Skip to content

Remembering Jason Leffler, one year after his tragic death

Jun 12, 2014, 3:44 PM EDT

Jason and Charlie Leffler. (Photo courtesy of Jason Leffler's Instagram account) Jason and Charlie Leffler. (Photo courtesy of Jason Leffler's Instagram account)

It’s hard to believe but Thursday marks one year since the racing world lost Jason Leffler.

The former NASCAR driver – he raced across all three series: Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Trucks – was killed June 12, 2013 in a horrific crash during a sprint car race at Bridgeport Speedway in New Jersey.

Leffler was 37 at the time of his death and left behind a young son, Charlie, who idolized his dad, his hero, his best friend.

Nicknamed “LefTurn,” Leffler had gone back to his first love of sprint car racing when he couldn’t secure a full-time ride on any of the NASCAR’s premier series. Sure, he probably could have gotten a ride in a so-called “start-and-park” Cup or NNS or Truck team, but that wasn’t Leffler’s style. He would either be in competitive equipment or he would go find another series where he would.

That’s how he wound up back where he began his racing career in, sprint cars. Sure, he knew the danger and risks of the open-wheel rides: their propensity to flip over, the ease in which cars broke apart mechanically, and how any race had the potential to end in either victory or injury – or worse.

Sadly, all those figured in Leffler’s death. And as much of a cliché as it sounds, Leffler was a man who loved what he did and he went out in just that fashion.

Sure, it was a violent, horrible way to die, but if Leffler had a choice of how he’d leave this world, being behind the wheel would most likely be the way he would have wanted.

If he had his druthers, he likely also would have chosen to remain in NASCAR, with its outstanding achievements in safety that have resulted in no drivers being killed since Dale Earnhardt in the February 2001 Daytona 500.

But Leffler was a pragmatist, as well. He knew sprint cars were often described as rolling death traps, not having near as much in terms of safety features as in NASCAR. But he had to do what he had to do to support himself and Charlie.

Standing just 5-foot 3 inches, Leffler was a little guy in stature but was one of the most competitive drivers you’d ever want to meet. Likewise, he had a big heart, always willing to help a fellow racer.

He also loved interacting with fans, not because he had to due to sponsor mandates, but rather because – even though he was shy at times – he still liked to describe himself as a “people person.”

During one of the many times I interviewed him over the years, Leffler said he learned early on that when he met someone for the first time as a stranger, he made sure they parted as newly-made friends.

He loved to be around people so much. And Leffler also had a sense of humor that bordered on the mischievous. He loved a good joke and was known for sometimes playing practical jokes on friends, teammates, crew members and even fans – not with malice, but solely for the fun of it so that even the victim of his joke would come away busting a gut laughing at what had just transpired.

Leffler was not above making fun of himself, either. When he first debuted a Mohawk-style haircut – most likely the first NASCAR driver to ever wear that kind of ‘do – he knew it would draw and call attention to him.

But Leffler took it in stride. I can’t recall where I first saw him with the Mohawk, but when I asked him about it, he joked that his hair stylist made a bad cut on one side of his head, and tried fix it by replicating the job on the other side.

“Well, one thing kinda led to another – and here I am, the finished product, the last of the Mohawkins,” I remember him saying with a huge grin on his face.

Talk about taking lemons and turning them into lemonade, the Mohawk became Leffler’s calling card, the identifier that so many remembered him by and as.

Even fans that didn’t know or remember Leffler’s name would immediately recognize him as “the guy with the Mohawk.”

And while he eventually let his hair grow out, he started wearing what could be described as a hybrid Mohawk with a slight dash of Mullet thrown in.

Or as Leffler called it, “a FauxHawk.”

Leffler was a character, no doubt, in a sport that too often features overly-homogenized, overly-PC drivers. NASCAR needs less of the latter and more like Leffler.

And while he may not have been the greatest driver out there, he had talent that crossed over borders: not only could he drive midgets, Silver Crown and sprint cars, he also had a decade of NASCAR racing on his resume, not to mention three appearances on the IndyCar circuit, including competing in the legendary Indianapolis 500 in 2000.

He finished 17th in his one-and-only Indy 500, a race won ironically enough by future NASCAR (now back in IndyCar) driver Juan Pablo Montoya.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

According to both police reports and video of the wreck, Leffler was running second in the first heat race on the night he died, was closing in on the leader when his car suddenly jerked, went out of control, made a 180-degree turn and hit the outside retaining wall on its left side (the driver’s side), and then flipped over several times in front of the packed grandstands on the front straightaway.

Authorities estimate Leffler was doing about 135 mph when the accident occurred. He died before he the ambulance got to the hospital of blunt force trauma from his head and helmet slamming into the wall, according to an autopsy.

A subsequent investigation by New Jersey State Police found that a mechanical failure in the front suspension of Leffler’s race car was the likely cause of the crash that led to his death.

“As a result of this mechanical failure, Leffler’s front suspension failed and his steering became locked,” the State Police report concluded.

The wreck came just three days after Leffler’s last NASCAR race, at Pocono Raceway, where he finished last in the Sprint Cup event there won by Jimmie Johnson.

Leffler managed to take just eight laps around the 2.5-mile tri-oval before his transmission failed, ending his day.

No one knew that would be the last time we would see Leffler in person or on TV.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

As I said in the beginning of this column, it’s hard to believe it’s been a year since we lost Jason. The little guy made a big impact on thousands of lives, and even though he’s no longer with us, that impact will stay with us for the rest of our own lives.

For one of the best recollections of Leffler the man, racer, father and all-around good guy, I encourage you to read a column that my good friend Dave Moody from SiriusXM NASCAR Radio wrote the day after Leffler died.

Click here to read Moody’s wonderful tribute.

Also, check out the touching tribute video to Leffler by NASCAR.com below.

We miss you, Jason. The world of racing just isn’t the same without you. R.I.P.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

 

Latest Posts
  1. Rosberg tops FP1 at Silverstone after gearbox change

    Jul 3, 2015, 6:35 AM EDT

    NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JULY 02:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP speaks with members of his team outside the garage during previews to the Formula One Grand Prix of Great Britain at Silverstone Circuit on July 2, 2015 in Northampton, England.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images) Getty Images

    First blood to Rosberg despite missing most of FP1 due to a problem on his car.

  2. WATCH LIVE: FP1 for the British Grand Prix on Live Extra from 5am ET

    Jul 3, 2015, 4:46 AM EDT

    SPIELBERG, AUSTRIA - JUNE 19:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP gets in his car in the hgarage during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Austria at Red Bull Ring on June 19, 2015 in Spielberg, Austria.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images) Getty Images

    First practice at Silverstone kicks off at 5am ET on Friday.

  3. NHRA: Tony Pedregon hopes to keep momentum going in Norwalk

    Jul 2, 2015, 11:08 PM EDT

    Tony Pedregon (Photo courtesy Tony Pedregon official Twitter account) Tony Pedregon (Photo courtesy Tony Pedregon official Twitter account)

    The way his season had been going, two-time NHRA Funny Car champ Tony Pedregon was threatening to become a “Whatever Happened To?” question.

  4. Matthew Brabham completes first IndyCar test, eyes 2016 Indy 500

    Jul 2, 2015, 6:36 PM EDT

    matthew brabham Getty Images

    Today, Iowa. Next year, Indianapolis? That’s what Matthew Brabham is hoping for, after completing his first full IndyCar test with Andretti Autosport Thursday at Iowa Speedway.

  5. Button: Confidence high at McLaren ahead of home GP

    Jul 2, 2015, 5:00 PM EDT

    xxxx during previews to the Formula One Grand Prix of Great Britain at Silverstone Circuit on July 2, 2015 in Northampton, England. Getty Images

    A double DNF in Austria isn’t enough to get McLaren down ahead of British Grand Prix.

  6. Ryan Briscoe making most of filling in for James Hinchcliffe

    Jul 2, 2015, 4:10 PM EDT

    Ryan Briscoe 2015 getty Getty Images

    At the same time that James Hinchcliffe was seriously injured while practicing for the Indianapolis 500, Ryan Briscoe didn’t have a ride for either the 500 or for the season.

  7. Team roster confirmed for second Formula E season

    Jul 2, 2015, 3:00 PM EDT

    Nextev TCRs German driver Nelson Piquet JR (C) drives during the final race of the 2015 FIA Formula E London ePrix championship at Battersea Park in London, England, on June 28, 2015. AFP PHOTO / IAN KINGTON        (Photo credit should read IAN KINGTON/AFP/Getty Images) Getty Images

    The same ten teams from season one, albeit with a few name changes.

  8. F1 Strategy Group pushing through technical revolution for 2017, other changes planned as early as Belgian GP

    Jul 2, 2015, 1:48 PM EDT

    Drivers wait for the start at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, Austria on June 21, 2015, during the Austrian Formula One Grand Prix. AFP PHOTO / JOE KLAMAR        (Photo credit should read JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images) Getty Images

    F1 Strategy Group met with the FIA and Formula One Management in England on Wednesday to discuss future changes to the sport.

  9. MotorSportsTalk’s Predictions: British GP

    Jul 2, 2015, 1:00 PM EDT

    (Back L-R) Lotus F1 Team's Venezuelan driver Pastor Maldonado, Manor Marussia Team's British driver Will Stevens, Sauber F1 Team's Sewdish driver Marcus Ericsson, (Front L-R) Williams Martini Racing's Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas, McLaren Honda's British driver Jenson Button, Ferrari's Finnish driver  Kimi Raikkonen take part in a joint press conference at the Silverstone circuit in Silverstone on July 2, 2015 ahead of the British Formula One Grand Prix.   AFP PHOTO / BEN STANSALL        (Photo credit should read BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images) Getty Images

    The MST team makes its predictions ahead of this weekend’s British Grand Prix at Silverstone.

  10. The Rolling Stones hit IMS on Saturday, so here’s an IndyCar-inspired set list

    Jul 2, 2015, 12:26 PM EDT

    StonesIMS Getty Images

    What if The Rolling Stones’ concert set list at IMS was specifically inspired by recent IndyCar events? We ponder the possibilities.

  11. Vandoorne in regular talks with McLaren about future

    Jul 2, 2015, 11:30 AM EDT

    Belgian driver Stoffel Vandoorne holds his trophy as he celebrates after winning the GP2 series race at the Monaco street circuit in Monte-Carlo on May 22, 2015. AFP PHOTO / ANDREJ ISAKOVIC        (Photo credit should read ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP/Getty Images) Getty Images

    Could the Belgian be racing in Formula 1 next season?

  12. Several stats, streaks or droughts of note leaving Fontana

    Jul 2, 2015, 10:44 AM EDT

    IndyPostACSstats Getty Images

    A Power outage, JPM and Marco’s quiet rolls, and other IndyCar nuggets of note leaving Fontana.

  13. GP2: Rowland, Cecotto, Lancaster, Canamasas all in for Silverstone round

    Jul 2, 2015, 10:00 AM EDT

    © GP2 Series © GP2 Series

    Four driver changes ahead of this weekend’s round at Silverstone.

  14. 2015 British Grand Prix Preview

    Jul 2, 2015, 9:00 AM EDT

    150702_LewisHamilton Getty Images

    Can Lewis Hamilton make it a homecoming to remember by scoring his third British Grand Prix victory at Silverstone?

  15. Mark Miles: “We are not going to have a five-month season” in 2016

    Jul 1, 2015, 5:53 PM EDT

    Mark Miles Mark Miles

    The CEO of IndyCar discussed the challenges of putting together an extended series schedule.

  16. Here are your British Grand Prix air times on CNBC, NBCSN, Live Extra

    Jul 1, 2015, 5:30 PM EDT

    BritishGPtv Getty Images

    TV times across the board for this weekend’s British Grand Prix at Silverstone.

  17. Miles: After “two-sided pancake” Fontana race, IndyCar may crack down against stakeholder comments

    Jul 1, 2015, 4:59 PM EDT

    will power fontana 2015 getty Getty Images

    Could penalties be coming to drivers who speak out about IndyCar’s on-track product? Mark Miles flips some pancakes on the possibility.