I've been around racing my whole life, I have 10W40 flowing through my veins, my dad was a bracket car drag racer prior to my birth. I grew up in the shadows of the late Raceway Park on 128th & Ashland (we could hear the cars racing from my childhood home on 123rd Street), and back then West Pullman, Calumet Park & Blue Island was a racing community. For the 4th of July parade (up until the mid 80’s), the race car drivers would bring their cars and hand out flyers, it was heaven for a little boy to see the race cars come right down Throop Street.
So it’s always especially sad when a race car driver dies because I know the risks, I've seen my share of crashes and lost a few favorite drivers.
Seeing the news this morning that Jason Leffler died in a dirt track qualifying race last night brought it all back. He was the same age I am now (37), had a little boy too.
Jason was an all around talented racer, one of those guys who would race garbage trucks if there was a league for it. He had just competed in last week’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race in Pocono. That is the one of the highest forms of racing there is, granted he finished last but in racing its all about “seat time”, being able to compete and race.
Jason was a champion USAC Midget car racer, had raced multiple times in the Indy 500, all three levels of NASCAR (I remember seeing his car & sponsor in the Joliet Fan fest prior to the NASCAR race here a few years ago), and didn't have permanent ride this year (this past NASCAR race was his only appearance in Sprint Cup this year), but was just racing where ever he could.
I saw a picture of the wreckage from Jason’s car, the roll cage looked intact but the outer shell of the car was crumpled from the impact of car into the wall. Makes me think he may have snapped his neck and had head trauma, like Dale Earnhardt Sr. did in his 2001 crash at the Daytona 500. Though the neck protecting HANS device was not required then. I don’t know if Jason was wearing one, I hope so.
I've crashed a few cars on the street, it’s natural for your head and neck to have trauma because of the inertia and I wasn't going fast. Seven years ago last week I was sitting still and got smashed from behind at 35 MPH pushing me into another car (totaling my beloved Chevrolet Malibu), and the impact had me sore & woozy for days. So I could imagine harder impacts with much more speed and wouldn't wish that on anyone.
It’s been five years this month that drag racer Scott Kalitta was killed in Englishtown, New Jersey (Old Bridge Township Raceway Park), in a qualifying run. The quarter mile drag length was shortened to 1000 feet after his crash.
It’s unfortunate that safety issues and improvements come after we bury another racer. So many lives have been lost but brought on changes. At the last Indy race of the year in 2011 Dan Weldon was killed at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in a multi car accident. Since then Indy Car has not allowed the crowded 36 car field that was on the track that day (they aim to only have 25 cars or so on the track), and have not returned to Las Vegas Motor speedway because it’s too fast for the high revving Indy Cars.
Racing is a dangerous sport that those of us love know is high risk and high reward and many drivers have paid the ultimate price to live their passion, we won’t forget them and will continue to make the sport safer until hopefully one day, we won’t have to mourn on days like today.
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