Jason Leffler: Remembered one year after death
June 12, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
Ask anyone in the NASCAR garage to recall his favorite moment or most vivid memory of Jason Leffler, and the unfailingly first reaction is either a wide grin or a hearty laugh. Or both.
"I can tell you some great stories about awesome times with Jason, but you may not be able to print them."
That was the recurring theme as those closest to Leffler remembered the free spirit, talented racer, practical joker, loyal friend and most important, doting dad who died one year ago today in an accident while racing sprint cars at New Jersey's Bridgeport Speedway.
As the gut-wrenching news of Leffler's accident spread last summer, the reaction in the NASCAR community was swift, heartfelt and widespread.
"He was my buddy, that's why it was important."
-- Tony Stewart, on participating in the Chili Bowl Nationals, a Leffler favorite
Leffler, a two-time NASCAR Nationwide Series winner, was popular among fans thanks to his perpetual smile, California-cool mohawk and propensity to race the wheels off a car. But he was also a favorite friend to so many he came across during his time racing -- from winning three USAC midget titles in the late 1990s to competing in the 2000 Indianapolis 500, to the decade-plus he spent in NASCAR's three top series.
"Everybody was his friend," said Hendrick Motorsports driver Kasey Kahne.
Or at least Leffler made them feel that way.
For Kahne, the friendship was a strong and tested bond formed years ago when Leffler reached out to help the young, up-and-coming racer from faraway Washington state early in his career.
And Kahne, along with fellow NASCAR drivers such as Tony Stewart and team owner Harry Scott, were among the first of many to respond to the sudden financial and emotional needs that circumstance left to Leffler's only child, Charlie Dean -- then only 5 years old.
Through his own website and marketing company, Kahne produced and sold "LEFturn" hats -- the moniker Leffler had stenciled over his cars' driver's side door -- with all profits going to Charlie Dean.
Brad Keselowski reached out via Twitter to drivers spanning all racing series, even getting Indy 500 champ Tony Kanaan on board to auction off memorabilia.
In January, Stewart fielded a car for Kahne in one of Leffler's favorite midget races, the Chili Bowl Nationals. It was actually a car Leffler had been working on for himself and Stewart then auctioned off -- the proceeds going toward the Charlie Dean Leffler Discretionary Trust, a fund Scott helped establish.
"He was my buddy, that's why it was important," Stewart said. "It was someone that lived with me for most of the year, not just some random person we saw at the race track. This was someone we knew well -- and cared about."
And now they hope 6-year-old Charlie Dean will be able to spend this Father's Day weekend at least buoyed by the many respects paid to his dad -- the sheer number of people who care. It will be an ongoing lifetime awareness of how cherished Leffler truly was.
From Victory Lane hat tributes whenever Leffler's former team, Turner Scott Motorsports, wins a race, to the decals the team will invite other drivers to place on their cars this weekend at the Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway, it will be obvious how much Charlie Dean's father meant to many.
A first true friend
Race drivers are friendly enough to one another. They share airplanes and inside jokes. Their children play together.
But often it is skin-deep. They don't like to get too close for this very reason: this sport of life-and-death is so unlike any other.
Leffler, however, didn't know arms-length friendship. He was hard to resist. And loyal to a fault.
Kahne found that out even when his career took a more fortuitous turn than his friend's. Ultimately they both raced for what is now Turner Scott Motorsports in the Nationwide Series and Kahne went on to win Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in the Cup series before landing his current job at NASCAR's Hendrick Motorsports.
Far from begrudging Kahne's ascension, Leffler cheered him on.
And he enjoyed the spoils -- often hitchhiking rides to races on his friend Kahne's plane. Leffler flew with Kahne to the NASCAR Pocono race -- Leffler's last Cup start -- the weekend before his fatal accident.
"As far as talking about Jason and thinking about good times we had, we had many times away from the track and many times at the track," Kahne said, allowing a smile. "One of the biggest things that sticks with me was when I first met him.
"He was just first moving to Charlotte (for NASCAR) and I was just moving to Indianapolis (to race USAC). We built a friendship and relationship then, and he helped me a ton to get my opportunity with Steve Lewis and Bob East, the midget stuff and then Silver Crown car. We became really good friends up in Indianapolis."
Even though Leffler was making limited starts in NASCAR as he re-established himself in the open-wheel ranks he so dearly loved, he remained in North Carolina. Kahne said after getting back from Pocono, Leffler had shown up at his shop Monday morning with constant companion, Charlie Dean in tow.
"For whatever reason they spent a lot of time together that prior week," Kahne recalled. "Jason was really happy."
Those that knew Leffler well all say the same thing.
For team owner Scott, it was more than a professional relationship. He considers Leffler the first driver he truly established a friendship with upon entering the NASCAR ranks. Like so many, he remembers the laughs as well as the racing lessons.
"He taught me a lot about racing, really the first stock car driver that I got close to, and he taught me a lot about what drivers go through, how they think, how they act, how they prepare for races," Scott said. "Jason was so intent. He was really interesting to watch.
"One of the things that was funny, we used to tell him don't worry about anything other than finishing with your right front fender on," Scott recalled with a laugh. "And if he was patient and finished with that right front fender on he always had a good finish. It was just that simple. Look out at your hood and see how that right front fender is and that would tell you how he finished that race."
Even as Leffler's career ebbed and flowed, his friendship with Scott remained strong. And Leffler was always considered a member of the TSM organization -- something evident even today.
It was another young Californian from the sprint car ranks, NASCAR Sprint Cup rookie Kyle Larson who has donned the "LEFturn" hats twice now in Leffler's honor -- in Victory Lane just last weekend after winning the ARCA race in Long Pond, Pennsylvania, and earlier this season at Auto Club Speedway where he won his first Nationwide Series race for TSM.
"Jason meant a whole lot to everybody at that team and was friends with everyone in that shop and everyone misses him," Larson said. "He was just a really good guy and a lot of fun to be around; it sucks that we lost him."
For Scott and those closest to Leffler, the solace in the difficult situation is the contentment Leffler had achieved in life, both professionally and personally where he thrived and embraced life as a father -- Charlie Dean always at his side, touching photographs of the two still prominent on Leffler's website.
"Jason had had a tough 2012, he was trying to figure out what he wanted to do after the Nationwide stuff," Scott said. "He had done some start-and-park in Cup, but that wasn't him.
"Then later in 2012 he had sprint car stuff going and I helped sponsor him a little with my company. By last year, it seemed like everything had come together for him.
"We were all excited for him. He was content, happy to be racing and racing all the time. Seemed like he had finally found how to be happy," Scott added, his voice trailing off. "And then he has the accident. … That was tough."
And yet immediately, so many in the NASCAR community responded with the same sense of loyalty that characterized Leffler's relationship with others.
It's not only the outpouring of financial assistance to ensure Leffler's son a solid foundation in life, but also the purposeful tributes and remembrances that mean so much now and will in the years to come -- especially for his son.
"I notice that and it's been like that ever since I've been in the sport," Kahne said "It's one thing that hasn't changed over the 10 years I've been in the sport. It absolutely hasn't changed. Whenever a difficult situation happens always those groups or people that get behind it, whether it's an injury, cancer, just battles people go through, it's just a pretty cool group of people that get behind you.
"I was just one of many between drivers and owners and fans. I just felt like one of many who wanted to support Jason's son Charlie and keep Jason in our thoughts."
On the most fundamental level, "It just shows Jason Leffler meant a lot to everybody in all of auto racing," Larson said.
Added Scott, with emotion evident in his voice, "The racing community, it is unbelievable and it's amazing how they all pulled together to support Jason's memory and try to help Charlie.
"You forget all your rivalries. Everybody comes together. I don't know any other sport in the world as tight-knit as racing when it comes to that.
"Jason's a part of our race team, a big part of getting us to where we are today. We want to pay tribute, we don't want to ever forget and we won't."