Friends remember Leffler the racer and dad
June 19, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
CORNELIUS, N.C. -- Todd Braun remembers being at a loss for words.
“He came into the office and said they were having a baby. I’m like -- Jason Leffler as a father?” said the former team owner in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. “I couldn’t see Jason as a father. I’m like, ‘Great, man. Another Leffler in this world. That’s just what we need.’ Honestly, I didn’t know what to say.”
But Braun certainly did Wednesday, when many in the racing community gathered at Grace Covenant Church to remember Leffler, a longtime NASCAR driver who one week earlier was killed in a winged sprint-car crash at Bridgeport Speedway in Swedesboro, N.J. Among those in attendance were NASCAR President Mike Helton, team principals Chip Ganassi and J.D. Gibbs, and roughly two dozen national-series drivers including Tony Stewart, Brad Keselowski and Kasey Kahne.
Throughout the one-hour service, common themes emerged -- the 37-year-old Leffler as a feisty competitor on the track, as a prankster among his friends and as a committed father to his young son Charlie. Braun witnessed the transformation of a singularly focused racer to a doting dad who planned to marry his girlfriend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s start/finish line during Brickyard 400 weekend.
"He was wonderfully made. He was unique in many, many ways. Precious."
-- Pastor Kenny Crosswhite
“Charlie came along, and I watched the transformation of Jason,” said Braun, who worked with Leffler for six years, and became his friend in the process. “Jason the racer became Jason the dad. I’ve never seen a transformation of a person like I saw with Jason Leffler. He cared more about Charlie than anything there was. It was one of the best thing I ever saw. The switch turned.”
The ceremony featured a mixture of emotions, celebrating the life of a racer who was beloved by his friends and family members, but also was lost too soon. The native of Long Beach, Calif., returned to his dirt-car roots this season after a NASCAR ride failed to materialize, driving a winged sprint car on a tour based in Pennsylvania. Investigators believe a part on Leffler’s car broke during a heat race June 12, causing him to lose control and sending the 900-horsepower vehicle into the wall.
“I’m sure many of us here would say this is exactly the way Jason would have wanted to go,” said friend Jeff Dickerson, a former midget-car driver and NASCAR spotter. “… But the fact of the matter is, he wasn’t ready to go yet. He was having the time of his life in those cars. It was about the challenge for him. His confidence was back, and it was infectious.”
Pastor Kenny Crosswhite, a NASCAR chaplain formerly of Motor Racing Outreach, agreed. “Recently spending time with him, I’d never seen him happier,” he said of Leffler. “That’s what makes it hurt so much.”
A montage of photographs displayed during the ceremony showed Leffler as a young boy, with a bicycle and a skateboard, with his first race car and trophies, and with his mother Pat. He was pictured with dogs and family members, with his funky haircuts, with other racers like Stewart, and later with his son.
“He was wonderfully made,” said Crosswhite, who has worked with drivers on both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup circuits. “He was unique in many, many ways. Precious.”
And he could be a handful according to his friends, who joked about the way Leffler sometimes treated rental cars -- among other things. “This is a sad day for all of us,” Dickerson said. “But it’s a relief to caterers around the country who make ice sculptures.”
Over and over, though, it came back to Leffler the racer and Leffler the father, the two sides of a playful Californian eventually merging into one. Leffler was a fixture in NASCAR for a decade, breaking in after a legendary career in the U.S. Auto Club ranks, piloting Sprint Cup cars for Ganassi and Joe Gibbs, Nationwide entries for Braun, Gene Haas and Steve Turner among others, and most recently a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series entry last season for Kyle Busch. He won three races at NASCAR’s national level, two on the Nationwide tour and one in the Truck Series, the last in 2007 for Braun in Indianapolis.
“Jason is a great example of someone who proved you can make it by working hard in this sport,” Braun said.
Added Dickerson: “He prevailed with a silent focus and intensity that should be an inspiration to all of us -- especially for young racers who think you can’t make it without money or a foot in the sport.”
Crosswhite closed the service by speaking about leaving a mark, which Leffler surely did to those who knew him. His most lasting testament, though, isn’t racing trophies or checkered flags -- but the son who changed his life. “A lot of kids spend their lives saying they don’t want to be like their parents. I think the best thing we could ever do is have Charlie say, ‘I want to be just like my dad,’ ” Braun said.
“Jason was the best dad in our world down here,” Dickerson added. Now others must continue that task for him.
“We all have a responsibility to make sure Charlie knows who (Leffler) was, and how much he loved his son,” he continued. “… We must make sure he’s not forgotten. When we see Charlie, that same little faithful friend his dad had, we must let him know every chance we get that he hung the moon to his dad. And that Jason savored every minute he spent with his son. We must let him know about Jason as a racer, a man and a father, that’s what Jason would want from us, and it’s up to us to make that happen.”