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

 

INDYCAR Preview – KOHLER Grand Prix

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

One of the great road courses in the United States, Road America, plays host to the next round of the Verizon IndyCar Series – the KOHLER Grand Prix (Sunday June 24, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

A staple of IndyCar between 1982 and 2007, IndyCar returned to Road America amidst great fanfare in 2016. And the two visits since its return have not disappointed.

Will Power held off a hard-charging Tony Kanaan to win in 2016, while Graham Rahal survived a thrilling battle for third to round out the podium. And last year, Scott Dixon made an outstanding outside pass on Josef Newgarden in Turn 1 to take the lead on a late-race restart, and he held on to win from there – it was also his only victory of 2017.

And if the previous road and street courses are any indication, Sunday’s race could be another thriller on the 4.048-mile road course.

Major talking points ahead of the KOHLER Grand Prix are below.

The Rise of Dixon

Scott Dixon celebrates victory in the DXC Technology 600. Photo: IndyCar

The 2018 IndyCar season is beginning look a lot like a Scott Dixon year.

After a somewhat slow start to his season, Dixon caught fire in the month of May. He finished second at the INDYCAR Grand Prix, then third at the Indianapolis 500.

He followed that up with a ferocious first two weeks of June, winning Race 1 of the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit and finishing fourth in Race 2. He followed that up by dominating the second half of the DXC Technology 600 at Texas Motor Speedway to take his second win of the season, and his second in three races.

That stretch has put Dixon into the championship lead for the first time this season. And he is also the defending winner of the KOHLER Grand Prix, after passing then leader Josef Newgarden on a late-race restart, so he likely enters the weekend as the favorite.

“Obviously I’m happy with where the team has been running these past few weekends, but we’ve been there the whole season. We just haven’t shown the results for one reason or another,” Dixon explained. “While most had the weekend off, we had the opportunity to compete again at Le Mans, which is a very special deal. So now we’re back, and after a few short days at home, it’s Road America. We had a great car here last year picking up the win for the No. 9 team, and I’m hoping we can do it again this weekend with the PNC Bank car.”

Dixon won’t go nearly as far as to talk anything championship-related at the moment, but a fifth championship is most certainly possible.

Road America Could Become Very Tire-some

Tire strategy will likely be at the forefront in Road America. Photo: IndyCar

The primary “black” and alternate “red” Firestone tires have created genuinely intriguing racing in recent weeks.

The difference in grip levels between them saw Will Power and Robert Wickens engage in a fantastic and tactical mid-race duel at the INDYCAR Grand Prix, and it created a lot of drama across both races in Belle Isle, culminating in Ryan Hunter-Reay’s charge to victory in Race 2.

And last year’s KOHLER Grand Prix ultimately came down to tire strategy. The aforementioned Dixon passed Newgarden because he was on the alternate “red” tires, while Newgarden was on the primary “blacks” – Newgarden also took the lead earlier in the race using the same tactic, getting onto reds when other leaders were on blacks, which helped him pass Helio Castroneves for the lead.

It’s within reason to think this weekend at Road America will be more of the same.

Newgarden’s Season Slipping Away?

Josef Newgarden. Photo: IndyCar

Josef Newgarden entered the month of May on a hot streak, having won two of the opening four races to lead the championship as the series headed to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The wheels have metaphorically come off a bit since then. He finished 11th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix after spinning late in the race, eighth at the Indy 500, ninth and 15th in Detroit, and 13th at Texas Motor Speedway.

That stretch has dropped him from the championship lead to fifth in the standings, 68 points off Dixon for the title lead.

If he is to get himself back into title contention, he’ll need to get back on the podium this weekend. And fortunately for Newgarden, the Road America circuit ranks at the top of his personal favorites.

“I’m not shy on saying that Road America is probably my favorite track. I really love racing there. It’s a fun road course with a lot of great INDYCAR fans, so what’s not to love?” Newgarden asserted. “These cars with the new aero kit have been super exciting on road courses and this weekend will be no different. The entire No. 1 Verizon Chevy team and I are pumped to get on track there. I thought we were strong at Texas after not living up to our standards at Detroit, but we just ran out of luck. Myself and the entire team are ready to really come back strong to gain more points to continue our hunt for another championship.”

Misc.

  • Ryan Hunter-Reay is quietly beginning to put together a title-contending year. Outside of a 20th at Long Beach, and 18th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix, Hunter-Reay’s worst finish is fifth (three times), and he three podiums to his name, including his Detroit Race 2 victory. He sits 49 points behind Dixon, well within striking distance. This is about the time of the year when he started his title run back in 2012, which culminated in a series championship for him, and 2018 could be headed in that direction.
  • Graham Rahal sits sixth in the standings, 107 points back. His crash in Detroit Race 1 undoubtedly hurt his title chances, but he has been incredibly consistent outside of that, finishing inside the Top 10 at every other race. However, he’ll need some victories later in the year if he is to put himself back in the title picture.
  • Juncos Racing returns to the grid, with Alfonso Celis making his IndyCar debut. A standout and race winner in World Series Formula V8 3.5, he previously raced with Juncos in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires at Barber Motorsports Park, where he finished seventh and eighth.

The Final Word…

From Robert Wickens, who made his IndyCar debut in Friday practice last year at Road America – he subbed for Mikhail Aleshin, who was delayed in arriving at Road America following the 24 Hours of Le Mans:

“I’m really looking forward to Road America. I think, in the last few races, we’ve shown our potential. We’ve shown that we’re quick. Now we need to try to get back on the podium. Road America is always a fun track, and it’s where I got my first taste of INDYCAR with SPM so I can’t wait to actually race the Lucas Oil car here.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

At-track schedule (all times local):

Friday, June 22
11:00-11:45 a.m. (12:00-12:45 p.m. ET) – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
3:15-4:15 p.m. (4:15-5:15 p.m. ET) – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)

Saturday, June 23
11:00-11:45 a.m. (12:00-12:45 p.m. ET) – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #3, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
3:00 p.m. (4:00 p.m. ET) – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (three rounds of knockout qualifying), NBCSN (5:30 p.m. same-day delay)

Sunday, June 24
11:30 a.m. (12:30 p.m. ET) – NBCSN on-air
12:05 p.m. (1:05 p.m. ET) – KOHLER Grand Prix (55 laps/220.77 miles), NBCSN (Live)

Here’s last year’s Top 10:

1. Scott Dixon
2. Josef Newgarden
3. Helio Castroneves
4. Simon Pagenaud
5. Will Power
6. Charlie Kimball
7. Ed Jones
8. Graham Rahal
9. Max Chilton
10. Mikhail Aleshin

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Helio Castroneves
2. Will Power
3. Josef Newgarden
4. Simon Pagenaud
5. Scott Dixon
6. Graham Rahal

Follow@KyleMLavigne