Sprint car racing needs to mandate NASCAR-style safety standards

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NASCAR has not lost a driver to death in a race car since Dale Earnhardt was killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

Earnhardt’s car went head-on into an outside retaining wall coming onto the frontstretch at an estimated 190-195 mph. He was killed almost instantly from blunt force trauma to his head, otherwise known as basilar skull fracture.

Since then, at least two drivers have suffered serious injuries – Steve Park and Jerry Nadeau – that were related to crashes. Earlier this year, Denny Hamlin suffered a vertebrae fracture that sidelined him for four races, while Earnhardt’s son, Dale Jr., missed two races during last year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup when he suffered a concussion (his second in three months) last October in a 24-car wreck at Talladega Superspeedway.

In less than a one-year span from 2000 to 2001, four drivers – Tony Roper, Kenny Irwin, Adam Petty and Earnhardt – were killed in wrecks across all three major NASCAR series: Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Trucks.

But since the man known as The Intimidator perished 12 years ago, no one has been killed in a NASCAR crash, clearly demonstrative of the safety procedures that the sanctioning body has put in place since then.

That’s not the case, however, in sprint car racing – more commonly referred to as dirt car or dirt track racing. Leffler is the third driver to die in a sprint car event since last October when Tyler Wolf perished in a wreck at Calistoga (Calif.) Speedway, and Josh Burton died at Bloomington (Ind.) Speedway nearly three weeks before Leffler’s crash.

Leffler was wearing a restraint system manufactured by safety expert Bill Simpson’s former company.

“There’s nothing wrong with that system,” Simpson told ESPN.com on Friday. “It’s good. But they don’t protect you after 30 degrees. You have to have some kind of a head support. Period.”

Dave Blaney, who made his mark in dirt track racing before moving to the NASCAR ranks, was also at the New Jersey track that claimed Leffler’s life. In photos of the wreckage that Blaney saw, it appeared Leffler indeed did not have a full headrest in the cockpit of his car.

“That would make that type of wreck extremely dangerous,” Blaney told ESPN.com.

NASCAR has remained death-free since Earnhardt’s crash because it implemented a number of safety enhancements and improvements including the head and neck restraint device, so-called “soft walls”, relocating the driver compartment to be more centralized within the race car, more padding and flame retardation systems within race cars, black box data recorders in every race car and more. Drivers also have seats molded to their body size and style to keep them from moving around, particularly from jarring upon impact.

And while Leffler was indeed wearing a head and neck restraint device on the night he was killed, he did not have the more all-encompassing containment headrest.

Former NASCAR Busch Series champion Randy LaJoie, who now has a thriving business building seats and restraint devices for various forms of race cars, told ESPN.com that he believes up to 50 percent of drivers in sprint cars do not use them, while drivers piloting late model cars don’t use them.

“The systems in those cars can be greatly improved,” LaJoie said. “On the short-track level, with better belt systems, seat mount systems and neck systems, I bet over 95 percent of the crashes are survivable.”

Had Leffler been wearing such a restraint device, it may very well have saved his life.

Three-time W Series champ Jamie Chadwick joining Andretti in Indy NXT Series for 2023

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Jamie Chadwick, the three-time W Series champion, will drive for Andretti Autosport in the Indy NXT Series next season.

Chadwick will make her debut in an American racing series in March, driving the No. 28 for Andretti Autosport with sponsorship from DHL. The 24-year-old will become the first female driver in 13 years to compete full time in the Indy NXT championship.

Chadwick joined the female free-to-enter W Series in its inaugural 2019 season, winning two races and the first of three consecutive championships. She has been a reserve driver for the Williams Formula One team and will continue in that role in 2023. She also has driven in the Extreme E Series.

Despite her success, Chadwick hasn’t landed a bigger ride in F3 or F2, and her break didn’t come until Michael Andretti contacted her and offered a test in an Indy NXT car.

The final three races of this year’s W Series schedule were canceled when funding fell through, but Chadwick still believes the all-female series was the right path for her.

“W Series has always been and will continue to be an opportunity to be racing for every female driver, so for my side, I looked at it while perhaps I would have liked to step up maybe earlier, at the same time being able to have that chance to race, get that experience, have that development, seat time… I was constantly learning,” Chadwick told The Associated Press.

“In that sense, I wasn’t frustrated at all. But on the flip side of it, now I’ve had that experience testing in the United States in Indy NXT and this is something I’m really excited about.”

Chadwick also is expected to have an enhanced role as a development driver next season with Williams, which chose American driver Logan Sargeant to fill its open seat on next year’s F1 grid.

“Andretti Autosport is proud to be supporting Jamie alongside DHL,” said Michael Andretti. “Jamie’s successful career speaks for itself, but Indy NXT gives Jamie the opportunity to continue her development in a new type of racing.

“We’ve turned out five Indy NXT champions over the years and look forward to continuing our role in developing new talent.”

Indy NXT is the new name of the rebranded Indy Lights Series, the final step on the ladder system before IndyCar.

Andretti will field two drivers next season in IndyCar that were developed in Indy NXT: Kyle Kirkwood, the 2021 champion, will return to Andretti after one season in IndyCar driving for A.J. Foyt Racing, and Devlin DeFrancesco is back for a second season.

Chadwick will be teammates in Indy NXT with Hunter McElrea and Louis Foster. She becomes Andretti’s second full-time female driver alongside Catie Munnings, who competes for Andretti United in the Extreme E Series.