Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Jason Leffler: Not Forgotten

Yesterday was the fifth anniversary of the day former NASCAR Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series driver Jason Leffler lost his life in a savage Sprint Car crash at New Jersey’s Bridgeport Speedway. Our eulogy for "LefTurn" remains one of the most-read articles in the history of, and we re-post it today in memory of our friend Jason. 

He is gone, but not forgotten.

Dave Moody

Charlie Dean Leffler’s daddy died last night, torn from the world in a crash so stunning, so horrific that it once again causes us to question our devotion to a sport that all too often breaks our hearts.

NASCAR driver Jason Leffler was pronounced dead shortly after 9 p.m. Wednesday, after a grinding crash at New Jersey’s Bridgeport Speedway. Witnesses said his 410 Sprint Car impacted the Turn Four wall during a qualifying heat race and flipped wildly down the front stretch of the 0.625-mile dirt oval.  Safety teams extricated the unconscious driver from his vehicle, with plans to transport him to Cooper University Hospital in Camden. His condition deteriorated rapidly while awaiting arrival of a medivac helicopter, however, and responders elected to transport him by ground ambulance to nearby Crozer-Chester Medical Center, where efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.
As word of the crash began to circulate, I did what I always do in situations like this. I told myself that the reports were untrue or exaggerated; the sad result of internet hysteria and a public raised on reality TV. When it became clear that a serious crash had indeed occurred, I prayed that Leffler’s injuries were not severe, assuring myself that he would back in the cockpit in a few weeks, or months.
Just before 10 p.m., however, a phone call from a colleague brought the horrible reality home. Jason Leffler was dead, leaving us to mourn – and remember --once again.
I have so many memories of the man we called “LefTurn.” He was a weekly guest on our Sirius XM Speedway radio program for years, sharing his life – both on and off the track – with a degree of candor that was both refreshing and rare. There were plenty of good days; wins in both the NASCAR Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series, championship-contending rides with elite owners like Joe Gibbs and Chip Ganassi, and a trio of runs in the legendary Indianapolis 500.
There were also a few bad days; crushing race-day defeats, championship shortcomings and the loss of his Nationwide and Truck Series rides. When he and Alison decided to end their marriage a few years ago, Leffler made his weekly appearance as scheduled, despite a heavy heart.
“Leff, we don’t have to do this today,” I told him. “If you want to take a pass, we can catch up next week.”
“Nah, dude,” he replied. “It’s OK. I got no secrets.”
In the months that followed, Leffler spoke constantly of his desire to be a loving and involved father to Charlie, despite the demands of his racing career. Our weekly, 4 p.m. conversations often coincided with the end of Charlie’s afternoon nap, and the unpredictability of a newly-awakened two-year old made our visits an absolute joy.
A year ago, I crossed paths with Jason and Charlie, sharing a “Boys Day Out” lunch at a local restaurant. While Jason and I talked racing, Charlie demolished a massive salad, shoveling huge forkfuls of lettuce into his mouth while simultaneously carrying on a silent flirtation with my wife.
“Charlie, you ate the whole thing,” laughed Leffler at the end of our chat. “What am I supposed to eat?”
“Sorry Daddy,” replied Charlie, “I was very hungry!”
How do you tell a five-year old boy that daddy is not coming home tonight? How do you explain that his father, his best friend and his hero – all rolled into one – has been cut down by a sport that exacts such a horrible toll from its brightest lights?
The loss is unfathomable, unacceptable and unbelievable.
Today, I mourn the loss of a phenomenal talent; a man who could run an entire, 10-lap heat race at the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals on three wheels, his left-front tire twitching in mid-air in an awe-inspiring display of chassis-bending bravado.
I mourn the loss of a friend whose zest for life, winning smile and goofy, faux-hawk hairdo never failed to make me smile.
I mourn the loss of a father who adored his son and deserved to see him grow up.
A quote attributed to the author Ernest Hemingway said, “There are but three true sports -- bullfighting, mountain climbing, and motor-racing. The rest are merely games.”
All sports include a varying degree of risk, but auto racing is especially adept at destroying its own. Racers have a special relationship with death. They brush shoulders with it daily, acknowledging its presence with a passing nod while clinging stubbornly to the belief that it’ll never happen to them.
“Last year, I did a part-time truck deal,” said Leffler to Motor Racing Network’s Winged Nation recently. “It was the least I had raced since I was 18 (and) mentally, it wasn’t good. I don’t like being home. I just like being in the race car at the race track.
“The (NASCAR) start-and-park deal is not for me,” he said. “I had a good run for over a decade, so it’s time to get back racing.”
Big-league NASCAR racing had not suffered a fatality since the great Dale Earnhardt crashed to his death on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. In that time, SAFER barriers, HANS devices, improved helmet and seat technology and car construction have made the sport safer than at any point before. But make no mistake about it, auto racing is not safe, and it never will be.

As long as men and women strap themselves into objects capable of eclipsing 200 miles per hour, as long as they test the boundaries of human endurance at places like Daytona, Lemans, Winchester and Bridgeport, horrible things can – and will -- happen. Until the laws of physics are repealed, the immovable force will always trump the unstoppable object. And when it does, racers will die.
Jason Leffler knew that. We all knew that. But it doesn’t make what happened Wednesday evening any easier to accept.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

COMMENTARY: Keselowski Calls Out NASCAR On High-Downforce Package

NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell confirmed last week that the sanctioning body will utilize its so-called ”All Star” rules package at least one more time this season, and perhaps as many as three.

Brad Keselowski is not a fan.

The 2012 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion said Friday at Michigan International Speedway that while the engine and aerodynamic package worked well in last month’s Monster Energy All Star Race, a regular diet would “have a severe long-term negative effect.

“I think that package needs to remain solely at the All-Star Race,’’ said Keselowski said. “A lot of the drivers in this sport are in a position where they chose Cup racing because of the demands the cars take to drive. I think there are a lot of fans that come to our races expecting to see the best drivers. If you put a package like this out there… on a consistent basis, the best drivers in the world would no longer go to NASCAR. They’ll pick a different sport.

“That won’t happen overnight,” he predicted. “That will happen over time. I think that would be a tragedy to this sport because the best race car drivers want to go where they can make the biggest difference to their performance. There’s no doubt that you make less of a difference in that configuration.”

Keselowski said NASCAR should “make sure that the best drivers are able to showcase their talent,” adding “I think of three things that I like to see at a race; fast cars… the best race car drivers and… a great finish. I think that (ASR) package achieved one of those three and hurt the other two. In that sense, I consider it a net loss overall.’’

NASCAR’s All-Star package utilized a larger rear spoiler and front splitter, along with a restrictor plate to lower speeds, increase drag and bunch cars closer together. The race was a hit with fans, but the Team Penske driver said he fears the attraction will fade over time.

Keselowski: All-Star package was
" a net loss overall.’’
I saw the videos of people in Charlotte standing on their feet,’’ he said. “Part of that is the legacy that the sport has to have the best drivers. But I think over time, that would deteriorate. We have seen that with IndyCar. A decade ago, if you wanted to see the best racing in the world, it was in IndyCar. They ran three- and four-wide and put on great shows, but long-term it didn’t translate to the fans or better ratings than NASCAR.

“We have to tread very lightly with the next steps of this sport,” said Keselowski. “I like the idea of picking one or two races and running that package. I think that makes sense. But if we overdose on that particular format of racing, it will have -- in my opinion -- a severe, long-term negative effect.’’

Keselowski said he believes NASCAR’s current rules package rewards driver skill, while racing with a restrictor plate equates to a random lottery.

“First through fourth (place) has control of their own destiny and have acquired that finish based on talent (and) skill,” he said. “From there on back, it is a random bingo ball. The top four or five generally dictate their finish and the rest do not.

Keselowski’s comments triggered a maelstrom of debate, both on social media and within the NASCAR garage. Some observers accused him of forgetting his roots, pointing out that his first career MENCS win came with team owner James Finch in 2009 at Talladega. At the time, Keselowski was a full-time NASCAR Xfinity Series driver with only two wins to his credit, while Finch was winless in approximately 200 Cup Series starts.

Keselowski was an upset winner
at Talladega in 2009.
At the time, Keselowski expressed no misgivings about an engine and aerodynamic package that leveled the playing field and allowed dark horse teams to compete for the win. Today, however, with a top-notch position at Team Penske, the Michigan native seems less interested in spreading the wealth.

That’s human nature, and understandable to a degree. And Keselowski’s comments were supported by NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin and former series champion Bobby Labonte. Given choice between doing what is best for the drivers and doing what is best for the sport, however, the question becomes more complicated.

Single-file racing at 200 mph is appealing to drivers, who cherish speed above all else. Fans, however, don’t seem interested in watching a high-speed, single-file parade. They’ve seen their fill of it on NASCAR’s 1.5-mile ovals in recent years, and have largely opted out, preferring side-by-side racing, two and three-wide, with frequent lead changes and action throughout the pack.

The paying customers have spoken clearly about what they want.

Keselowski is correct when he says that elite drivers come to NASCAR to display their talent. But there’s another powerful reason why the top short track, Open Wheel and sports car drivers in the country come to NASCAR.

They do it because that’s where you cash those big Sunday paychecks. Paychecks that purchase lavish homes, private jets and million-dollar motorhomes.

Let’s assume – for the sake of discussion – that an elite NASCAR driver becomes unhappy with a rules package that tightens the field and produces more race winners. He expresses that unhappiness by announcing that he will defect to another form of motorsports.

Where will he go? To Indy Car, where there are only a handful of winning teams? To IMSA, where the top drivers race for a small percentage of a midfield MENCS driver’s salary? Perhaps he will choose that path. But when he does, he’ll be leaving most of this toys behind.

Keselowski’s take is understandable. If I was one of the five or 10 elite drivers in our sport, I’d also be fighting to hang onto what I have.

But in an era of flagging attendance and plummeting TV ratings, a new debate seems to be developing over what is best for NASCAR’s elite drivers, versus what is best for its fans.