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.
Apr 20, 2014, 6:00 PM EDT
Former Red Bull F1 driver finishes third, while Porsche’s GTE-Pro squads finish 1-2 in class.
Apr 20, 2014, 5:10 PM EDT
Trophies and big paychecks are no longer the only things a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver and team get when they win a race. Now they get a big breakfast, too. According to Statesville.com, the Boxcar Grille in Statesville, N.C., has begun serving breakfast to winning teams in the Charlotte area after they return from capturing a Cup race.
Apr 20, 2014, 4:30 PM EDT
Both of their Le Mans Prototypes fail to see the checkered flag at Silverstone due to accidents.
Apr 20, 2014, 4:10 PM EDT
While he probably can’t throw a football more than 20 or 30 yards, Chad Knaus is a diehard Carolina Panthers fan. And while football and stock car racing are polar opposites, they do have some similarities, particularly when it comes to team building, success, strategy and preparation for each game or race. Knaus, a six-time Sprint Cup champion crew chief for Jimmie Johnson, recently called Panthers’ head coach Ron Rivera to throw around and share ideas that might be beneficial to both men.
Apr 20, 2014, 2:49 PM EDT
Hermie Sadler will never be confused with former wrestling greats Hulk Hogan, The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin – not even Rik “Wooooo” Flair. But the NASCAR analyst for Fox Sports 1 has been a longtime fan of wrestling and will now become somewhat of a decision maker, too.
Apr 20, 2014, 1:58 PM EDT
Sebastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson, and Nicolas Lapierre take the No. 8 Toyota to the win in the Six Hours of Silverstone.
Apr 20, 2014, 1:07 PM EDT
More than 20 years after graduating, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is going back to school. Well, for at least one day. Earnhardt will take part in a two-hour session on May 8 with two student groups, wrapped around an all-school assembly at Seaman High School in Topeka, Kansas, according to a report in the Topeka Capital-Journal.
Apr 20, 2014, 12:00 PM EDT
We hope your Easter’s filled with family, friends…and maybe some jelly beans.
Apr 20, 2014, 9:45 AM EDT
Finn can only come home in eighth for Ferrari, some 50 seconds behind teammate Fernando Alonso.
Apr 20, 2014, 9:00 AM EDT
Largely unnoticed, these two youngsters were brilliant today in China.
Apr 20, 2014, 8:00 AM EDT
German driver saw no reason to follow team orders, but soon realised that there was no point in holding Ricciardo up.
Apr 20, 2014, 7:15 AM EDT
German driver downbeat after losing to Hamilton yet again, but in the grand scheme of things, it was a great result.
Apr 20, 2014, 6:30 AM EDT
Embarrassing error sees race end on lap 54, not lap 56; Kobayashi the only driver to lose a position.
Apr 20, 2014, 6:15 AM EDT
Ferrari ends torrid week with something to smile about as Alonso finishes third in China.
Apr 20, 2014, 5:47 AM EDT
German driver refuses to let Daniel Ricciardo past at first, but ultimately thinks better of it.
Apr 20, 2014, 5:30 AM EDT
British driver delighted with team effort, and pleased to see teammate Nico Rosberg reach the podium again.
Apr 20, 2014, 4:43 AM EDT
British driver goes wire-to-wire to claim his third straight win and number 25 of his F1 career.
Apr 20, 2014, 2:15 AM EDT
As the Mercedes turf war rumbles on, Red Bull and Ferrari will be waiting in the wings to pick up the pieces.
Apr 20, 2014, 2:00 AM EDT
Here’s how the drivers will line up for the 2014 Chinese Grand Prix today, live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 2:30am ET.
Apr 20, 2014, 1:30 AM EDT
He has come close before, but Hamilton finally can make it three wins in a row today in China.
- VIDEO: Vettel explains decision to not let Ricciardo past 2
- Chinese GP called two laps early after checkered flag mix-up 2
- VIDEO: Vettel ignores team orders, telling team “tough luck” 14
- Hamilton makes it three with lights to flag victory in China 0
- WATCH LIVE: Can anyone spring a Shanghai surprise? 0
- IndyCar: Massive crash triggered after round of pit stops (VIDEO) (17)
- VIDEO: Vettel ignores team orders, telling team “tough luck” (14)
- American-based F1 franchise, Haas Formula, officially introduced (9)
- Maldonado brushes off crash and spin in practice (7)
- In re-released interview, Brad Keselowski recalls how Rick Hendrick left him heartbroken (7)