Skip to content

Sprint car racing needs to mandate NASCAR-style safety standards

Jun 21, 2013, 6:10 PM EDT

Police examine the wrecked race car that Jason Leffler was driving when he died on June 12. Police examine the wrecked race car that Jason Leffler was driving when he died on June 12.

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.

Latest Posts
  1. 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

    Attorney Steven B. Borkan (Photo courtesy of Borkan & Scahill LTD.) Attorney Steven B. Borkan (Photo courtesy of Borkan & Scahill LTD.)

    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.

  2. NASCAR America (video): Aric Almirola needs a good showing in New Hampshire

    Sep 15, 2014, 9:36 PM EDT

    Aric Almirola Chicagoland 2014 Getty Images

    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.

  3. NASCAR America (video): Dale Jr., Jimmie Johnson struggle in first Chase race

    Sep 15, 2014, 9:31 PM EDT

    jj dale jr. 2014 Getty Images

    On Monday’s edition of NASCAR America, we recap how Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson struggled in the first race of the Chase.

  4. WATCH LIVE: NASCAR America at 7 pm ET — Chase race recap, RPM’s heartbreak, Ganassi’s drivers

    Sep 15, 2014, 4:01 PM EDT

    140915-NASCAR-AMERICA

    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.

  5. Great piece from Indy Star: John Paul Jr. keeps fighting

    Sep 15, 2014, 3:00 PM EDT

    Indycar logo

    John Paul Jr. keeps fighting despite Huntington’s disease.

  6. Parker Kligerman weighs in on Indy Lights test (VIDEO)

    Sep 15, 2014, 2:00 PM EDT

    kligerman Getty Images

    Parker Kligerman recaps his Indy Lights test at IMS.

  7. After heartbreaking Chase opener, Almirola already in must-win situation

    Sep 15, 2014, 1:55 PM EDT

    Almirola Chicagoland 2014 Getty Images

    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.

  8. PWC: Champions crowned in Utah

    Sep 15, 2014, 12:57 PM EDT

    WC

    Pirelli World Challenge race winners and champions crowned after Utah doubleheader.

  9. MRTI: Pigot, O’Ward, Jamin lead Griffis Memorial Test at IMS

    Sep 15, 2014, 11:00 AM EDT

    Photo: Andersen Promotions Photo: Andersen Promotions

    Next generation of potential IndyCar drivers on display at IMS test.

  10. Mercedes names Pascal Wehrlein F1 reserve driver

    Sep 15, 2014, 10:15 AM EDT

    Lewis Hamilton AP

    Mercedes names 19-year-old its new reserve driver.

  11. MRTI: Josef Newgarden tests new Indy Lights car (VIDEO)

    Sep 15, 2014, 9:53 AM EDT

    Josef Newgarden Josef Newgarden

    Josef Newgarden tests the new Indy Lights car at IMS.

  12. It’s official: Marcos Ambrose will return to Australia to race V8 Supercars for Roger Penske

    Sep 14, 2014, 8:52 PM EDT

    Marcos Ambrose (left), along with NASCAR president Mike Helton. (Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images) Getty Images

    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.

  13. Danica Patrick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. tangle in wreck at Chicago — but it’s all good

    Sep 14, 2014, 7:48 PM EDT

    (Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images) Getty Images

    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.

  14. 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

    (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh) AP

    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.

  15. How the 16 drivers fared in Sunday’s Chase opener

    Sep 14, 2014, 6:17 PM EDT

    (Photo: Jerry Markland/Getty Images) Getty Images

    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.

  16. Keselowski surges between Harvick, Larson to win Chase opener at Chicagoland

    Sep 14, 2014, 5:30 PM EDT

    (Photo: Jerry Markland/Getty Images) Getty Images

    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.

  17. Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon lead Chase opener at halfway point

    Sep 14, 2014, 3:44 PM EDT

    keselowski joliet 2014 Getty Images

    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.

  18. Even with new crew, Kevin Harvick’s pit road problems continue

    Sep 14, 2014, 3:15 PM EDT

    Harvick pit crew richmond 2014 Getty Images

    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.

  19. For 16 Sprint Cup drivers, the time is here: ready, set, Chase

    Sep 14, 2014, 1:34 PM EDT

    Sprint Cup trophy 2014 Getty Images

    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

Johnson's quest for a record 7th title
Top 10 NASCAR Driver Searches
  1. J. Johnson (1548)
  2. K. Busch (1449)
  3. J. Gordon (1253)
  4. J. Logano (1222)
  5. B. Keselowski (1145)