow.

He’s had some heartaches in his IndyCar career before – Long Beach and Mid-Ohio losses in 2014 come immediately to mind – but nothing like this.

“I don’t think I have a pity card to play. You could probably go through the list of guys that have nearly won this thing or that should have won the thing,” he said.

“This is really the first time I’ve ever felt like I could have won that race and it just didn’t happen. It’s really the first time I’ve ever felt that way.

“So it’s tough. I hope I have more opportunities to try to win it. You kind of feel special when you have a car that you think you can win and you got a shot to win the thing at the end. That’s kind of rare to get that opportunity and be in that spot.

“I’m thankful for that. I can’t be sour about it, like I said. There’s been a lot of guys that have had near misses around this place. It’s going to suck, but…

“The good thing is we race again next weekend. That kind of helps. I don’t have to go on the media tour, which I guess is a positive. I would have loved to do it if I won the race. I can rest a little bit now and go to Detroit and try to kick everyone’s ass again. That’s positive.”

Until he pit for fuel, Carlos Munoz ‘knew’ he had Indy 500 won

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27:  Carlos Munoz of Columbia, driver of the #26 Andretti Autosport Honda Dallara, practices during Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Carlos Munoz was sure of three things throughout Sunday.

The first – the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 was going to be his.

“I knew I had this won,” Munoz told ABC’s Rick DeBruhl after the race.

But the 24-year-old Colombian didn’t make this declaration as the 70th winner of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” The Andretti Herta Autosport driver was lamenting the second runner-up finish of his career in the race.

“My car was flying,” Munoz said of his No. 26 United Fiber & Data Honda that had started fifth and was leading on Lap 195 of the race. “I was so good emotionally, physically, mentally. The car was flying.”

The second?

“I knew I didn’t have enough fuel.”

Munoz was a half-lap short on fuel and on Lap 196 pitted in order to rectify his situation. That move created the 54th and final lead change of the race, allowing rookie Alexander Rossi, and Munoz’ teammate, to assume the lead.

Rossi hadn’t pitted since Lap 164 and he wouldn’t in the last four laps.

When Munoz got back up to pace two laps later, he was in second, 16.68 seconds behind Rossi. A lap later, with the white flag displayed over the first sold-out crowd in the “500’s” history, Munoz had only gained three seconds.

“I was just cruising around flat out, saying ‘I’m not going to lift, this is my race,'” Munoz told ABC, later recalling in his post-race press conference, “‘I’m going to keep it flat. If I crash, I crash. I don’t want second; I want to win.'”

When Rossi entered Turn 3 for the final time, with his No. 98 NAPA Honda running on fumes and hope, Munoz was still a straightaway behind him.

Munoz was within 4.5 seconds of Rossi when he saw the American become the 70th different winner of the Indianapolis 500.

And he was still bemused by the fact it happened.

“I don’t know how my teammate did it without stopping. If I’m honest, I want to know what he did. I will look. I am second, why he’s not stopping? He’s supposed to stop. I have to look and see what he did. I don’t know what he did,” Munoz admitted.

“This is the 500, everything can happen. Now we’re second,” he said

The third thing Munoz was sure of Sunday is that won’t be the case in the future.

“One thing is clear, that I will win the 500 one day.”