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.
Aug 27, 2015, 6:14 PM EDT
Oriol Servia will race in what was Justin Wilson’s car this weekend at Sonoma.
Aug 27, 2015, 4:21 PM EDT
IndyCars cross the Golden Gate Bridge in a motorcade, for pre-title buildup and to pay tribute to Justin Wilson.
Aug 27, 2015, 4:00 PM EDT
Aleshin returns to IndyCar this weekend after a year away.
Aug 27, 2015, 3:14 PM EDT
All cars to carry special tribute logos, decals for Justin Wilson this weekend, with Wilson’s old team also paying tribute.
Aug 27, 2015, 2:30 PM EDT
Rahal out to claim his third win of the season at Sonoma, believing it will be the only way to beat Juan Pablo Montoya to the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series title.
Aug 27, 2015, 1:00 PM EDT
Max Chilton has two years of F1 experience under his belt, but believes Ferrari will have a big say in who Haas hires for 2016.
Aug 27, 2015, 11:30 AM EDT
Vettel defends Ferrari’s decision to try a one-stop strategy at Spa after suffering a tire failure on the penultimate lap of the race.
Aug 27, 2015, 10:47 AM EDT
Fast facts heading into this weekend’s season finale, the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, courtesy of IndyCar PR staff.
Aug 27, 2015, 10:00 AM EDT
Victory at Spa gives Rossi momentum heading into the final four rounds of the 2015 season, and potentially in the race for a seat with Haas F1 Team next season.
Aug 27, 2015, 8:36 AM EDT
Off the back of winning Le Mans, Porsche confirms it will stay in the FIA World Endurance Championship for at least another three years.
Aug 26, 2015, 8:08 PM EDT
Just in time for the biggest race in drag racing, next weekend’s (Sept. 2-7) NHRA U.S. Nationals, Erica Enders is back where she wants to be: leading the NHRA Pro Stock point standings.
Aug 26, 2015, 6:06 PM EDT
Double the amount of base points, in addition to bonus points, could have a major impact on who emerges as the 2015 IndyCar Series champion Sunday at Sonoma Raceway.
Aug 26, 2015, 3:52 PM EDT
This past Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 Verizon IndyCar Series race at Pocono Raceway proved to be a very costly proposition for numerous teams.
Aug 26, 2015, 2:30 PM EDT
INDYCAR announced on Wednesday several infractions and manufacturer championship points updates following this past Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway.
IndyCar flashback: Justin Wilson finishes second, Will Power/Scott Dixon controversy at Sonoma 2013 (video)
Aug 26, 2015, 2:00 PM EDT
There will likely be heavy hearts, tears and a great deal of emotion at this weekend’s season-ending Go-Pro Grand Prix of Sonoma, as the mourning for driver Justin Wilson continues.
Six remaining IndyCar championship contenders to be busy in the days leading up to big race at Sonoma
Aug 26, 2015, 1:27 PM EDT
The six remaining Verizon IndyCar Series contenders will be pretty busy over the next few days prior to Sunday’s championship-deciding Go-Pro Grand Prix of Sonoma.
Aug 25, 2015, 5:57 PM EDT
Allmendinger, Castroneves, Diffey and more reflect on the life lived by Justin Wilson.
Aug 25, 2015, 3:59 PM EDT
Tribute to Justin Wilson set to air on Tuesday night’s NASCAR AMERICA on NBCSN.
Aug 25, 2015, 2:05 PM EDT
Justin Wilson saves six lives with organ donation, his brother confirms.
Aug 25, 2015, 1:57 PM EDT
Prost leads while Andretti FE makes powertrain switch to cap off Formula E testing at Donington Park.
- Andretti to field No. 25 car at Sonoma; Oriol Servia to drive Wilson tribute car 2
- IndyCars cross the Golden Gate Bridge; pay tribute to Justin Wilson (PHOTOS, VIDEO) 2
- Fast Facts: GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma 1
- NHRA: Pro Stock driver Erica Enders hitting on all cylinders heading into U.S. Nationals 3
- IndyCar flashback: Justin Wilson finishes second, Will Power/Scott Dixon controversy at Sonoma 2013 (video) 3
- Report: FIA to conduct closed cockpit tests next month 13
- DiZinno: Justin Wilson’s enduring legacy, positive spirit loom as large as his frame 2