Jason and Charlie Leffler. (Photo courtesy of Jason Leffler's Instagram account)

Remembering Jason Leffler, one year after his tragic death

1 Comment

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.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

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.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

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

 

Perez ‘pretty certain’ on 2017 team, announcement imminent

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 30: Sergio Perez of Mexico driving the (11) Sahara Force India F1 Team VJM09 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo locks a wheel under braking on track during practice for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on September 30, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
Leave a comment

SEPANG, Malaysia (AP) Mexican driver Sergio Perez is “pretty certain” which team he will be driving for in the 2017 Formula One season, but stopped short of confirming he will remain with Force India next season.

Force India has an option to retain Perez for next season, contingent on a commercial agreement between team, driver and his personal sponsors.

“Very soon you will have an official announcement,” Perez told reporters following Saturday’s qualifying session at the Malaysian Grand Prix. “I know what I am doing for my future, but I am not in a position yet to confirm it. I am pretty certain what I’m doing, so it’s good.”

Renault had reportedly inquired about signing Perez for next season. If the Mexican stays with Force India, this will be a significant step in firming up the 2017 driver pairings across the mid-range and smaller teams.

It increased the likelihood that Renault will retain at least one of its current drivers, Kevin Magnussen or Jolyon Palmer, while the team remained in the market for an experienced team leader.

There is a 2017 vacancy at Williams to replace the retiring Felipe Massa, and teammate Valtteri Bottas is also yet to be confirmed. The future of Daniil Kvyat at Toro Rosso remains undecided, and the Sauber and Manor teams will seek drivers on the best commercial terms available.

The driver pairings at leading teams Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull will remain unchanged for next season.

Titles, track breakup, cautions peppering Petit Le Mans

imsa_28969393
Photo courtesy of IMSA
Leave a comment

BRASELTON, Ga. – The 19th annual Petit Le Mans presented by Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort didn’t have a ton of news in the early stages of the race, but it does now as the race has eclipsed the 4-hour mark of the 10-hour race that caps off the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season.

The race is under its third full-course caution of the race for a track inspection at Turn 3. Just prior to that, there’d been contact as Fred Makowiecki in the No. 912 Porsche North America Porsche 911 RSR hit the rear of Andy Lally, in the No. 44 Magnus Racing Audi R8 LMS.

Class leaders at the 4-hour mark, when the first points in the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup are awarded, are:

  • P: 1-10-Jordan Taylor, Corvette DP, 2-5-Joao Barbosa, Corvette DP, 3-60-Ozz Negri, Ligier JS P2 Honda
  • PC: 1-52-Tom Kimber-Smith, 2-38-James French, 3-85-Stephen Simpson
  • GTLM: 1-4-Oliver Gavin, Corvette C7.R, 2-62-Toni Vilander, Ferrari 488 GTE, 3-66-Dirk Mueller, Ford GT
  • GTD: 1-44-Andy Lally, Audi R8 LMS, 2-9-Dion von Moltke, Audi R8, 3-6-Mike Skeen, Audi R8

Here’s some notes thus far:

TITLES CLINCHED

Christina Nielsen drove the opening three-plus hours in the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 and by doing so, secured the GT Daytona class championship for both her and co-driver Alessandro Balzan. If at least one Silver or Bronze-rated driver completes that minimum drive time of three hours, that is enough to score points for the pairing.

Nielsen, the 24-year-old Dane, becomes another female driver to win a major sports car championship. There are others – Melanie Snow won American Le Mans Series’ GTC in 2009 and Amy Ruman in Trans-Am last year – while Nielsen’s comes in the deep GTD field that features upwards of six manufacturers and 12 to 22 cars entered in every race this year.

“I’m sad that this is perhaps the last time I get to run the 488 this year, but it’s absolutely amazing that we ran it and it ran so well,” said Nielsen after her three-hour, 8-minute driving stint, via IMSA.

“It’s a nice car to drive, the team did a great job, good pit stops. This just shows what the team has been doing all year. It’s a pleasure to be a part of, they just do so much right and so little wrong. To call ourselves ‘champions’ this early is unbelievable, but we’ve still got an endurance championship to go for so, game on.”

This is a stunning achievement for Giacomo Mattioli’s Scuderia Corsa team, which has now thus far won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, IMSA GT Daytona and Pirelli World Challenge GTA titles this year.

I spoke to both Nielsen and Balzan on Friday, and will have more from them to come in the wake of this championship achievement.

Meanwhile, when the race took the green flag, Chevrolet clinched both Manufacturer’s Championships in Prototype and GT Le Mans. Both manufacturers also have drivers going for Driver’s Championships – the Nos. 31, 5 and 10 Corvette DP pairings in Prototype and the No. 4 Corvette C7.R pairing in GTLM.

TRACK BREAKUP

The most recent caution saw a portion of the track come up at Turn 3, and required crews to survey it. But rather than it being a too lengthy caution, the race has resumed.

If there is an upside to this bit, this isn’t IMSA Race Director Beaux Barfield’s first rodeo dealing with track breakups. He’s also dealt with this in his former career as IndyCar Race Director at Detroit and Houston.

A COUPLE CAUTIONS

The debris caution as noted above, which turned into a longer caution, and an off by Tomy Drissi in the No. 20 BAR1 Motorsports Oreca FLM09 at Turn 10 are the first two cautions of the race. And now, at four hours and four minutes, we have our third full-course caution of the race.

WOES THUS FAR

The DeltaWing is done with timing chain issues, capping off a frustrating weekend for the hometown team.

The No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT’s chances of usurping the championship from the No. 4 Corvette C7.R in GTLM went away when that car went behind the wall in the third hour. Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook were trying to overcome an 11-point deficit.

The sister No. 3 Corvette C7.R went behind the wall at the start of the third hour with a throttle issue. Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia share that car with Mike Rockenfeller.

Mazda’s No. 55 Prototype had a couple offs with Tristan Nunez driving, then a trip to the pits with electronics issues.

Motor issues have hampered the No. 90 Visit Florida Racing Corvette DP of Ryan Dalziel, Marc Goossens and Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Pressing on wounded with what Mike Shank told IMSA Radio was an “issue in the left rear” earlier in the race, and now confirmed as having broken drive pins, is the pace-setting No. 60 Michael Shank Racing Ligier JS P2 Honda of Olivier Pla, Ozz Negri and John Pew.

An alternator belt issue has slowed the No. 16 Change Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3, driven by Spencer Pumpelly, Corey Lewis and Richard Antinucci.

First car behind the wall with a possible suspension issue was the No. 7 Starworks Motorsport Oreca FLM09 of Stefano Coletti, Quinlan Lall and James Dayson. Coletti then spun again when back on track.

Brake issues have slowed the PC-leading No. 8 Starworks Motorsport entry of David Heinemeier Hansson, Alex Popow and Renger van der Zande.

There’s also been a charging system issue for the No. 100 BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLM.

F1 team chiefs wary of possible expansion of calendar

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 30:  Franz Tost of Scuderia Toro Rosso and Austria during the Team Managers Press Conference at the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on September 30, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Peter Fox/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
Leave a comment

Four Formula 1 team bosses have expressed their concern over a possible expansion of the series’ calendar beyond its current 21 races in the future.

F1 was acquired by Liberty Media Corporation last month in a deal worth an estimated $8 billion, with the company expressing a desire to take F1 to new markets and expand its presence in the United States.

As a result, it is believed that the existing figure of 21 races in a season could be surpassed in the future, with as many as 25 rounds in a year being mooted.

Speaking in Friday’s FIA press conference, four F1 team chiefs were asked about the possibility of going beyond 21 races in the future, with all expressing concern.

“I think we are at the limit already so if there would be more races, we would have to have a rotating system with staff people,” McLaren racing director Eric Boullier said.

“And no, we don’t have reserve people back in the factory so that means we would have to hire some people.”

“I think that 20/21 races is quite a good number and if additional races come onto the calendar we also would have to think of a rotating system to bring in more people,” Toro Rosso’s Franz Tost added.

“Because otherwise it’s difficult to handle everything but if we have more races, we also have more income and therefore it shouldn’t be a problem.

“In the end, there must be a profit for the teams otherwise it doesn’t make sense.”

“I go back to the days when we had 14 races and that was too many,” Manor’s Dave Ryan said.

“21 feels like it’s too many but if they’re talking 25 races… I guess it depends what the package is. Maybe they are two-day events, maybe it’s a different format.

“Until we know what they really are asking for or what they’re thinking of, it may be that it works or not. We just have to wait and see.”

Force India’s Bob Fernley added: “Same as Eric. We would need to increase the personnel significantly to be able to bring in reserves.”

Reflecting on Liberty’s takeover itself, the team chiefs were largely enthusiastic, believing it to be a positive step for F1.

“I assume that Liberty Media, as they belong to a very financially strong group, have a quite clear programme and plan of what they want to do with Formula 1,” Tost said.

“Personally, I hope that Formula 1 will become much more interesting in America, that we will hopefully have three races over there. I expect that especially on the media side they will work on our weak platform, the digital media and social media, and then for the smaller teams, from 2021 onwards, the money is being distributed in a much fairer way and equal to the teams and last but not least, together with the FIA, they will find a way to reduce costs in Formula 1.”

“At McLaren we are very positive about the arrival of Liberty. They are used managing big business, connecting fans to media, so we believe it’s good for Formula 1,” Boullier said.

“At the same time, I think they will take their time to understand the business, where they want to bring the business, the show, the entertainment, to which level. We will see what they suggest and plan.”

“I met [new F1 chairman] Chase Carey for the first time, I found him extremely approachable and willing to listen, but I think it’s far too early to make any predictions of where things are going to go or even opinions on that,” Fernley added.

“I think they need time to be able to look at where they are going and what plans they have for Formula 1 and then once they make their announcements on the direction they want to go I think then maybe we can make some comments but it’s too early to judge at this point.”

Magnussen: P14 on grid in Malaysia ‘much better than usual’

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - OCTOBER 01:  Kevin Magnussen of Denmark driving the (20) Renault Sport Formula One Team Renault RS16 Renault RE16 turbo in the Pitlane during qualifying for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on October 1, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
Leave a comment

Kevin Magnussen felt delighted to match his second-best qualifying result of the 2016 Formula 1 season in Malaysia on Saturday, finishing 14th for Renault in Q2.

Magnussen has scored all seven of Renault’s points since its return to F1 as a constructor in 2016, the most recent coming in Singapore two weeks ago when he finished 10th.

Magnussen is known to be fighting for his future as Renault continues to deliberate its line-up for 2017, and did his chances a world of good by charging to 14th in qualifying on Saturday.

Magnussen finished 13th in Q1 to secure a Q2 berth, where he ended up P14 ahead of both Toro Rosso drivers despite making an error on his final lap as he chased an elusive place in Q3.

“It’s a very good result for us in qualifying. P14 is much better than usual in terms of setting us up for scoring some points in the race,” Magnussen said.

“But it’s an ambivalent result as I felt so close to Q3 that I couldn’t resist giving it everything I’ve got on my final run; I locked up in Turn 1 and lost the lap. I didn’t improve after that so it’s unfortunate.

“From P14, not a lot has to happen in the top ten for us to get points, which is always the aim. Let’s see tomorrow, hopefully our race pace is as good as qualifying today.

“You never really know how it will go here, so fingers crossed!”

Teammate Jolyon Palmer was left ruing a mistake at the final corner of his final Q1 lap as he finished 19th, four-tenths of a second off Magnussen’s time.

“I’ll be frank: my lap was pretty far from what it should have been. I made the wrong call on set-up between my runs and the lap just didn’t come together,” Palmer conceded.

“This was particularly frustrating as the pace has looked promising all weekend and there’s definitely better possible from the car here.

“Tomorrow I’ll be pushing all the way to make amends especially as this is a track where moving up the order is possible.”

The Malaysian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 2am ET on Sunday.