Drivers share memories of Jason Leffler; Brad Keselowski calls safety standards at local tracks 'dismal'
A longtime NASCAR competitor, Leffler was fondly remembered by his fellow racers on Friday at Michigan International Speedway, and the issue of safety at the short tracks around the country was also discussed in depth.
Tony Stewart was among the closest to Leffler, and spoke of his dedication to racing.
"I've known Jason a long time. We grew up racing together. I knew him as a friend, a roommate, teammate. He loved nothing more than being behind the wheel of a racecar. Im shocked to hear what had happened, it's a reminder of how dangerous our sport is. There isn't anyone who gets behind the wheel and doesn't understand that. We're thinking about his son Charlie."
Stewart went on to stress that we shouldn't blame the track for what happened to Leffler: "It was an accident, nothing the track did," said Stewart, who owns the Eldora dirt track that will host a Truck series race later this year and said his track has been upgraded based on safety recommendations in advance of that Truck series race.
Stewart said Leffler lived with him for almost a year when he first started racing after moving from California to the Midwest: "He moved in with me and lived with us for under a year. He was a racer, didn't care when he raced, what he raced. That's all he wanted to do. It was fun to have a roommate like that that had the same desire and passion as me."
Jeff Gordon said the biggest problem is that with sprint cars, it's harder to predict how an accident will happen.
"The problem is those cars have uniqueness when it comes to crashes and how to handle those types of impacts. They just can't contain their heads. They've done a lot, but it's so hard to contain when a car is flipping and moving different directions. Our cars are more predictable. It's more difficult to prevent some of the angles and impacts."
Greg Biffle also weighed in Leffler's passing with some memories.
“I did know Jason fairly well. ... Probably what weighs on me the most, and even this morning I was thinking about it, is his son Charlie. Somebody tweeted a picture of the two of them standing by a fence at the race track and I just can’t quit thinking about how tough that’s gonna be for him," Biffle said.
"The other thing I was thinking when I was coming here is one of the funniest memories I have is I think there were six or eight of us playing Uno right outside our bus here in the motorhome lot at Michigan. I think it was Jamie (McMurray) and Matt (Kenseth) and him and Alison, so we did some stuff together and dinners and different things, but then when he moved to the Nationwide Series and moved on we sort of lost touch a little bit, but still stayed in contact. It’s just horrible. I don’t know what else you can say about it. I think we can try and learn something from it to try and make those cars safer, head-and-neck restraints. That’s typically where the injuries come from in those kind of accidents, so I don’t know what else I can say.”
Jim Campbell, General Motors U.S. Vice President of Performance Vehicles and Motorsports issued the following statement: “We are saddened by the loss of Jason Leffler, who had a generous heart and was universally liked and respected by his fellow competitors. Jason was a talented, hard-charging and versatile racer, competing in a number of series at the highest level. We fondly remember his days racing – particularly for us – in NASCAR’s top series and Indianapolis 500. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a specific memory of Leffler on track.
"I'll remember the pass he made to win at IRP when he basically sold the farm in 1 and 2 to make that pass. That was a hungry driver and the perfect definition of how hungry he was and we all have that somewhere inside."
Keselowski critical of safety standards
Rochester Hills native and current Cup champion Brad Keselowski said Leffler was a "pure racer who had the utmost respect of the garage", but he also was among the most vocal critics of the safety standards at local tracks.
“I don’t run those races for a reason. There are a handful of drivers that run at the local level. I don’t very often. I’m not gonna say I never have, but I don’t very often because they don’t have SAFER barriers and they don’t have the safety standards that we have here in NASCAR. That said, that’s not to say that all tracks in NASCAR have it right either. There are quite a few, and I think Jeff Gordon so eloquently pointed that out a couple weeks back, that could use some serious upgrades and facelifts, but it’s even 100 times worse at the local level."
Keselowski said that it's not a new problem.
"It’s funny because I talked to my dad about it, who raced local short tracks and every once in a while will talk about some track that he went to with my brother or whatever situation, and I’ll ask him how it was, and he’ll tell me, ‘Well, it hasn’t changed since 1975 when I was last there.’ I’m pretty sure safety has taken some pretty big leaps forward since 1970-sometihng, and I think that’s the issue facing safety at most local tracks.
Funding, Keselowski recognizes, is an issue that plays a part in how many safety upgrades can be made, but he's still not comfortable with the status quo.
"Obviously, it’s not a simple issue. They have funding limitations that kind of plague that level, but I’m nervous for anyone that races at those levels because I know what happens if something goes wrong and those safety standards aren’t there. That said, I don’t know what happened to Jason and maybe it was completely unrelated. I don’t want that to be confused, but, still, the safety standards at local short tracks are out of control, they’re dismal."
In the end, though, Keselowski acknowledges that racers will always want to race, regardless of the conditions, and he hopes NASCAR and the racing community in general can be more proactive and less reactive in the future.
"We still go on and we keep racing because that’s what we do as racers and we’ll race here today and we’ll race at the next short track on a Friday or Saturday night that doesn’t have those things – someone will – because that’s the love and passion that we have for this sport, and what makes it what it is. It’s a shame that our industry is reactive and I wish it wasn’t. That’s a much bigger piece than NASCAR – that’s the whole industry of racing. We have a tendency to wait until something bad happens before we fix things and we need to stop that. That’s how you prevent things like this from happening, but that’s just not in our culture. Unfortunately for the five-year-old little boy that lost his dad, that’s our sport.”