Opinion: Jason Leffler’s death serves stark reminder

USA TODAY Sports

Jason Leffler’s death is a reminder of the ever-present danger drivers put themselves in.

"Auto racing, bull fighting, and mountain climbing are the only real sports ... all others are games."

Most of the time, racing fans and drivers take pride in Ernest Hemingway's definition of sports. But when tragedy strikes like it did Wednesday when Jason Leffler lost his life -- when we're reminded that racing is not just dangerous but deadly -- it's impossible not to pause and grieve.

Leffler was immensely liked in racing circles due to his easy-going personality and fun spirit.

Although never a superstar in NASCAR's premier series, he was talented -- a two-time winner in the Nationwide Series and one-time winner in the Truck Series. Before entering NASCAR full-time, he was a three-time USAC Midget champion.

But lacking a full-time ride in NASCAR, he returned to his roots and was running various sprint car races around the country. One of which was Wednesday at Bridgeport Speedway when, for a reasons still unknown, his car struck the Turn 4 wall and began flipping violently.

At his core, Leffler was a racer, and with that comes the knowledge that climbing behind the wheel put his life in peril. Although racing is much safer now than it has been at any point in history, it still comes with inherent risks.

That NASCAR hasn't had a fatality in any of its three national touring series since 2001 speaks to the emphasis the sanctioning body has put on maximizing safety for its participants. Head and neck restraints as well as fully enclosed helmets are now mandatory. And while not installed everywhere, SAFER barriers now cover a large portion of the walls surrounding the racing surface.

Leffler's accident, however, didn't occur during a NASCAR event. It took place during a small dirt track event in New Jersey at a facility where safety standards were far less than one is accustomed to seeing at a NASCAR-sanctioned race.

But no matter what safety measures are put in place, unforeseen tragedies can and will continue to happen. It's the nature of the sport.

Leffler, more than most, knew this. Prior to the 2001 season, team owner Chip Ganassi tabbed Leffler to drive one of his Cup cars previously occupied by Kenny Irwin Jr., who was killed in July 2000 in a practice incident at New Hampshire Motor Speedway when his throttle struck going into Turn 3. Leffler was also in the field the day Dale Earnhardt perished in the 2001 Daytona 500.

The fact that Leffler knew and accepted the risks doesn't make his death any less tragic. But this is a sport that deals with tragedy by carrying on, and this weekend's NASCAR race at Michigan International Speedway will proceed as scheduled -- not because those involved aren't grieving, but because this is what they do.

Life and the race forever go on.

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