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 24, 2015, 9:11 PM EDT
Honda takes the wraps off the new Accord safety car.
Apr 24, 2015, 9:02 PM EDT
Pigot scores his first Indy Lights pole at Barber.
Apr 24, 2015, 6:30 PM EDT
Formula E’s championship leader looks ahead to his adopted home race in Monaco on May 9.
Apr 24, 2015, 5:00 PM EDT
2014 GP2 champion reflects on the opening four races of the year with Lotus.
WSR: Comtec pulls out of first Formula Renault 3.5 round, parts company with Regalia after three days
Apr 24, 2015, 3:30 PM EDT
Grid falls to 20 cars for the Formula Renault 3.5 opener in Spain this weekend.
Apr 24, 2015, 2:00 PM EDT
The Indian Grand Prix was last held in 2013 at the Buddh International Circuit.
Apr 24, 2015, 12:45 PM EDT
Audi and Porsche will field three cars for the next two races of the FIA World Endurance Championship.
Apr 24, 2015, 11:30 AM EDT
Red Bull has made a slow start to the 2015 season due to a variety of problems with the RB11 car.
Apr 24, 2015, 10:00 AM EDT
Venezuelan driver currently bottom of the table after just one finish in four races.
Apr 24, 2015, 9:05 AM EDT
To reference the Smashing Pumpkins, Barber is the beginning of the end of the beginning for IndyCar 2015.
Apr 23, 2015, 7:50 PM EDT
Andretti Autosport’s Mazda Road to Indy program goes to Barber Motorsports Park with one less Indy Lights entry.
Apr 23, 2015, 6:38 PM EDT
Graham Rahal aims to continue consistent success of one-car team at Barber Motorsports Park.
Ryan Hunter-Reay looks to right 2015 season by completing winning trilogy at Barber Motorsports Park
Apr 23, 2015, 5:05 PM EDT
Ryan Hunter-Reay looks to turn season around at track he’s won last two races at.
Apr 23, 2015, 5:00 PM EDT
For a series that is in its inaugural year, Formula E is having little trouble in getting fans through the gate as it prepares to hit European shores for the first time.
Apr 23, 2015, 4:00 PM EDT
Luke Smith takes a look at the humble beginnings of what has turned into F1’s most prolific supplier of drivers, and takes a look at where the 2005 grid is now.
Apr 23, 2015, 3:00 PM EDT
The new GP3 season kicks off in support of the Spanish Grand Prix in two weeks’ time.
Apr 23, 2015, 2:21 PM EDT
NHRA team joins forces with non-profit dedicated to Chris Kyle
Apr 23, 2015, 1:00 PM EDT
F1 to return to the former host of the British and European Grands Prix for one day only.
Apr 23, 2015, 12:20 PM EDT
Finnish driver believes that Williams’ upgrade package for the Spanish Grand Prix will draw it closer to Mercedes and Ferrari at the front.
Apr 23, 2015, 11:00 AM EDT
Vettel pays homage to where it all started for him at the bottom of the single seater ladder in Germany.
- Preview: Barber marks end of IndyCar’s first quarter of 2015 (VIDEO) 0
- Ryan Hunter-Reay looks to right 2015 season by completing winning trilogy at Barber Motorsports Park 0
- As GP2 turns 10 years old, where is the Class of ’05 now? 0
- Here’s your IndyCar times for this weekend’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama 0
- F1: Year-on-year, Ferrari’s gains, Mercedes’ continued edge reins after four races 0
- Racing community reflects on the loss of Fox Sports’ broadcaster Steve Byrnes 8
- Sam Schmidt’s inspirational lap in SAM Project, Arrow Corvette on NBC Nightly News (VIDEO, PHOTOS) 2