Drivers React to Leffler’s Death
By: Pete Pistone - @PPistone | MRN.com on June 14, 2013 | 1:27 P.M. EST
Teams are paying tribute to Jason Leffler this weekend. (Photo: Getty Images)
Leffler lost his life in a winged sprint car accident Wednesday night at New Jersey’s Bridgeport Speedway and his loss left an impact on fellow NASCAR competitors.
“Oh, that was some tragic news,” said Jimmie Johnson. "I lost a friend, and our sport lost somebody that really was involved and loved this sport and made it his life. And we’re all going to miss him terribly. I certainly think of his family. I think of his little boy, Charlie. It’s just a sad, sad time.”
Johnson had a relationship with Leffler prior to the two competing against one another in NASCAR.
“I remember meeting Jason in the early nineties; maybe 1992 or 1993,” he explained. “I was at an off-road race in Parker, Arizona, and PJ Jones, Paige Jones, and Jason Leffler were all returning from a Sprint Car race to Parker, Arizona, to watch the desert race and had a summer home there. And I met Jason then and formed a friendship with him that I’ve had for a lot of years. So, it’s sad, sad news to say the least.”
Leffler’s tenacity as a driver was a common theme among many drivers’ recollections of the often-fiery driver. Dale Earnhardt Jr. recalled a Nationwide Series battle with Leffler at what’s now known as Lucas Oil Raceway outside Indianapolis.
“I will remember the pass he made to win at ORP,” said Earnhardt referring to the popular short track previous name of O’Reilly Raceway Park, “when he basically just sold the farm down in (turns) one and two to make that pass. It was a really aggressive move, but that was a hungry driver.
“It’s the perfect definition of how hungry he was and most all drivers have that somewhere inside them. It was just a really interesting moment.”
While Earnhardt admitted he did not have much of a relationship away from the track with Leffler, the fallen driver still made an impact. More than anything Earnhardt admired Leffler’s desire to race.
“He liked to race,” said Earnhardt. “You always heard about the guy running here and running there. He had up’s and down’s in the top tier series as far as the Truck Series and the Nationwide Series, but he didn’t seem to let that deter him from doing what he liked to do. If he could be racing somewhere he was there racing.”
Defending Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski took the news of Leffler’s death particularly hard.
“Obviously it was a really rough night when all of that went down this week,” said Keselowski. “Just kind of rewinding through how it all played out, at least for me, I’m still kind of in shock about it all. It’s hard to believe the next time I go to a racetrack I won’t see Jason. I don’t think that’s really sunk in for me and I don’t know that it’s really sunk in for anyone because that’s the kind of racer he is.”
Keselowski, who started his career as a short track racer before moving up to NASCAR’s top divisions, does have concerns about the safety in the lower levels of the sport. In fact while some Sprint Cup colleagues periodically compete at short tracks around the country, Keselowski said safety concerns keep him on the sidelines.
“If trepidation means hesitation, I don’t run those races for a reason,” he said. “There are a handful of drivers that run at the local level. I don’t very often. I’m not gonna say I never have, but I don’t very often because they don’t have SAFER barriers and they don’t have the safety standards that we have here in NASCAR.”
Keselowski’s family has competed in short track racing for decades but he still believes safety initiatives in today’s world are still lacking.
“It’s funny because I talked to my dad about it, who raced local short tracks and every once in a while will talk about some track that he went to with my brother or whatever situation, and I’ll ask him how it was, and he’ll tell me, ‘Well, it hasn’t changed since 1975 when I was last there,’” said Keselowski. “I’m pretty sure safety has taken some pretty big leaps forward since 1970-sometihng, and I think that’s the issue facing safety at most local tracks.
“Obviously, it’s not a simple issue. They have funding limitations that kind of plague that level, but I’m nervous for anyone that races at those levels because I know what happens if something goes wrong and those safety standards aren’t there.”