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.

New Jersey Supercross Preview: Webb Rolls On, Forkner Returns

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Two races remain in the 2019 Supercross season and the handwriting is on the wall. Cooper Webb’s magic number is now five; all he needs to do in the final two races is finish fifth or better. Since he has finished worse than that only twice this year – and not since Week 5 in San Diego – it’s a fair assumption that he will keep his momentum alive through the end of the season.

Webb’s competition is not going to let up, however. Last week in Denver, Eli Tomac won his second consecutive race after Webb got off to a slow start. There was a glimmer of hope while Webb was outside the top five on Lap 1, but the points leader meticulously picked off the competition and settled into second. Third in the standings, Marvin Musquin finished third to keep his title hopes alive as well.

But this is Supercross. Anything can happen. Just two weeks ago in the 250 class, Austin Forkner tweaked a knee and failed to start the Feature in Nashville. His one-race cushion evaporated in an instant and his advantage over the field is only three points with two races remaining in that division.

After battling his way back into contention with back-to-back top-five finishes at Houston and Nashville, Dean Wilson crashed in Denver and injured his shoulder and kidneys. He’ll miss the final two races of the season.

Two weeks ago at Nashville, Tyler Enticknap and Ronnie Stewart crashed hard and will be missing from the New Jersey lineup.

In 250s, it took an injury for the field to catch up to Forkner. He’ll be back in competition this week and forced to answer the question of whether he is in full form after undergoing therapy on his knee for the past three weeks. Since none of the 250 East riders have beaten him on the track, the answer would seem to be a simple one.

But now the competition senses weakness which is likely to be compounded by Forkner’s propensity to struggle in practice and qualification. Chase Sexton and Justin Cooper have been racking up top-fives, but now they need to step up and win. If either rider can do that this week in New Jersey or next week in the East/West Showdown in Vegas, that should allow him to snatch the championship away from 2019’s dominator.

MORE: The Other Guys Versus the Big 4  

Schedule:

Qualifying: 11 a.m. on NBC Sports, Gold
Race: Live, 5 p.m. on NBC Sports, Gold and NBCSN

Last Week:

Eli Tomac scored his second consecutive victory at Denver over Cooper Webb and Marvin Musquin.
In 250s, Adam Cianciarulo beat Dylan Ferrandis and Colt Nichols.

Last Year:

New Jersey was not on the schedule in 2018. In 2017, Ryan Dungey beat Marvin Musquin and Jason Anderson.
In 250s, Zach Osborne beat Dylan Ferrandis and Adam Cianciarulo.

Winners

450s:
[6] Cooper Webb (Anaheim II, Oakland, Minneapolis, Arlington, Atlanta, and Houston)
[5] Eli Tomac (San Diego, Detroit, Daytona, Nashville and Denver)
[2] Marvin Musquin (Indianapolis and Seattle)
[1] Justin Barcia (Anaheim I)
[1] Blake Baggett (Glendale)

250 West:
[5] Adam Cianciarulo (Glendale, Oakland, San Diego, Atlanta and Denver)
[2] Dylan Ferrandis (Seattle and Houston)
[1] Colt Nichols (Anaheim I)
[1] Shane McElrath (Anaheim II)

250 East:
[5] Austin Forkner (Minneapolis, Arlington, Detroit, Daytona and Indianapolis)
[1] Martin Davalos (Nashville)

Top-5s

450s:
Cooper Webb (13)
Marvin Musquin (12)
Eli Tomac (12)
Ken Roczen (10)
Blake Baggett (8)
Joey Savatgy (5)
Dean Wilson (4)
Chad Reed (2)
Justin Barcia (2)
Justin Bogle (2)
Jason Anderson (1)
Justin Brayton (1)
Aaron Plessinger (1)
Cole Seely (1)
Zach Osborne (1)

250 West:
Adam Cianciarulo (9)
Dylan Ferrandis (7)
Colt Nichols (6)
Shane McElrath (5)
RJ Hampshire (5)
James Decotis (4)
Jacob Hayes (1)
Garrett Marchbanks (1)
Jess Pettis (1)
Michael Mosiman (1)
Chris Blose (1)
Michael Mosiman (1)

250 East:
Justin Cooper (7)
Chase Sexton (7)
Austin Forkner (6)
Martin Davalos (4)
Jordon Smith (3)
Alex Martin (2)
Mitchell Oldenburg (2)
Kyle Peters (1)
Brandon Hartranft (1)

Points Leaders

450s:
Cooper Webb (332)
Eli Tomac (314)
Marvin Musquin (309)
Ken Roczen (283)
Blake Baggett (255)

250 West:
Adam Cianciarulo (208)
Dylan Ferrandis (200)
Colt Nichols (163)
RJ Hampshire (145)
James Decotis (128)
Cameron McAdoo (128)

250 East:
Austin Forkner (151)
Chase Sexton (148)
Justin Cooper (144)
Martin Davalos (115)
Mitchell Oldenburg (105)

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