Jason Leffler, who raced in the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series garages for the last decade, died Wednesday night in a savage Sprint Car crash at New Jersey’s Bridgeport Speedway. It’s not the first time we’ve dealt with this kind of loss– Dale Earnhardt’s death at Daytona International Speedway in 2001 marked the most recent on-track fatality for a NASCAR national series driver -- but it’s been long enough to render us mercifully out of practice.
Mourning the sudden loss of a friend like Jason is tough enough for us “normal” human beings. For the stalwart few who will somehow strap themselves back into the seat a race car in the coming days, it must be unthinkably difficult.
IndyCar driver Alex Lloyd wrote a tremendous blog on Yahoo! Sports today, talking about how drivers continue in the aftermath of something like this. “It's not real bravery, at least most of the time,” he wrote. “It's more a case of mental naivety, genuinely believing that an accident of this nature could not happen to them.”
Racers do not have a death wish. The men and women who race for a living are not daredevils, per se, willfully cheating death on a daily basis. They understand there is a risk to what they do. Like airline pilots, law enforcement officers and rodeo cowboys, they accept the inherent risk of their profession to do what they love, because it IS what they love, and because it’s important.
“It’s tough,” admitted USAC and Open Wheel standout Bryan Clauson, a longtime friend of Leffler’s. “When I first came to USAC, Jason was the man. He put his arm around me and taught me what it meant to be a professional racer. He taught me what I needed to know to be successful, and he taught me a lot about life off the track, too.
“We’ve lost a couple of good racers in the last few weeks, and sometimes you just sit back and ask yourself why,” said Cluason. “We understand that every night we strap-in could be our last, but I think we’re wired different than most people. We all believe it can’t happen to us.
“It’s going to be tough to climb in tonight,” he admitted. “I’m going to do my best to go out there, put on the kind of show Jason would enjoy, and maybe dedicate a win to him in Victory Lane.
“I’m not the only guy who feels that way,” said Clauson. “A lot of us are going to get our elbows up tonight.”
At times like this, it’s popular to say, “He died doing what he loved to do.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
Jason Leffler lost his life in a crash, and crashing was most certainly NOT what he loved to do. He loved to go fast, he loved to pass cars and he loved to win. He loved that most of all, but he most certainly did not love tearing up people’s equipment and bouncing off walls.
What happened to Jason last night was tragic. It was horrific, and it breaks our hearts. But it’s done now, and there’s no changing it. All we can do today is wrap our arms around his loving family, his ex-wife Alison and son Charlie Dean, making sure they know how much we loved Jason and providing all the support and assistance they will surely need in the days, weeks and months to come.
We must also learn anything and everything we can from Jason’s death, making whatever changes are necessary in terms of car construction and driver safety to keep those who survive him as safe as humanly possible.
Make no mistake about it, however, racing will never be safe. Whether on dirt or asphalt, full-fenders or open wheels, racing has always been (and will always be) a dangerous endeavor. It is the one unassailable truth about what we do, and we cannot delude ourselves into ever believing otherwise.
The good news – and thank God for good news at times like this – is that the motorsports community has an uncanny ability to come together in times of loss, supporting each other, consoling each other and pooling our strength in an effort to overcome the kind of adversity that seems impossible to overcome.
We will assemble in the Irish Hills of Michigan this weekend to do what we always do; fire up the race cars and compete. It can be a vicious game sometimes, and we know it. Somehow, we even accept it.
We’ll race again this weekend, and the weekend after that.
But we will never forget Jason Leffler.