Jun 21, 2013, 6:10 PM EDT
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.
Oct 21, 2014, 8:00 PM EDT
As NASCAR AMERICA’s Kyle Petty explains, the new Chase format has created something that NASCAR hasn’t seen before.
Oct 21, 2014, 7:00 PM EDT
A ninth Martinsville win on Sunday would put Gordon into the Championship Race at Homestead. Check out his interview with NASCAR AMERICA’s Jason Weigandt about his success at M’Ville and more.
Oct 21, 2014, 5:44 PM EDT
Logano admits he should’ve given Patrick more space on the race track two weekends ago.
Oct 21, 2014, 4:40 PM EDT
Extended interviews with Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski, and Carl Edwards also coming up on today’s episode of NASCAR AMERICA.
Oct 21, 2014, 3:40 PM EDT
A source tells Reuters that the legal action is not expected to impact the racing activities of the team, which is owned by a separate entity.
Oct 21, 2014, 2:30 PM EDT
Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman, Matt Kenseth, and Carl Edwards can launch themselves into the Championship at Homestead with a win this weekend.
Oct 21, 2014, 2:00 PM EDT
Kyle Fowler joins the Sprint Cup grid at Martinsville.
Oct 21, 2014, 1:12 PM EDT
NASCAR says damage sustained during Sunday’s GEICO 500 was the cause of his car being too low in post-race inspection.
Oct 21, 2014, 12:55 PM EDT
The Indy Lights grid is beginning to take shape for 2015.
Oct 21, 2014, 12:22 PM EDT
Total’s CEO dies in plane crash; this could have motorsports impact.
Oct 21, 2014, 12:00 PM EDT
Porsche provides five young drivers shot to learn and further integrate themselves with the brand.
Oct 21, 2014, 11:00 AM EDT
A blind 16-year-old gets to live his dream and have a brief chance behind the wheel.
Oct 21, 2014, 10:00 AM EDT
Kurt Busch, Susie Wolff join Race of Champions lineup.
Oct 21, 2014, 9:00 AM EDT
Andretti Sports Marketing explains some of the tricks to the trade in promoting new race events, with Miami and NOLA set for 2015.
Oct 21, 2014, 8:00 AM EDT
LA Galaxy’s Chandler Hoffman first up in “What’Cha Got” presented by Continental Tire show to drive a Lamborghini.
Oct 20, 2014, 9:30 PM EDT
Six different teams are represented among the eight remaining Chasers, and NASCAR’s post-season is starting to resemble another familiar tournament. NASCAR AMERICA’s Kyle Petty and Jeff Burton discuss.
Oct 20, 2014, 8:32 PM EDT
Newman, one of the “Eliminator 8,” may be penalized tomorrow by NASCAR after his car was found to be too low following Sunday’s race at Talladega. Nate Ryan has more on the situation.
Oct 20, 2014, 7:15 PM EDT
Notes and numbers to keep in mind as the 8 remaining Chasers prepare to begin the Eliminator Round.
Oct 20, 2014, 6:15 PM EDT
Recapping Talladega on NASCAR AMERICA.
Oct 20, 2014, 6:01 PM EDT
A great post-season for Busch was erased by a mid-race crash on Sunday at Talladega, but crew chief Dave Rogers says there’s no point in blaming the rules of the new Chase.
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