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Hundreds turn out to say goodbye to Jason Leffler

- jperson@charlotteobserver.com
Thursday, Jun. 20, 2013

Jason Leffler was remembered as a passionate race car driver, a loving father and a fun-loving friend at a memorial service Wednesday attended by about 800 people, including dozens of NASCAR drivers, team owners and crew members.

Jeff Dickerson, a longtime friend who also was Leffler’s agent, told Leffler’s friends and family members they have a more important task – more than any financial responsibility – when it comes to Leffler’s 5-year-old son, Charlie.

“We all have a responsibility to make sure (Charlie) knows exactly who he was and how much he loved his son,” Dickerson said during the hour-long service. “We must let him know about Jason as a man, racer and a father.”

Leffler died June 12 during a dirt-track race in New Jersey. An autopsy report revealed Leffler died of a neck injury he sustained when his car hit the wall at Bridgeport Speedway. He was 37.

Among the drivers in attendance at Grace Covenant Church were 2012 Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Kasey Kahne. So were Chip Ganassi and J.D. Gibbs, for whom Leffler drove on the Cup series. NASCAR President Mike Helton also attended.

Veteran Sprint Cup driver Jeff Burton said last week the safety measures at the racing’s highest level need to extend to the smaller tracks, as well.

Dickerson, a former dirt-track racer, said the track was not to blame for Leffler’s death.

“There was nothing about a dirt track that had anything to do with Jason’s death, except that it was at a dirt track,” Dickerson said after the service. “To have this call to take a look at the safety of dirt tracks is a little myopic, in my opinion. People always want to say why … and to blame the track is outrageous.”

Leffler, a native of Long Beach, Calif., was a veteran of open-wheel racing who made 73 Cup starts. His last Sprint Cup race was June 9 at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway, where he completed eight laps to collect the last-place prize money without risking damage to the car.

Leffler had two wins in what current is the Nationwide series and added a victory in the Truck series, but most of his success came in short-track, open-wheel racing.

“He prevailed with a silent intensity and focus that should be an inspiration to all of us, but especially to any young racer that mistakenly believes you can’t make it without money,” Dickerson said.

Kenny Crosswhite, a NASCAR chaplain who led the service, talked about Leffler’s “happy hair,” a spiky, faux-hawk that Crosswhite said represented Leffler’s feisty spirit.

Todd Braun, Leffler’s former Nationwide team owner, said Leffler liked to work hard, race hard and play hard, recalling how Leffler would work on his own midget cars but “abuse rental cars.”

Braun said Leffler recently had mentioned marrying longtime girlfriend Julianna Patterson at the start/finish line at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where Leffler ran the 2000 Indianapolis 500 and raced in the Brickyard 400 five times.

Braun and Dickerson both spoke of the change they noticed in Leffler following the birth of his son.

“He started to display a more sensitive side, dare I say a more loving side,” Dickerson said.

Crosswhite and others said Leffler’s son Charlie was not at the memorial service.

A spokesperson said Leffler’s family was appreciative of the outpouring of support.

“We thought today was a really great representation of Jason’s life, and we ask that everyone continue to keep his son Charlie in your prayers,” said Jessica Schaak of Spire Sports, the agency that represented Leffler.

Wednesday’s service included a five-minute video montage featuring photographs of Leffler before and after races alongside drivers such as Tony Stewart.

Dickerson, who originally met Leffler on the dirt-track circuit, denounced the idea that mourners’ pain would be lessened because Leffler died doing something he loved.

“I’m sure most people in here will say this is exactly how Jason wanted to go, and that makes it easier to handle,” Dickerson said. “But he wasn’t ready to go yet. He was having the time of his life racing these cars.”

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson

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