Despite rising to the NASCAR national level, Leffler never forgot his roots on dirt tracks
Jason Leffler competed in the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500, and all three national levels of NASCAR. But he never forgot where he came from -- the dirt tracks and open-wheel cars where he first made his name.
So when a ride in NASCAR didn’t materialize for the 2013 campaign, Leffler knew right where to look. The affable Southern Californian retuned to his roots for this season, signing with Tom Buch Racing to pilot a No. 13 winged sprint car on dirt circuits primarily in Pennsylvania and the northeast.
"He was one of the most versatile race drivers in America."
--Doug Boles, COO Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Which is why Leffler was driving Wednesday in the “Night of Wings” event at Bridgeport Speedway, a five-eighths mile high-banked dirt track in Swedesboro, N.J. It was there where Leffler’s car crashed during a heat race. He was extricated from the vehicle and transported by ambulance to a local trauma center, where according to the Associated Press he was pronounced dead shortly after 9 p.m. Eastern time.
Leffler, a 37-year-old native of Long Beach who leaves behind young son Charlie Dean, was well-liked in a NASCAR community where he had been a fixture since 1999. His death hit many hard, particularly those with their own backgrounds in the U.S. Auto Club, where Leffler was a star before moving into stock cars.
“Can’t believe it,” Brad Sweet, a former USAC driver who now competes on the Nationwide Series, wrote on Twitter. “Things just won’t be the same without you Lefty. You were an awesome friend and a great dad.”
The return to open-wheel cars was something Leffler seemed to embrace, although he had never before driven winged sprint cars. But he had piloted just about everything else, starting over 400 events across NASCAR’s three national divisions, racing in the Indianapolis 500 in 2000, and winning a combined four titles in USAC’s midget and silver crown ranks.
“He was one of the most versatile race drivers in America,” said Doug Boles, chief operating officer of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Taking to the winged sprint cars, it seemed, was only a matter of time.
“I’ve got a lot of learning to do,” Leffler said before this season. “It’s cool to be able to race three times a week and figure things out. I’m really looking forward to racing at the historic places in Pennsylvania, and racing some of the best sprint-car drivers out there.”
The plan was to race between 50 and 60 times this season in the No. 13 car, beginning with events in February at Volusia County and Ocala speedways in Florida, which coincided with NASCAR Speedweeks activities at Daytona. The learning curve was evident -- competing primarily in the World of Outlaws and the All-Star Circuit of Champions, Leffler recorded his first two top-10 finishes of the season in April.
“Getting in the ball game now!” he tweeted after a top-five finish in May.
Wednesday night’s sprint-car event at Bridgeport was to be another step in that progression. According to the Patriot-News of Harrisburg, Pa., Leffler hit the wall head-on in a heat race after something broke on his car. The rest of the evening’s racing program was canceled, and New Jersey state police were investigating the incident.
Leffler scored two Nationwide victories, including the first NASCAR win for Toyota with Braun Racing at Lucas Oil Raceway in 2007 at Indianapolis. He also won in 2004 at Nashville for Haas-CNC Racing, and earned a Camping World Truck Series event for Jim Smith’s Ultra Racing team in 2003 at Dover. Leffler drove on the Sprint Cup tour for Joe Gibbs and Chip Ganassi, and piloted a Truck Series entry for Kyle Busch for the first half of last season before being released.
Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Pocono Raceway, where Leffler finished 43rd driving for Humphrey Smith Racing, was his first NASCAR event of this season. But his dirt-track roots were never far behind -- Leffler flew to the race with Hendrick Motorsports driver Kasey Kahne, another former star in the USAC ranks.
“We talked sprint cars, Cup cars, and Charlie Dean,” Kahne wrote on Twitter. “He loved racing & he loved his son!”
And those who came from dirt-track backgrounds loved him.
“Makes you sick to your stomach when you hear about something like this,” Truck Series driver Ryan Blaney, son of sprint-car legend Dave Blaney, wrote on Twitter. “Unbelievable. Praying for his family.”