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.

Sebastien Ogier in driver’s seat for sixth straight World Rally Championship title

Sebastien Ogier leads the way in the WRC title chase. Photo: Getty Images
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COFFS HARBOUR, Australia (AP) — Thierry Neuville finished the sixth stage of Rally Australia on Friday without a rear left tire, damaging his chances of catching five-time defending champion Sebastien Ogier for the World Rally Championship title.

The Belgian driver entered the rally just three points behind Ogier in the closest title fight in 15 years.

He held the upper hand on his French rival, building a near-10 second gap through the first five stages at Coffs Harbour before hitting a chicane and finishing the stage with only three tires on his Hyundai.

Neuville was fortunate the puncture occurred late enough in the day to finish all six forestry stages and avoid a retirement. But the mistake cost him 40 seconds and gave Ogier, who is 33 seconds ahead of him, a clear run at his sixth straight championship.

In his last start with Ford before a move to Citroen next year, Ogier struggled as the first to drive the dusty, slippery forest routes.

“I pushed like crazy, I was on the limit over the jump and everywhere, I can’t do (any) more,” Ogier said. “I was on the limit.”

With Ogier on sweeping duties the back markers flourished, and Mads Ostberg took the lead in his return to the series.

Ostberg was forced to miss the previous round in Spain to make way for rally winner and nine-time world champion Sebastien Loeb, who was making the last of his three guest appearances for Citroen.

Now back in the seat, Ostberg leads Jari-Matti Latvala by 6.8 seconds in the Australian rally, with sixth-stage winner Craig Breen in third.

Ogier was seventh, 38.2 seconds off the pace, but only needs to finish ahead of Neuville to claim the championship title. Neuville is in 10th place after six stages.

Roles will reverse on Saturday, with Ogier to start further back in the field and do his best on cleaner roads to make up the day-one deficit before Sunday’s final stages.

Andreas Mikkelsen, the 2016 Rally Australia champion, was an early dropout after rolling into a ditch in his Hyundai. Mikkelsen had only just avoided a tractor that had found its way onto the course.

Former winner Molly Taylor and co-driver Malcolm Read were also forced out of their event when their Subaru hit a hay bale at high speed on the morning’s second stage. Both reported soreness but suffered no serious injuries.

The 24-stage rally totals 319 kilometers (197 miles). Ten stages are scheduled Saturday with the final six on Sunday, most of them through forests on the New South Wales state’s north coast about 530 kilometers (325 miles) north of Sydney.