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.
What might happen to Tony Stewart when District Attorney’s review of Kevin Ward Jr. case is completed?
Sep 15, 2014, 10:54 PM EDT
Tony Stewart is expected to learn later this week if he will not face charges or may be indicted in last month’s Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy. A noted attorney with extensive experience in death and catastrophic injury cases explained to MST the legal process in Stewart’s case.
Sep 15, 2014, 9:36 PM EDT
In his first-ever race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Aric Almirola suffered a blown engine at Chicagoland Speedway for the first time in his three-year career.
Sep 15, 2014, 9:31 PM EDT
On Monday’s edition of NASCAR America, we recap how Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson struggled in the first race of the Chase.
Sep 15, 2014, 4:01 PM EDT
Monday’s edition of NASCAR America recaps all the highs and lows of Sunday’s opening race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, from Brad Keselowski’s win to Aric Almirola’s heartbreak.
Sep 15, 2014, 3:00 PM EDT
John Paul Jr. keeps fighting despite Huntington’s disease.
Sep 15, 2014, 2:00 PM EDT
Parker Kligerman recaps his Indy Lights test at IMS.
Sep 15, 2014, 1:55 PM EDT
Aric Almirola came into Sunday’s opening race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup with high hopes of being perhaps the Cinderella of the playoffs, someone who would fly under the radar all the way to the final four season-ending battle at Homestead.
Sep 15, 2014, 12:57 PM EDT
Pirelli World Challenge race winners and champions crowned after Utah doubleheader.
Sep 15, 2014, 11:00 AM EDT
Next generation of potential IndyCar drivers on display at IMS test.
Sep 15, 2014, 10:15 AM EDT
Mercedes names 19-year-old its new reserve driver.
Sep 15, 2014, 9:53 AM EDT
Josef Newgarden tests the new Indy Lights car at IMS.
Sep 14, 2014, 8:52 PM EDT
JOLIET, Ill. — One day after announcing he would not be returning to Richard Petty Motorsports in 2015, Marcos Ambrose made it official that he’s going home to his native Australia to and race in the V8 Supercars series for Roger Penske.
Sep 14, 2014, 8:25 PM EDT
For the second time in the last three races, the National Hot Rod Association has been forced to start a race in one location and finish it in another.
Sep 14, 2014, 7:48 PM EDT
JOLIET, Ill. – Oh, how we’d love to be a bug on the wall when Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. get home after Sunday’s MyAFibStory.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.
Jeff Gordon makes strong ‘Drive For Five’ start, also has high praise for Kyle Larson in Chase opener
Sep 14, 2014, 7:18 PM EDT
JOLIET, Ill. – In the first race of the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup, Jeff Gordon took the first step in his “Drive For Five” – and put his best foot forward.
Sep 14, 2014, 6:17 PM EDT
JOLIET, Ill. – Sunday’s opening race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup was good for 12 of the 16 contestants, as they dominated the top-15 finishers in the MyAFibStory.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway. But four others struggled and find themselves in a hole heading into the second race of the Chase.
Sep 14, 2014, 5:30 PM EDT
JOLIET, Ill. — While Kyle Larson and Kevin Harvick were jousting for the lead, Keselowski slipped up in-between them and then sailed right through with 15 laps left to win Sunday’s MyAFibStory.com 400, the opening race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup at Chicagoland Speedway.
Sep 14, 2014, 3:44 PM EDT
JOLIET, Ill. – With 134 of the scheduled 267 laps complete, Brad Keselowski leads the opening race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the MyAFibStory.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.
Sep 14, 2014, 3:15 PM EDT
JOLIET, Ill. — Kevin Harvick made a celebrated trade of pit crews with Tony Stewart for Sunday’s MyAFibStory.com 400 due to numerous mistakes and errors committed by his pit crew during the first 26 races of the regular season. Unfortunately, Harvick’s pit road jinx continued with the new crew.
Sep 14, 2014, 1:34 PM EDT
JOLIET, Ill. — If Sunday’s MyAFibStory.com 400 plays out the way folks in the garage were talking Sunday morning, there’s going to be at least a few surprises both in the course of the race and potentially in the outcome in the opening event of the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Video from NASCAR America
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- Jeff Gordon makes strong ‘Drive For Five’ start, also has high praise for Kyle Larson in Chase opener 2
- Keselowski surges between Harvick, Larson to win Chase opener at Chicagoland 0
- For 16 Sprint Cup drivers, the time is here: ready, set, Chase 0
- Kyle Busch starts Truck race ticked-off, only to end up in victory lane at Chicagoland 1
- Joey Logano: ‘We’re ready’ to win Sprint Cup championship 1
- Kyle Busch ready to claim his ‘second’ Sprint Cup championship 2