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.
Jul 1, 2015, 7:00 PM EDT
Mark Miles discussed Fontana, Milwaukee, Road America and more.
Jul 1, 2015, 5:53 PM EDT
The CEO of IndyCar discussed the challenges of putting together an extended series schedule.
Jul 1, 2015, 5:30 PM EDT
TV times across the board for this weekend’s British Grand Prix at Silverstone.
Jul 1, 2015, 4:59 PM EDT
Could penalties be coming to drivers who speak out about IndyCar’s on-track product? Mark Miles flips some pancakes on the possibility.
Jul 1, 2015, 4:03 PM EDT
Will Power fined, put on probation after shoving safety official during Saturday’s race.
Jul 1, 2015, 2:42 PM EDT
In a surprise move, the NHRA announced Wednesday that president Tom Compton has retired after 15 years as the sanctioning body’s chief executive officer
Jul 1, 2015, 1:54 PM EDT
The provisional winner of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is Rhys Millen.
Jul 1, 2015, 12:30 PM EDT
The CFH Racing co-owner says IndyCar will never grow if “we’re tearing it apart from the inside out.”
Jul 1, 2015, 11:02 AM EDT
One of A.J. Foyt’s young drivers makes some wiser points beyond his years about Saturday’s race in Fontana.
Jul 1, 2015, 9:00 AM EDT
Sauber names a new technical director.
Jun 30, 2015, 6:01 PM EDT
Feature on Manpower to Horsepower to air during Red Bull GRC show this Sunday on NBC.
Jun 30, 2015, 1:47 PM EDT
A selection of images from the 2015 Goodwood Festival of Speed.
Jun 30, 2015, 12:00 PM EDT
SH Rallycross’ HAUS livery for Red Bull GRC this weekend screams red, white and blue.
Jun 30, 2015, 10:52 AM EDT
Given how well they’ve run this year, it was really only a matter of time until Graham Rahal and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing won a race.
Jun 30, 2015, 10:30 AM EDT
Luca Filippi and Matthew Brabham set for oval tests this Wednesday at Iowa Speedway.
Jun 30, 2015, 9:45 AM EDT
This weekend’s miserable conditions at Watkins Glen offered a lot of young drivers a chance to shine.
Jun 29, 2015, 9:29 PM EDT
The 2015 season is the first time Roger Penske has captained four teams on the IndyCar circuit. And it appears it will be full steam ahead with four teams going forward.
Jun 29, 2015, 8:53 PM EDT
Comedian and former late-night talk show host Jay Leno has spent his career making millions laugh. But recently, the joke was on Leno, so to speak – but in a good way.
Jun 29, 2015, 8:24 PM EDT
If you’re a big fan of the Indianapolis 500 and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, put this on your bucket list for next year.
Jun 29, 2015, 7:18 PM EDT
With five races coming up in the next six weeks, Top Fuel driver Antron Brown knows how crucial this stretch of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing season will be.
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