Jason Leffler's death in a dirt-track accident raises questions.
Auto racing in any form can never be completely safe. Let’s be upfront and honest about that.
There is just too much speed, too much metal and not enough protection for the human body, which isn’t meant to withstand some of the horrors of an automobile accident. There are inherent dangers within motorsports that are routinely accepted by competitors and fans alike.
But there still are lessons to be learned by NASCAR and all of motorsports in the wake of Jason Leffler’s tragic passing in what has been described as a violent crash on a dirt track in New Jersey.
Once again, the governing bodies that reign over each major auto racing league, as well as officials at every single track in America—regardless of size or level of competition they preside over—must ask themselves, “Are we doing all we possibly can to keep competitors and fans safe?”
In many cases, the honest answer would be, “No, we’re doing all our budgets will allow. Doing everything we could would simply cost too much.”
If so, then anyone and everyone who provided that answer ought to voluntarily shut their operations down until they can come up with a better answer.
Leffler, who was only 37 years old and one of the true nice guys and characters in racing, died a little more than three months after returning to the world of short-track, open-wheel racing after focusing on a career in NASCAR for more than a decade, according to his website.
His death occurred at Bridgeport Speedway in Swedesboro, N.J., during a qualifying race during the Night of Wings event, a 25-lap race for high-powered sprint cars equipped with stabilizing wings.
As reported by Steve Almasy of CNN, sprint-car racing is highly dangerous and accidents are commonplace:
A 22-year-old driver died three weeks ago in a crash at Bloomington Speedway in Monroe County, Indiana, CNN affiliate WTHR reported.
In March, two spectators died when a car veered off-track at Marysville Raceway Park, outside Sacramento, California.
In that incident, a car hit two tractor tires, sending it airborne and striking two spectators, a 68-year-old man and a 14-year-old boy. The driver was uninjured.
In 2012, a 20-year-old driver died when his sprint car hit the wall at Calistoga Speedway in Napa County, California, according to the Napa Valley Register.
These incidents, of course, did not occur in high-profile racing series and therefore received far less publicity than the deaths of Dan Wheldon, Dale Earnhardt, Adam Petty and Tony Roper in other series.
But NASCAR has had its share of close calls lately. In February, during the Nationwide Series race at Daytona, 33 fans were injured when chunks of debris, including a tire from Kyle Larson’s destroyed race car, flew into the grandstands.
At Talladega in early May, the usual Russian roulette wreckfest took place in the closing laps and took driver Ryan Newman for a horrifying ride upside down that left him criticizing NASCAR officials in the aftermath.
"They can build safer race cars, they can build safer walls, but they can't get their heads out of their asses far enough to keep (the cars) on the race track, and that's pretty disappointing," Newman told media outlets then, including the Philadelphia Daily News.
Later, Newman even suggested to Sporting News going to nearby Barber Motorsports Park to "have a third road-course race. To me, that's the best option, (or) take the banking out (at Talladega Superspeedway). We could go out there (at Barber) and run rental cars and run 75 miles an hour and make it a 100-mile race and put on a good show."
Then just two weeks after the Newman incident at Talladega, driver Jeff Gordon got caught up in a seven-car wreck during the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway that brought the budgets vs. safety debate full into the light.
After slamming into a portion of the wall that was unprotected by a SAFER (Steel and Form Energy Reduction) barrier, and then later reviewing a video replay of the wreck, Gordon vented his frustration on Twitter.
Just saw the video of our wreck. Now I know why it hurt so much. No safer barrier at that part of track???? #Saferbarrierseverywhere!— Jeff Gordon (@JeffGordonWeb) May 27, 2013
He later expanded his thoughts during an interview session with the media in Dover, saying, “I didn’t quite understand the pain that I was feeling (that night) until I went back and watched the video and realized the angle that I hit, as well as the fact that there was no SAFER barrier. I had no idea there was no SAFER barrier at that dogleg on the front stretch. That blew my mind that there wasn’t one. ... That kind of shocked me.”
The SAFER barrier was introduced to racing in the 2002 Indianapolis 500 and has since been credited with allowing drivers from both open-wheel racing and NASCAR with being able to walk away unharmed or with only minor injuries from accidents that would have otherwise been much more serious or perhaps even fatal, according to NASCAR.com.
So now, as NASCAR and the rest of the motorsports industry mourns the passing of a fierce competitor and a better person in the personable Leffler, there are questions that beg to be answered.
Why doesn’t every inch of every NASCAR track in America have SAFER barriers installed, no matter what the cost? Why can’t more be done to keep the cars on the ground at Talladega?
Finally, why in the world is the Camping World Truck Series preparing to go race on the dirt at Eldora Speedway—a fine facility owned by Sprint Cup driver and three-time champion Tony Stewart that nonetheless is ill-equipped to run such a race?
While on the surface it seems like a really cool idea, the facility has no SAFER barriers in place, and the trucks have never before run on dirt.
For the sake of Leffler’s memory and legacy, and for the sake of all fallen drivers and fans to come before him, NASCAR and all of motorsports needs to find more answers before continuing to push aggressively into territory where more terrible consequences not only could await but seem all too inevitable.