|Stewart on Leffler: "He was a friend."|
Stewart spoke of his late friend today at Michigan International Speedway, saying he and Leffler enjoyed a close relationship, both on and off the race track.
“I have known Jason for a long time,” said Stewart. “We grew up racing together and followed the same paths racing-wise. He was a friend, he was a roommate, he was a teammate and I got to be around him a lot. He loved nothing more than being behind the wheel of a race car.
“We got to hang out a lot away from the race track,” recalled the former Sprint Cup Series champion. “When he moved from California to Indiana to start racing USAC fulltime, he moved in with me and lived with us for a little under a year. I got to see a lot of things, and he was just a lot of fun. He was a racer and didn’t care what he raced, where he raced, when he raced… all he wanted to do was to drive a race car.
It was fun to have a roommate like that, who had the same passion and desire that I had. I was shocked to hear what had happened, and obviously it’s a reminder of how dangerous our sport is.”
|"When it's your time, it's your time."|
Stewart said racers and fans should not forget that racing is -- and will always be – a dangerous sport.
“We have had a lot of safety innovations over the last 15 years since I have been in Cup, (but) we will never get to the stage where everybody is immune to getting hurt in a race car,” he said. “There isn’t anybody that gets behind the wheel that doesn’t understand that. Jason was that way, as well. He just loved doing what he was doing.”
Stewart also offered perspective on the dangers of auto racing, compared to everyday life.
“There will be more people that die in car crashes today than die in race cars today,” he said. “I am one of those who believe that when it’s your time, it’s your time. I don’t know the details of what happened up there (in New Jersey), but from what I have been told by people, something broke on the race car. Whether that is what happened or not, I do not know.
“The cars I drive, I know the equipment. The Sprint Car I drive is one of my own cars, and its prepared by my own guys. We have a full containment seat and we do everything we can do with the race car to make it as safe as possible.
“It wasn’t the fact that it was a Sprint Car (that killed Leffler),” he said. “it was the fact that it was an accident. Something went wrong and we lost Jason because of it.”
Asked about the safety of America’s short tracks, Stewart said, “I think things are the best they’ve ever been. There are facilities that need some work and there are facilities that put a lot of effort into it. It’s like getting on a city street today. Can it be safer? Sure. (But) there are always things you can do better.
|"Nobody wants to go through what happened."|
“Am I scared to go to any race track or feel concerned about not feeling safe at a race track? No. I think the majority -- just about everywhere you go -- does a pretty good job,” he said. “They do the best they can under the circumstances they have to work with.
“The safety standards weren’t what caused the problem,” insisted Stewart. “I’d be grateful if you reporters would understand that what happened this week wasn’t because somebody didn’t do something right with the race track. It was an accident.
“Short track promoters are doing everything they can do to operate, stay afloat and keep having tracks for drivers that are upcoming and want to be NASCAR drivers. It’s hard enough for these promoters and track owners to do what they’re doing, so please try to cut them a little slack this week. As a track owner, nobody wants to go through what happened this week. But it’s not due to a lack of effort on their part to make their facilities as safe as possible, under the conditions they have.”
“Most of them have safety teams at each facility,” he said. “In the promoter’s workshop in Florida in the spring, when all the track owners and operators get together, that’s a high (priority). The one thing I’ve seen the most of is having adequate safety teams there and making sure they can respond to the problem pretty quick.”
Stewart also defended Sprint Cars, which have come under fire in some quarters in the aftermath of Leffler’s fatal crash.
“It’s hard to explain without getting in (one),” he said. “They’re 910 horsepower cars that weigh 1,400 pounds. That’s probably the best power-to-weight ratio, other than a motorcycle. You put a 25-square foot surface area wing on top of it and you get to run around race tracks really fast. I didn’t even understand what it’s really like until I got in one the first time. They’re a lot of fun.”
At the end of the day, Stewart said the main focus should be on those Leffler left behind.
“It was a rough week,” he said, “and obviously Charlie is the one that we are all thinking about the most right now. (Jason’s) girlfriend Juliana, (ex-wife) Amy and their family… (we’re) just thinking about all those guys this weekend.”