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Racer Jason Leffler died from neck injury

- dscott@charlotteobserver.com jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Thursday, Jun. 13, 2013

Race car driver Jason Leffler’s death was caused by a blunt force neck injury, a spokesperson for the Delaware (Pa.) County Medical Examiner’s office said Thursday.

Leffler, 37, died Wednesday night in an accident at Bridgeport Speedway, a dirt short track in New Jersey, about 15 miles from Philadelphia.

Sgt. Adam Grossman, a spokesman for the New Jersey State Police, said an investigation continues into the accident, which occurred during a sprint car heat race at the five-eighths-mile high-banked oval track. All racing-related accidents in New Jersey are investigated by state police.

Leffler was driving in a non-sanctioned race featuring “410” sprint cars, winged machines used in the World of Outlaw series. A 410 sprint car weighs about 1,300 pounds, has 900 horsepower and is capable of speeds faster than 135 mph. Leffler’s easily reached that range, according to track promoter Dave Adams.

“They get going really fast,” Adams said. “And this is a fast track. There’s no track like it.”

Leffler was wearing some form of a head-and-neck safety device, according to Adams, although they are not required at the track.

Grossman said Leffler’s car veered right as it came out of the fourth turn, hit the wall about a quarter of the way down the frontstretch, then rolled several times. It is unclear which part of Leffler’s car hit the wall. The track, which is not sanctioned by NASCAR, is not equipped with SAFER barriers, which are mandated on the outside walls of tracks on NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series.

Ralph Richards, a track photographer, was near the start-finish line as Leffler’s mangled car finally came to a stop.

“It had really taken a couple of good shots,” said Richards, who didn’t see the first part of the wreck.

Condolences continued to pour in Thursday from across the motorsports spectrum, illustrative of his wide-ranging and successful career from the open-wheel ranks to NASCAR, where he competed in the Sprint Cup’s Pocono race last week in Pennsylvania.

“Jason Leffler was a great racer and an even better friend,” said three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart, who faced off against Leffler in many forms of auto racing. “We raced together a lot, and our career paths were very similar.

“He loved racing, especially open-wheel racing, and that’s a passion we both share. To not have him around to talk about whatever race one of us had just run, or were going to run, will be hard.”

During recent years, Leffler had become most known as a doting father, helping to expose his 5-year-old son, Charlie, to the sport Leffler chose as his career.

Leffler’s Instagram account is filled with photo after photo of him and his son sharing time at the race track and off.

It remains a touching testament to the person Leffler had become.

“My thoughts and prayers go out to his family, especially his son, Charlie, who Jason loved more than anything,” Stewart said.

Leffler got his biggest break in NASCAR in 2005 with an opportunity for a fulltime ride in the Cup series with a new team at Joe Gibbs Racing.

“We feel fortunate to have had him as part of both our Nationwide Series program and of course in the Cup Series where he helped us launch the No.11 team with (sponsor) FedEx,” said Joe Gibbs.

“NASCAR is unique in that it really is one large family and Jason was well liked by all that knew him. His loss will be felt across the entire sport.”

While Leffler’s tenure in the Cup ride was short, he became a title contender in what has become the Nationwide Series, finishing as high as third in the series standings in 2007.

Leffler also provided Toyota its first win in the series at what then was called Indianapolis Raceway Park in Clermont, Ind., when he held off Cup veteran Greg Biffle.

“Our hearts are broken by the news of Jason Leffler’s passing and we extend our deep sympathy to his family,” said Jennifer Hanley, senior vice president for Nationwide Insurance.

“It was a privilege to watch him do what he loved as he achieved success in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. We will miss him.”

After losing his Nationwide ride after 2011, Leffler was returning to his open-wheel, short-track roots this year. He had run several World of Outlaw races, including a 26th-place finish at the Dirt Track at Charlotte last month.

Wednesday’s race at the New Jersey track was billed as “The Night of Wings.” It featured drivers from New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and well-known drivers such as Leffler from more prominent series.

Adams said the track’s regular racing program featuring modified cars is scheduled to run Saturday.

Since 1990, at least 390 drivers have died in U.S. auto racing accidents, according to an Observer analysis of track deaths.

Bridgeport also was the site of a 2011 NASCAR-related accident. Scott Fisher, a member on former crew chief Ray Evernham’s team in a “305” sprint car race, lost his leg after he was hit by a car on pit road. Staff researcher Marion Paynter contributed

Scott: 704-359-5889; Twitter: @davidscott14