Jun 21, 2013, 6:10 PM EST
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.
Nov 22, 2014, 3:50 PM EST
Mallya attacks Red Bull following its double exclusion from today’s qualifying session in Abu Dhabi.
Nov 22, 2014, 3:00 PM EST
di Grassi climbs from 18th on the grid to second at finish in Putrajaya ePrix; Nick Heidfeld found to have made pit stop car change outside permitted area, relegated to 19th.
Nov 22, 2014, 2:30 PM EST
The stage is set for the final showdown on Sunday. Will it be Lewis or Nico?
Nov 22, 2014, 1:45 PM EST
McLaren junior driver moves up to second in the championship with feature race win in Abu Dhabi.
Nov 22, 2014, 1:30 PM EST
The new cancer center’s lobby will be named in honor of RHR’s late mother, who succumbed to colon cancer in 2009.
Nov 22, 2014, 1:15 PM EST
The British F1 debutant will start his first grand prix from 17th place tomorrow.
Nov 22, 2014, 12:58 PM EST
He remains suspended by NASCAR, but Jeremy Mayfield continues his racing comeback this weekend at Myrtle Beach Speedway.
Nov 22, 2014, 12:30 PM EST
Ricciardo and Vettel to start from the back of the grid in Abu Dhabi.
Nov 22, 2014, 11:30 AM EST
The 22-year-old is not set to move up to F1 despite an incredible rookie season in GP2.
Nov 22, 2014, 11:15 AM EST
Valtteri Bottas and Williams best of the rest once again in Abu Dhabi qualifying.
Nov 22, 2014, 11:00 AM EST
The administrator put in charge of the ailing F1 team believes that a buyer can be found in the next couple of weeks.
Nov 22, 2014, 10:30 AM EST
“The technical people were panicking a little bit, being afraid that I would take some secrets.”
Nov 22, 2014, 10:13 AM EST
The Mexican driver will remain with Force India for 2015 alongside Nico Hulkenberg.
Nov 22, 2014, 10:00 AM EST
It was confirmed on Thursday that the four time F1 world champion would be joining Ferrari for the 2015 season, replacing Fernando Alonso.
Nov 22, 2014, 9:47 AM EST
P2 not ideal for Lewis Hamilton, but the focus remains strong heading into Sunday.
Nov 22, 2014, 9:30 AM EST
Nico Rosberg gets the pole, but still has to convert tomorrow – something he hasn’t done as much this year.
Nov 22, 2014, 7:00 AM EST
The British racer will test for Force India next week, but thinks he chances of getting a full-time seat are slim.
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- Nico Rosberg rallies to pole position in Abu Dhabi 0
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- Abu Dhabi GP Paddock Notebook – Friday 0
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