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

 

Bourdais, Coyne thankful to have had time to build over winter

BIRMINGHAM, AL - APRIL 08:  Sebastian Bourdais of France, driver of the #19 Dale Coyne Racing Dallara Honda, waits in the pit during practice for the IndyCar Series Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park on April 8, 2011 in Birmingham, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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With both Sebastien Bourdais and Ed Jones having been confirmed relatively early in this Verizon IndyCar Series offseason – by mid-November – it marked a change of course for both Dale Coyne Racing as a team, and for its re-signed lead driver.

Coyne’s a racing lifer and he and his Chicago-based team has been part of the IndyCar fabric for more than 30 years. But throughout that time, it had become something of a running joke that Coyne usually left his driver signings very late in the winter. He even warmed to the joke as the years have gone on.

In Bourdais’ case, not knowing whether he’d have a job year-to-year was always a threat, and became particularly worrisome last offseason when KVSH Racing only formally shored up the deal for him to be back for a third year the week of the IndyCar open test at Phoenix International Raceway in late February.

As such, knowing Coyne wanted to move the program forward – starting by getting the pieces done earlier – and knowing Bourdais wanted the stability and security throughout the offseason, it made sense the deal got done when it did. That peace of mind became evident once KVSH Racing again was set to face an uncertain future as the summer dragged into fall.

“It was massive,” Bourdais told NBC Sports. “It was the first winter I’m not dreading the phone call where someone says, ‘Hey, that went down, or that did, or this happened.’ It’s very very reassuring and appealing. It’s the biggest reason why I was looking for something else. It was just not going to change with the organization we had.

“It’s no one’s fault. ‘Sulli’ (James Sullivan) did an amazing job; Jimmy (Vasser) was helping and Kevin (Kalkhoven) did what he felt he wanted or could do. You couldn’t blame the situation for what it was. But it was all planning, then money ran short and things went bad. Ultimately I’m very happy with what we’re doing here. Hopefully we can produce!”

KVSH was notably bullish on Bourdais’ prospects in preseason last year, while Bourdais sought to downplay it, but a season of underachieving and lost opportunities left the one-car team an unrepresentative 14th in points.

Bourdais, knowing Coyne’s team isn’t regarded as a world-beater (yet, anyway) and with the Honda package still likely to lag a bit behind Chevrolet at most races, is again guarding against setting the expectations too high.

“I don’t want to get the expectations too high. That doesn’t help anyone,” Bourdais said. “But Dale has put a massive commitment behind the program. I’ve kind of managed to get him to agree and commit to it as early as he did. That was so crucial.

Bourdais and Coyne crew at Gateway test. Photo: IndyCar
Bourdais and Coyne crew at Gateway test. Photo: IndyCar

“There’s a lot of things that are working here. Mike Cannon (engineer) did a great job with Darren (Crouser, team manager). It’s the first time there’s that many engineers in the office. They don’t think they’ll be there for a year or two. They want to build something. Of course there are limitations and restrictions. Consistency in a group can go a long way on that. But we’re looking to produce the fruit of everyone’s hard work.”

The engineering shake-up at Coyne provides a veritable smorgasbord of engineering goodness in one room (more here via IndyCar.com). Bourdais’ chief engineer from KVSH, Olivier Boisson, also makes the switch to Coyne. Bourdais is reunited with his championship-winning engineer from the Champ Car days, Craig Hampson, as his lead engineer. Cannon will serve as lead on Jones’ car.

“I raced against him in Champ Car,” Bourdais laughed. “It’s crucial to have him stick around again. The more continuity in the team, the better.”

Coyne was meant to test December 9 at Sebring before a washout cut the test down in advance. The team’s first test with both cars in road and street course configuration is now at Sebring on January 24-25, with Bourdais then continuing in Florida into the weekend for the second year at the Rolex 24 at Daytona in one of the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GTs.

Bourdais has run the gamut of teammates in his career. Oriol Servia and Bruno Junqueira won races when Bourdais was at Newman/Haas and Graham Rahal impressed as a rookie. In recent years, late deals have left drivers such as Katherine Legge, Sebastian Saavedra and Stefano Coletti scrambling to get integrated into the team, despite their ability.

Jones is unproven at the IndyCar level, but Bourdais said the talent exists for the 21-year-old Dubai-based Brit, who’s found a home in the U.S. in Miami.

“Hell, he won the championship in Lights, so we know he has talent,” Bourdais said. “It’s crucial to make sure the second car doesn’t hurt where I was going. The budget on the second car is fine, so it shouldn’t affect us in a bad way.

“If Ed can achieve and help us raise the bar, even better. That’s pretty much the way I look at it all along. But the biggest thing was making sure it wouldn’t drain the effort on my car, because otherwise you’re better off being alone.”

Bourdais turns 38 at the end of February and will embark on his 12th season in IndyCar, 10th overall (he raced part-time for Coyne in 2011, when he returned to IndyCar and in 2012) looking to build on his career record of 35 wins.

Coyne has four wins all-time and seems a good bet to add to that at least once more this year. If Bourdais can re-enter the top-10 in points after a one-year slip, it should be a good first step in the team’s turnaround.

Jenson Button tests a Honda Civic Red Bull GRC car (VIDEO)

during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 15, 2016 in Shanghai, China.
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Jenson Button’s racing plans for 2017 aren’t settled yet, other than we know he’s staying affiliated with McLaren Honda as the team’s third and reserve driver.

Honda, of course, spreads its wings in so many other forms of motorsport, Red Bull Global Rallycross among them. And given Button’s love of rallying, you wondered if one day, the 2009 World Champion might test a Honda Civic that’s entered by the Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE team.

Wonder no more. Button posted this Instagram video of him testing a one of the OMSE Civics at Sebring International Raceway, and thanked OMSE team principal Andreas Eriksson for the opportunity. Button called the test “pure driving” and “pure joy” within the caption.

Button turns 37 tomorrow and it would be a gift not just for him, but for American fans, if this test were eventually to blossom into something more with the team. The OMSE team is yet to reveal its Red Bull GRC program with Honda for the second season of competition for the Civic.

Button isn’t the first high-profile open-wheel driver to have sampled the car, as IndyCar driver Conor Daly did so as well the day after the season finale in Los Angeles.

NAPA returns to Rossi’s No. 98 at Andretti Autosport

during the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
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After a shot-in-the-dark last-minute deal with Andretti-Herta Autosport to support Alexander Rossi’s No. 98 Honda at the 100th Indianapolis 500, NAPA Auto Parts entered into sponsorship immortality aboard the winning car.

The discussion from there was always going to be whether the relationship would continue and expand for either the rest of 2016 or into the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series. After a one-weekend continuation into the Detroit doubleheader last year, NAPA and Andretti Autosport confirmed a greater relationship in 2017.

NAPA will serve as co-primary sponsor for Rossi’s car at seven races this season, including the month of May in Indianapolis. St. Petersburg will see the first NAPA appearance, with additional ones at Long Beach, Road America, Watkins Glen and Sonoma.

The NAPA adorned show car has made a number of appearances around the country, including a recent one at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

“We are pleased to announce our continued partnership with one of the more iconic brands in all of motorsports, the Andretti brand” stated NAPA President, Dan Askey. “We are equally excited to partner with one of the rising stars in the sport in Alexander Rossi and proud to have Alexander representing NAPA both on and off the track. We were fortunate to come on board in May of 2016 becoming a part of history as we rode along with Alexander capturing the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500. Andretti Autosport remains one of the elite teams in the IndyCar Series and we look forward to what 2017 holds.”

“NAPA is a storied, American brand and I couldn’t be more proud to announce our partnership is continuing,” added Andretti Autosport CEO Michael Andretti. “We were pleased to have previously announced that Alexander will be returning for the full season, and now to be able to confirm that NAPA is back on board – what a great way for us to start 2017. Our relationship with NAPA came together quickly during our Month of May program last year, and it wasn’t long before the partnership was written into history books. We can’t wait to add a few more pages to history together.”

New GTD manufacturers add intrigue to 2017 Rolex 24 at Daytona

Nos. 33 and 50 Riley Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3s. Photo courtesy of IMSA
Nos. 33 and 50 Riley Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3s. Photo courtesy of IMSA
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The trio of new manufacturers entering the 2017 Rolex 24 at Daytona – Acura, Lexus and Mercedes-AMG – add three more bullets to an already loaded GT Daytona 27-car class field for the season-opening round of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season. It brings the total number of manufacturers entered this year up to nine, joining six returning brands (Porsche, Audi, Ferrari, Lamborghini, BMW, Aston Martin) from 2016.

The new cars have all taken an interesting road to get here as they make their U.S. race competition debuts, following either or both of testing and international class racing.

Acura enters with arguably the most buzz among the three manufacturers. The sister brand to Honda has the cache of the history of the NSX brand from the early 1990s, and the long-awaited revival of the new NSX as a GT3 model comes with much anticipation.

No. 93 Acura NSX GT3. Photo courtesy of IMSA
No. 93 Acura NSX GT3. Photo courtesy of IMSA

In Michael Shank Racing, Acura has a team with nearly two decades of endurance experience, in collaboration with Peter Cunningham’s RealTime Racing which has been an integral part of the testing process. The car was revealed last spring in New York and made its on-track testing debut in late July at the Pirelli World Challenge weekend at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, not far from Honda of America Manufacturing in Marysville, Ohio. A further public test at Utah Motorsports Campus in August followed.

Testing hasn’t been entirely smooth, which is to be expected as teams work through the mechanical niggles and prefer to diagnose issues early. As Shank explained to at the Performance Racing Industry (PRI) Trade Show in Indianapolis in December, the working process has gotten better with each run.

“Every time we take the car out, it’s getting better, literally,” Shank told NBC Sports. “Every time it goes out the door, there’s more done to the car to make it endurance-worthy, comfortable for drivers, quick – it’s just a huge bucket list, a punch-out list of stuff to get done that we’re slowly taking care of.”

Acura’s pair of NSX GT3s slotted in 20th and 23rd at the Roar Before the Rolex 24 test, which may not be representative of the car’s ultimate pace.

With their lineups of Ozz Negri, Jeff Segal, Tom Dyer and Ryan Hunter-Reay in the No. 86 Acura and Andy Lally, Katherine Legge, Mark Wilkins and Graham Rahal in the No. 93 car, the team has assembled eight all-star drivers who are all close and consistent enough on pace to keep the cars in the fight.

No. 14 Lexus RC F GT3. Photo courtesy of IMSA
No. 14 Lexus RC F GT3. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Lexus enters into GTD following a roller coaster year-and-a-half of buildup. The team’s initial RC F GT3 lacked outright competitiveness before homologation issues, and required a new build of a second generation car that spent the latter half of 2016 building up mileage.

The former Rocketsports Racing – or RSR when it was in IMSA’s Prototype Challenge class – has had a mixed history with GT cars. Paul Gentilozzi’s effort was a race- and championship-winning machine in the Trans-Am days, most recently with a Jaguar XKR in the early 2000s. However, when the RSR Jaguar program entered into GT2 (now GT Le Mans) in the American Le Mans Series, it struggled for both pace and reliability.

Toyota, Lexus’ sister brand, seems entirely committed to the Lexus project, and the renamed 3GT Racing has a great future-looking lineup with Sage Karam, Jack Hawksworth and Robert Alon – all 25 or less – as three of its four full-season drivers. And in Scott Pruett, they have one of the most successful sports car drivers of all-time as their lead driver and mentor-in-chief.

“To have the passion and ability he has at 56, to be a wheelman is unreal,” Karam told NBC Sports. “That dude can still wheel a car. Listening to how he talks and goes about everything, it’s unlike anyone else. I’m blessed to have a teammate like Scott.”

Endurance race extras include a capable quartet of Ian James and Gustavo Menezes (No. 14) and Austin Cindric and Dominik Farnbacher (No. 15), the latter of whom probably has been most integral to the Lexus development process. Lexus was 21st and 24th at the Roar.

The most ironed out car should, in theory, be the new Mercedes-AMG GT3. The car tested for the first time at Daytona in November 2015, which gives it already more than a year up on the other two outright new cars. It had success in European GT racing last year.

In Riley Motorsports, Mercedes has a team that is perhaps the most well-sorted in the paddock. Bill Riley leaves no stone unturned and even with new cars, with the Dodge Viper GT3-R retired from competition, the expectation is that Riley’s pair of Mercedes will be instant competitors. Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ben Keating share the team’s No. 33 car while the WeatherTech Racing pair of Cooper MacNeil and Gunnar Jeannette lead the team’s No. 50 car.

“It’s not too hard (of a transition) because this car is so nice and easy to drive,” Bleekemolen told NBC Sports. “I’ve always said of the SLS, this is the easiest car I know and this car is similar in that way. It’s a very easy car to drive. You get a feel for the car pretty quick and that makes it also a good all-around car. In difficult conditions, it’s going to be good, it’s going to be easy. I love this car.”

Pace at the Roar backed that up. The No. 33 Mercedes was second, the No. 50 Mercedes 11th, and the third Mercedes – the No. 75 SunEnergy1 Racing entry – split them nearly right down the middle in seventh.

Audi won its first WeatherTech Championship race last year in GTD with its new R8 LMS, which extended the new car’s run of early success in international endurance races to four wins in its five most recent starts. The Mercedes’ run of international success last year included a top-four sweep at last year’s 24-hour enduro at the Nürburgring as part of 18 overall wins, so it follows that even though this race is its IMSA debut, it could and probably should contend for class honors.

For Acura and Lexus, the goals are different. With this being the first race for both cars, finishing is the first and most important goal. Ford achieved a wealth of success as it went on with the Ford GT throughout 2016, but arguably fell flat on its face with a litany of issues that popped up on its worldwide race debut at Daytona.

Provided each of those two manufacturers can get one car home to the finish, it will have been a solid start. For Mercedes-AMG, meanwhile, a win at Daytona is within range to extend its run of form, provided it gets past the other outstanding challengers in class.