BRISTOL, Tenn. — Whether they turn left or go straight for a living, racers belong to a tight-knit community.
So when tragedy strikes one member of the fraternity, ripples of sorrow touch the lives of everyone else who makes a living by driving fast. The stars of the NHRA started trickling into town on Thursday in advance of this weekend’s Ford NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol Dragway, and a lot of them were thinking of Jason Leffler, a man most of them never met.
Leffler passed away on Wednesday night after suffering injuries in a horrific wreck during a 410 sprint car race at Bridgeport Speedway, a dirt track in New Jersey. While every discipline of motorsports is different, the steep risk of participation is the tie that binds all racers together.
Funny Car driver Bob Tasca III said that the only solace he can take from Leffler’s passing is that the 37-year-old died doing something he loved.
“I’ve got four kids and (my wife) has asked me many a time, ‘What are you out there doing 320 mph for?’ I tell her it’s what we love to do,” Tasca said. “If that’s what the good Lord has in store for us, then that’s what he has in store. But that doesn’t make it any easier for that family and his son.”
Tasca pointed out that tragedy has touched the NHRA’s Funny Car division twice during his five-year career in the division. Eric Medlin passed away from injuries sustained during a test session in 2007 and Scott Kalitta died in a crash during a race in Englishtown, N.J., in 2008.
“We love what we do, but there is a lot of risk driving race cars,” Tasca said.
Top Fuel driver Clay Millican is such a big NASCAR fan that he said he named his son after Cale Yarborough. Millican praised Leffler, who made 73 starts in the Sprint Cup Series, for being a consummate racer.
“What happened with Jason is just terrible,” Millican said. “Obviously Jason was a racer’s racer. Ain’t no doubt about it. The guy drove everything he could drive and never seemed to have a bad attitude whether he was racing Cup or racing a sprint car.
“The guy was racing every night of the week he could. Racers are that way. It’s just a crazy thing. I know he has a young son, Charlie, and it’s just sad.”
Reigning Top Fuel champion Antron Brown has shown some interest in trying his hand at stock car racing, going as far as participating in a K&N Pro Series car at Motor Mile Speedway in Radford, Va., last month. Brown is also planning on turning some laps at Bristol Motor Speedway on Friday morning before heading across the property to Bristol Dragway for his first crack at qualifying for the NHRA event.
Needless to say, Leffler’s ability to transition from dirt track racing to open-wheel racing to the highest level of NASCAR earned Brown’s respect.
“When we hear something like that, we’re all heartbroken throughout the world of motorsports,” Brown said. “He was just a really good guy and a good contributor to the sport. He’s going to be dearly missed out there, but he’s going to be one of the heroes that’s never forgotten.”
Qualifying for the Ford Thunder Valley Nationals begins with two sessions Friday night followed by two more qualifying sessions on Saturday. Final eliminations are scheduled to take place on Sunday afternoon.