Jun 21, 2013, 6:10 PM EST
NASCAR has not lost a driver to death in a race car since Dale Earnhardt was killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
Earnhardt’s car went head-on into an outside retaining wall coming onto the frontstretch at an estimated 190-195 mph. He was killed almost instantly from blunt force trauma to his head, otherwise known as basilar skull fracture.
Since then, at least two drivers have suffered serious injuries – Steve Park and Jerry Nadeau – that were related to crashes. Earlier this year, Denny Hamlin suffered a vertebrae fracture that sidelined him for four races, while Earnhardt’s son, Dale Jr., missed two races during last year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup when he suffered a concussion (his second in three months) last October in a 24-car wreck at Talladega Superspeedway.
In less than a one-year span from 2000 to 2001, four drivers – Tony Roper, Kenny Irwin, Adam Petty and Earnhardt – were killed in wrecks across all three major NASCAR series: Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Trucks.
But since the man known as The Intimidator perished 12 years ago, no one has been killed in a NASCAR crash, clearly demonstrative of the safety procedures that the sanctioning body has put in place since then.
That’s not the case, however, in sprint car racing – more commonly referred to as dirt car or dirt track racing. Leffler is the third driver to die in a sprint car event since last October when Tyler Wolf perished in a wreck at Calistoga (Calif.) Speedway, and Josh Burton died at Bloomington (Ind.) Speedway nearly three weeks before Leffler’s crash.
Leffler was wearing a restraint system manufactured by safety expert Bill Simpson’s former company.
“There’s nothing wrong with that system,” Simpson told ESPN.com on Friday. “It’s good. But they don’t protect you after 30 degrees. You have to have some kind of a head support. Period.”
Dave Blaney, who made his mark in dirt track racing before moving to the NASCAR ranks, was also at the New Jersey track that claimed Leffler’s life. In photos of the wreckage that Blaney saw, it appeared Leffler indeed did not have a full headrest in the cockpit of his car.
“That would make that type of wreck extremely dangerous,” Blaney told ESPN.com.
NASCAR has remained death-free since Earnhardt’s crash because it implemented a number of safety enhancements and improvements including the head and neck restraint device, so-called “soft walls”, relocating the driver compartment to be more centralized within the race car, more padding and flame retardation systems within race cars, black box data recorders in every race car and more. Drivers also have seats molded to their body size and style to keep them from moving around, particularly from jarring upon impact.
And while Leffler was indeed wearing a head and neck restraint device on the night he was killed, he did not have the more all-encompassing containment headrest.
Former NASCAR Busch Series champion Randy LaJoie, who now has a thriving business building seats and restraint devices for various forms of race cars, told ESPN.com that he believes up to 50 percent of drivers in sprint cars do not use them, while drivers piloting late model cars don’t use them.
“The systems in those cars can be greatly improved,” LaJoie said. “On the short-track level, with better belt systems, seat mount systems and neck systems, I bet over 95 percent of the crashes are survivable.”
Had Leffler been wearing such a restraint device, it may very well have saved his life.
Mar 1, 2015, 5:00 PM EST
Here’s the final recap from the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya as pre-season testing comes to a close.
Mar 1, 2015, 3:30 PM EST
Team principal Maurizio Arrivabene calls for “concentration and discipline” at Maranello in the lead-up to the start of the 2015 season.
Mar 1, 2015, 3:00 PM EST
The Team Penske pilot turns 34 years old today.
Mar 1, 2015, 2:30 PM EST
Maldonado is still able to find the positives out of his final test run before the beginning of the 2015 season in Australia on March 15.
Mar 1, 2015, 2:00 PM EST
Should Mercedes drop the ball in 2015, Williams could be the team to pick up the pieces and snatch a race win.
Mar 1, 2015, 1:30 PM EST
17-year-old will become the youngest driver in the history of F1 to start a race in Australia.
James Courtney wins season-opening V8 Supercars feature in Adelaide; ex-NASCAR driver Marcos Ambrose 12th
Mar 1, 2015, 1:00 PM EST
Ambrose cracks Top 10 on feature grid, but fuel strategy hinders an otherwise decent run for him.
Mar 1, 2015, 12:45 PM EST
German driver posted the fastest time of winter testing in Barcelona on Friday.
Mar 1, 2015, 12:30 PM EST
With the ban on motorsport in Switzerland being lifted, the door has been opened to an ePrix in Geneva.
Mar 1, 2015, 12:00 PM EST
Attention now turns to the season-opening Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne on March 15.
Mar 1, 2015, 11:00 AM EST
Ferrari technical director says that the SF15-T is working as expected.
Mar 1, 2015, 10:00 AM EST
Maldonado confident Lotus has made a big improvement after miserable 2014.
Mar 1, 2015, 8:00 AM EST
British driver says that sticking with #44 means far more to him than having the number designated for the world champion.
Feb 28, 2015, 5:00 PM EST
Argentinian driver confirms his plans for the new season after a difficult 2014 with Hilmer Motorsport.
Feb 28, 2015, 4:00 PM EST
A full round-up from the penultimate day of F1 pre-season testing in Barcelona.
Feb 28, 2015, 3:30 PM EST
Frenchman joined the team as a test driver for the 2015 season.
Feb 28, 2015, 3:11 PM EST
Bourdais, Hawksworth, Aldo Andretti and more all have birthdays today, February 28.
Feb 28, 2015, 3:00 PM EST
Despite posting a time that, when adjusted to account for tire compounds, could be 1.4 seconds quicker than the rest of the field, the Briton was unenthused about his performance.
Feb 28, 2015, 2:30 PM EST
How well does Josef Newgarden dunk? Find out in video he does with Indiana Pacers “Power Pack.”
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- Barcelona F1 2nd Test Paddock Notebook – Friday 0