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 8, 2014, 2:33 AM EST
Friends and family of Dick Trickle are looking to build a memorial to honor the late stock car racing legend in his hometown of tiny Rudolph, Wis.
Mar 8, 2014, 2:05 AM EST
Could sibling rivalry one day extend to the Indianapolis 500? Kurt Busch will become the first NASCAR driver in a decade to run the proverbial “double” in May: the Indy 500 in the early afternoon and the most grueling race on the Sprint Cup schedule that evening, the Coca-Cola 600.
Mar 8, 2014, 1:45 AM EST
What is it about NASCAR drivers and hockey?
Mar 8, 2014, 1:21 AM EST
We’re not saying that his fans are going to go out and bet the farm, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. has some pretty good odds heading into Sunday’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Mar 7, 2014, 9:12 PM EST
Vegas pole sitter Joey Logano also talks about the issue.
Mar 7, 2014, 8:03 PM EST
In the waning moments of the final round of qualifying, Logano ran a lap of 193.278 mph to take the pole from teammate Brad Keselowski.
Mar 7, 2014, 6:05 PM EST
“It’s not 100,000 from Las Vegas that will be sitting in these grandstands.” – KB
Mar 7, 2014, 4:55 PM EST
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver says that right now, he’s more focused on working with the new aero rules and qualifying format.
Mar 7, 2014, 4:20 PM EST
Crew chief Rodney Childers, driver Casey Mears, and the impact of the new rules package at Las Vegas are all part of today’s show.
Mar 7, 2014, 4:13 PM EST
Kurt Busch’s quest to become the first NASCAR driver in a decade to attempt the “Double” – racing in the Indianapolis 500 on May 25, and then flying to Charlotte to compete in that evening’s Coca-Cola 600 – just became even more challenging.
Mar 7, 2014, 3:47 PM EST
Edwards and his Roush Fenway teammates pick up the pace after a slow Thursday test.
Mar 7, 2014, 3:43 PM EST
For the next month or so, don’t be surprised if Greg Biffle starts to act a little like Dracula — a good Dracula, mind you.
Mar 7, 2014, 3:30 PM EST
With a full-season ride in the NASCAR Euro Series, 33-year-old Mathias Lauda is set to add to his eclectic resume.
Mar 7, 2014, 3:12 PM EST
If you’re fortunate enough to spend any length of time around him, you’ll quickly find Matt Kenseth has a very dry wit. Think of a cross between comedians Steven Wright and the late George Carlin – just not so over-the-top as Carlin was.
Mar 7, 2014, 3:00 PM EST
SBJ report says Verizon will back series for 10 years.
Mar 7, 2014, 2:30 PM EST
“I’m sure there’s going to be more tension…But that’s what it’s all about. That’s why these drivers and teams are the best in the world.” – Graham Rahal
Mar 7, 2014, 2:00 PM EST
Qualifying format change falls in line with other moves made by IMS/INDYCAR the last several months.
Mar 7, 2014, 1:30 PM EST
Out go Korea and India, in come Austria and Russia, changes made to the running order, a different season finale – and a new night race!
Mar 7, 2014, 1:00 PM EST
With all but two teams making changes to their line-up and three new rookies, the F1 grid is looking very different in 2014.
Mar 7, 2014, 12:52 PM EST
TV times and talent for Indy Lights, Pro Mazda and USF2000 in 2014.
- Joey Logano wins Vegas pole, Penske claims front row again 0
- 5 storylines that could define the 2014 F1 season 1
- Indianapolis 500 2014 Qualifying Format Revealed 5
- Schumacher “still in the wake up phase” 0
- Driver, team owner and now actor: Tony Stewart’s first edition of ‘Smoke is The Bandit’ is released (video) 0
- Instead of significant improvement, 2014 starting off the way 2013 ended for Danica Patrick (10)
- Kurt Busch gives IndyCar chance to show they’ve learned lesson on promotion (10)
- Alonso discovers an F1 take on Ellen’s Oscar “Selfie” (6)
- Chrysler orders nearly 100 pristine Dodge Vipers destroyed (6)
- Disastrous day for Red Bull as Vettel manages just half a lap (5)