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.
NHRA: John Force rolls to No. 1 Funny Car qualifier in first race without former crew chief Jimmy Prock
Nov 1, 2014, 12:23 AM EDT
In his first race without crew chief Jimmy Prock, defending Funny Car champ John Force didn’t appear worse for the wear, grabbing the provisional No. 1 qualifying spot in the NHRA Toyota Nationals in Las Vegas.
Kyle Busch roars back to win Truck race at Texas; Matt Crafton gets closer to clinching championship
Oct 31, 2014, 11:45 PM EDT
Kyle Busch rallied from ninth place with five laps left in regulation time, then roared up through the pack and “set sail” to a green-white-checker victory in the Truck Series race Friday night at Texas Motor Speedway.
Oct 31, 2014, 8:57 PM EDT
16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force will make a major sponsorship announcement Saturday in Las Vegas, and is expected to follow that up Tuesday with what major auto manufacturer he’ll be aligned with in 2015.
Oct 31, 2014, 8:23 PM EDT
Kenseth says the only way he’d feel a little better about it is if Harvick manages to make the Championship Race.
Tony Stewart sets fastest qualifying speed ever on 1.5-mile track (200.111 mph), but Matt Kenseth wins pole at Texas
Oct 31, 2014, 8:17 PM EDT
Matt Kenseth won the pole Friday at Texas Motor Speedway, but Tony Stewart lived up to his nickname and smoked the field with the fastest qualifying speed ever on a 1.5-mile track.
Oct 31, 2014, 8:00 PM EDT
Complete with news and analysis, here is all of the action from the COTA paddock on practice day for the United States Grand Prix.
Oct 31, 2014, 7:15 PM EDT
Speaking to NBCSN’s Will Buxton, America’s great F1 hopeful speaks about recent events at Marussia and his hopes for the future.
Oct 31, 2014, 7:00 PM EDT
An on-the-ground perspective of the speed, sound and crowd from Austin second practice.
Racing legend Dan Gurney earns one of rarest and most prestigious awards for lifetime achievements (video)
Oct 31, 2014, 6:59 PM EDT
Very few race car drivers deserve to be called “legendary.” Dan Gurney is most definitely one of those, and was honored this week with the Edison-Ford Medal for his incomparable lifetime achievements.
Oct 31, 2014, 6:30 PM EDT
17-year-old Toro Rosso driver continues to prove that age is simply a number in racing.
Oct 31, 2014, 6:10 PM EDT
Austin Dillon was the fastest driver in Friday’s final Nationwide Series practice at Texas Motor Speedway. The defending NNS champ who is now in his rookie season in Sprint Cup, Dillon is making his first NNS start this season in Saturday’s race.
Oct 31, 2014, 6:00 PM EDT
Gauging the pulse of the fans on site at Austin.
Oct 31, 2014, 5:45 PM EDT
The Outlaw attempts the “Candy Corn Challenge” – fitting 100 pieces inside his mouth.
Oct 31, 2014, 5:30 PM EDT
Is there more to Fernando’s future than just McLaren?
Oct 31, 2014, 5:00 PM EDT
Administrators still hoping to get the team racing in Abu Dhabi, but will aim for the grid in 2015 if this is not possible.
Oct 31, 2014, 4:45 PM EDT
Reddick captures his second Truck pole in the last three races.
Oct 31, 2014, 4:32 PM EDT
British driver finishes just 0.003 seconds ahead of Rosberg in FP2, equating to just 6.7 inches around the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas.
Oct 31, 2014, 4:00 PM EDT
The six-time Sprint Cup champion is driving the No. 48 Lowe’s “Red Vest” Chevrolet this weekend.
Oct 31, 2014, 3:45 PM EDT
Finnish driver has endured a difficult return to Maranello in 2014 after five years away.
Oct 31, 2014, 3:00 PM EDT
Chase competitors Kevin Harvick and points leader Jeff Gordon crack the Top 5 speeds.
Video from NASCAR America
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