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.
Nov 27, 2014, 10:45 AM EST
Hulkenberg gets an LMP1 opportunity with Porsche at Spa and Le Mans next season.
Nov 27, 2014, 9:00 AM EST
What we’re thankful across the wide spectrum of motorsports in 2014.
Nov 26, 2014, 11:01 PM EST
If you’re in the Charlotte area and want to have a great Black Friday experience, head on over to Charlotte Motor Speedway, where for a donation, you can drive on the actual racetrack.
Sam Hornish Jr. has much to be thankful for: new home, renewed Sprint Cup hopes with Richard Petty Motorsports
Nov 26, 2014, 8:56 PM EST
Sam Hornish Jr. has a lot to give thanks for this Thanksgiving, most notably a new ride and a new lease on his Sprint Cup driving life with Richard Petty Motorsports.
Nov 26, 2014, 4:40 PM EST
NBCSN will present a 14-hour ‘Mecum Marathon’ starting Thursday, Thanksgiving Day.
Nov 26, 2014, 2:30 PM EST
Simon Pagenaud’s Indy 500 Senna tribute helmet to be auctioned for Ayrton Senna Foundation.
Nov 26, 2014, 2:29 PM EST
Front Row Racing officials on Wednesday denied rumors of Cole Whitt replacing David Ragan in the No. 34 Ford for 2015.
Nov 26, 2014, 1:58 PM EST
Record cable numbers for F1 on NBCSN this season.
Nov 26, 2014, 1:00 PM EST
A rundown through the field after the final day of on-track running for F1 2014.
Nov 26, 2014, 12:30 PM EST
Some NASCAR AMERICA specials are on tap before the end of the year.
Nov 26, 2014, 12:00 PM EST
Marciello gracious for opportunity, and was thinking of Jules Bianchi throughout the day.
Nov 26, 2014, 11:30 AM EST
A.J. Foyt with post-operative complication, but resolved.
Nov 26, 2014, 11:13 AM EST
New Mercedes driver, same place on the charts to close out 2014 F1 season.
Nov 26, 2014, 10:31 AM EST
What’s next for Jean-Eric Vergne? An analysis of his time in F1, and where to from here.
Nov 26, 2014, 9:28 AM EST
JEV out, and likely another rookie in at Toro Rosso for 2015.
Nov 25, 2014, 8:07 PM EST
A post-season exit survey provides some very interesting fan data on NASCAR’s latest version of its post-season format.
Nov 25, 2014, 7:00 PM EST
The outgoing crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr. also talks about his successor needing to make his own mark.
Nov 25, 2014, 5:45 PM EST
The Delaware family court hearing is a separate matter from the ongoing police investigation into allegations of assault against Busch by his ex-girlfriend.
Nov 25, 2014, 5:15 PM EST
Brian Scott gets a new crew chief for 2015’s XFINITY campaign.
Nov 25, 2014, 4:44 PM EST
It may be Thanksgiving week but NASCAR AMERICA is still on tonight at 5 p.m. ET.
Video from NASCAR America
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- Jean-Eric Vergne confirms Toro Rosso exit 3
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- Steve Letarte reflects on Hendrick Motorsports career in “exit interview” (VIDEO) 3