Tony Stewart has always had a way with words. Sometimes for the better, never shy about the worst.
Friday at the Michigan International Speedway however, Stewart was both poignant and powerful when talking about the sudden death of friend, former teammate and colleague Jason Leffler. Including the risks they all take with any form of racing, including sprint cars.
“He loved nothing more than being behind the wheel of a race car. I was just shocked to hear what had happened and obviously it’s just a reminder of how dangerous our sport is,” said Stewart, who also noted all the safety innovations NASCAR’s come upon in his 15 years in the sport.
“I am as careful as I am when I get in a car on a city street,” he continued about his and other NASCAR driver’s decisions to race sprint cars. “There will be more people that die in car crashes today than die in race cars today. It’s just part of it and I am one of those that believe when it’s your time, it’s your time.”
Leffler died on Wednesday night from what the Delaware Country (Pa.) medical examiner is calling blunt force trauma to the neck. Racing in a sprint car event at Bridgeport Speedway in New Jersey, witnesses say Leffler’s car slammed the wall in turn four and then started flipping. An investigation has been opened as to what may have caused the accident.
Racers from the around the NASCAR and IndyCar world are remembering the 37-year-old doting father fondly. Fans are mourning the loss of another hero, one taken too soon. Perhaps it’s the abruptness and shock that makes it all the more tragic, coming after what no one knew would be his final Sprint Cup Series race last Sunday in Pocono.
Leffler quietly finished last, heading to the garage early and without any of us really noticing that he had been there at all. Now, we long for him to come back. While he never made huge headlines around the garage, Leffler was hard to forget. It was the passion and dedication he brought to his dangerous lifestyle. Stewart would know he was there for most of it. Leffler lived with him years ago when he moved to the east coast and later became his teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, driving the No. 11 FedEx car before the NSCS arrival and stardom of Denny Hamlin.
It’s the likes of Stewart and Kyle Busch who are lauded for their talent and intentions to drive anything and everything. Leffler was right there with them, running races all around the country. It’s why he was at that small dirt track in NJ on a Wednesday night.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. said on Friday he and Leffler didn’t have a friendship per say, but he knew enough about the California to know that he’d do anything to win. Noting the pass for the lead Leffler made at Indianapolis Raceway Park in 2007, which carried him to victory, his final NASCAR win.
It was Jason Leffler, not Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart or any other big name, who delivered Toyota their first national-series NASCAR victory.
Two years earlier, Earnhardt Jr. had a front row seat for the hunger to win that drove Leffler. It was the last lap and Earnhardt Jr. was charging hard on the outside in the July NNS race at Daytona and Leffler, who had just spun Michael Waltrip down the backstretch, blocked him all the way up into the wall. That was a distant memory for Earnhardt Jr. while looking back.
“When I think about him that is one of the memories that I appreciate the most; I think it said everything about him as a driver,” he said about Leffler’s IRP win. “He liked to race. You always heard about the guy running here and running there. He had up’s and down’s in the top tier series as far as the Truck Series and the Nationwide Series, but he didn’t seem to let that deter him from doing what he liked to do. If he could be racing somewhere he was there racing.”
Often with his infamous Mohawk and little smile. And sometimes, it was that smile or sideways smirk that could do the most damage. See, Leffler never outwardly seemed bothered by his competitor’s criticism or rough racing, often taking it with a shrug of the shoulders during interviews and a little smile or smirk. But he didn’t forget things, as was evidenced by his revenge move on James Buescher at Nashville in 2010 during an NNS race.
And Leffler wasn’t intimidated by anyone either. Not friends, teammates or Cup drivers as he tangled with Kyle Busch at Dover when the two were driving for Todd Braun. Busch had some harsh words for Leffler that day but in 2012 he hired him to run in the CWTS for Kyle Busch Motorsports. But after disappointing results Leffler was released and in 2013 had no full-time ride, leaving him to start and park on Sunday for Humphrey Smith Motorsports.
Leffler though, was a racer and he wanted to win. He was running second on Wednesday night before the accident. NASCAR hasn’t lost a driver on one of their tracks since Dale Earnhardt in 2001, but they’ve lost many greats over the last few years, seemingly one after the other.
From Cotton Owens to Dick Trickle even IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon two years ago, current drivers and teams have continually paid tribute to those lost throughout the season. One weekend after another, honoring and remembering a fallen hero or standing strong in the face of American tragedy, those from Newtown to Boston and Oklahoma.
Now another weekend in which racing goes on but not without a somber tone. With an unfamiliar, unwanted and out of place decal on the side posts of 43 racecars, this time carrying the name and face of Jason Leffler. A reminder of what’s been all too common this season: that of love, loss and the bond racing brings.
Jason Leffler will be remembered by all those who witnessed his hard charging driving style, the laid back personality and the love he had for the 5-year-old son, Charlie Dean, he leaves behind. It’s through Charlie that Jason will live on and through all of us, that Charlie will come to have a better understanding as he grows up of the father, man and racer that Jason Leffler was.
And so as another green flag gets ready to be waved, in which Leffler would have loved to be driving under, Godspeed friend. As NASCAR winds their way through the high-banked, fast paced Michigan it will be with a familiar friend guiding the way. Enjoying every minute in the passenger seat of 43 race cars with those he called friends.