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

 

Marco Andretti, Scott Dixon fastest in two Firestone 600 practice sessions

FORT WORTH, TX - JUNE 10:  Scott Dixon of New Zealand, driver of the #9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, practices for the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 10, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
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Fort Worth – After a 77 day wait, the Verizon IndyCar Series was back on track at Texas Motor Speedway to get ready for tonight’s Firestone 600.

The series took part in two, 10-minute practice sessions ahead of the race’s resumption.

Marco Andretti was the fastest in the first session with a speed of 213.095 mph over teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay (210.859 mph).

The second session was was led by defending Firestone 600 winner Scott Dixon at 214.937 mph. His Ganassi Racing teammate Tony Kanaan was second quickest at 214.476 mph. Andretti had the third best speed overall.

James Hinchcliffe, who will be the race leader when it resumes, was seventh fastest overall.

The first 10-minute session had just began when the No. 14 of Takuma Sato broke loose in Turn 4 and hit the wall. Sato was able to leave the car under his own power and was later cleared to participate in the race.

Sato told the Indianapolis Star a right-front rocker broke on the car.

The No. 14 had to be towed back to the garage despite there not being any significant damage to the body of the car.

James Hinchcliffe, who will be the race leader when it resumes, was seventh fastest overall.

Speed chart

TXtimes

Manor enjoys strong Spa qualifying as Wehrlein reaches Q2

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 26: Pascal Wehrlein of Germany driving the (94) Manor Racing MRT-Mercedes MRT05 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 26, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Manor Racing enjoyed one of its strongest Formula 1 qualifying displays to date on Saturday ahead of the Belgian Grand Prix as Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon finished 16th and 18th respectively.

Wehrlein produced a particularly impressive lap in Q1 to make it through to the second stage of qualifying for the third time this season, finishing the session ninth.

After using two sets of new super-soft tires in the first stage, Wehrlein was forced to complete Q2 on a used set, meaning he lapped eight-tenths of a second slower than his original effort.

The German driver was resigned to P16 in Q2, which while bearing a tinge of disappointment was nevertheless an excellent result for the team.

“I’m very happy that we made it through to Q2, of course. Q1 was incredible for us with P9,” Wehrlein said.

“But unfortunately we had no new super-soft tyres for Q2, so it’s a bit of shame, and I had to do my lap on used tires.

“Q1 felt so good with new tires, so you can see what was possible today; that last run was not our true pace. So it was a bit of a shame, but that decision has to be made much earlier in the year.”

Teammate Ocon enjoyed his first F1 qualifying outing with Manor after replacing Rio Haryanto over the summer, and narrowly missed out on a place in Q2 after an impressive run to P18. However, he too was disappointed.

“I’ve been pretty happy with my pace generally but it’s not easy to start your F1 career more than halfway through the season,” Ocon said.

“I need more time in the car and with the super-soft tire and even managing the traffic; that’s quite a challenge too with all the cars slowing down after their laps.

“It takes more experience than I have in three practice sessions to really extract the maximum out of everything. That’s something to look forward to with each new race though, improving step by step.

“I was very quick on the soft tire, so although I’m a little disappointed today, I’m also excited about what is yet to come.”

Both Wehrlein and Ocon gain a place on the grid for Sunday’s race by virtue of Esteban Gutierrez’s grid penalty, dropping the Mexican to 18th.

The Belgian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.

IMSA: CJ Wilson Racing, HART Honda win crazy, wet CTSC race at VIR

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Strategic timing and masterstrokes of driving in treacherous, rainy conditions helped drive the first victories of the season for CJ Wilson Racing and HART (Honda of America Racing Team), respectively, in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge GS and ST classes at VIRginia International Raceway.

The No. 33 ONE Capital/Motor Oil Matters Porsche GT4 Cayman Clubsport pair of Danny Burkett and Marc Miller finally broke through for an elusive first victory, after coming up close on so many other occasions this year – notably at Watkins Glen.

Burkett, the young Canadian, made an early smart call to be first into the pits for rain tires – a key decision when a few minutes later, the skies opened and VIR turned from sunny and clear to swampy, wet and miserable, with flooding occurring a bit later.

Then when the race resumed after nearly an hour of red flag conditions, the No. 33 Porsche pitted along with fellow GS class contenders the Nos. 15 and 76 Ford Shelby GT350R-C from Multimatic Motorsports and Compass360 Racing, respectively. CJWR’s pit stops have been under the microscope this year but a flawless stop occurred there to switch from Burkett to Miller.

Miller then seized the momentum on the final restart, passing Billy Johnson (co-drove with Scott Maxwell) in the No. 15 Ford for the lead after Turns 1 and 2.

Miller held on to the finish and won by 4.509 seconds over Johnson, who did well to hold off a hard-charging Trent Hindman (Cameron Cassels co-driver) in the No. 12 Bodymotion Racing Porsche for second.

While Miller and CJWR have won in Continental Tire action before – CJWR was ST class champions a year ago – this marked both their first wins in GS, and Burkett’s first win in the series.

“Pure elation! This is awesome! It’s been such a long time coming. To finally do it… it’s almost surreal at this point. We had to come out here and do this. We had a fantastic race,” Burkett told IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam.

Miller, who had a birthday on August 24, added, to IMSA Radio’s Jim Roller, “Man I just didn’t want to slide off the track. Car placement was so important. This feels so good!”

In ST, Ryan Eversley and co-driver Chad Gilsinger put on a wet-weather driving clinic in the No. 93 HART Honda Civic Si for their first win since Road America last year.

Gilsinger got out to the lead early in the race and led the majority of his stint, Eversley doing the rest once he took over in the afternoon after pit stops and driver changes were completed. Eversley, ultimately, won by 10.417 seconds over good friend Eric Foss (co-drove with Jeff Mosing) in the No. 56 Murillo Racing Porsche Cayman.

“I did it because my team is awesome,” Eversley told Adam. “I didn’t lose any spots in the pits. When I got in the car everything was perfect. Chad Gilsinger, you should talk to more. He made the right choice to go to rains. If he would have been finishing, he would have done the same thing. HART, Honda Racing HPD. I’m blown away.”

Said the aforementioned Gilsinger to Roller, “Usually we don’t do well here. We were hoping it would rain. The first rain isn’t what we wanted. Nobody wanted that, especially on slicks. But we fought through and got to the pits in time, and the conditions suited our car quite well.”

Despite the heavy rain, lightning in the area and wet conditions in the pits (see below), there were no major accidents of note in the two-hour, 30-minute race.

The Wilson pair’s win closes them, unofficially, to 20 points of Maxwell and Johnson for the GS points lead, while Porsche and Ford are tied for the Manufacturer’s Lead.

In ST, Spencer Pumpelly and Nick Galante still lead the points by seven in their No. 17 Rennsport One Porsche Cayman, after a 14th place finish. Defending class champions Chad McCumbee and Stevan McAleer finished seventh in the No. 25 Freedom Autosport Mazda MX-5 and closed that gap.

The series resumes Friday, Sept. 16, at Circuit of The Americas for the second-to-last race of the year.

Gutierrez takes grid penalty after Wehrlein incident in Spa FP3

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 26: Esteban Gutierrez of Mexico driving the (21) Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari VF-16 Ferrari 059/5 turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 26, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Haas driver Esteban Gutierrez has been hit with a five-place grid penalty after forcing Pascal Wehrlein onto the grass during the final Formula 1 practice for the Belgian Grand Prix on Saturday at Spa.

Coming through the kink on the Kemmel Straight following Eau Rouge and Raidillion, Wehrlein came across a slow-moving Gutierrez while on a hot lap.

Gutierrez appeared to move right to let Wehrlein through before crossing back across the track, forcing Wehrlein to dive onto the grass at one of the fastest points on the circuit to avoid a collision.

Wehrlein managed to get back on to the track without crashing, but was less than impressed, asking his Manor team: “F*****g idiot, what is he doing?”

The stewards looked dimly on the incident, handing Gutierrez a five-place grid drop and three penalty points on his FIA super licence.

Gutierrez qualified 13th on Saturday afternoon, meaning he will drop to P18 on the grid for the start of Sunday’s race.

“It was a really good effort from the team. We’ve been struggling with the car setup, but managed to find the best balance,” Gutierrez said after qualifying.

“In qualifying, it felt like a step forward considering the high track temperatures, which is making things a little complicated with the tires.

“In FP3 there was a miscommunication that cost us a five-place grid penalty, which is obviously very painful, but we will try to put that aside.

“I’ll start the race and give everything I’ve got to recover the lost positions and I’ll be fighting all the way to get into the top 10.”

The Belgian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.