The irony he was sponsored by Great Clips didn’t escape Jason Leffler. "Makes sense to me. Young and good-looking, I’m the logical choice," he deadpanned before breaking into laughter back in 2010.
Leffler’s red hair with the Billy Idol spike job fit his personality because he was a racer with a flair for standing out in a crowd despite being vertically challenged.
"We called him Elrod for the little kid on the Jetsons and Mini-Me because he was the world’s shortest race driver," said P.J. Jones. "But, brother, he always stood up in the seat when he was driving and he was a hard-charger who never took any (crap) from anyone. He was always on the gas."
The 5-foot-4 Californian who lost his life in a sprint-car accident Wednesday night always ran with the big boys and was never intimidated by the competition or the stage he was performing on.
Matter of fact, he could be a downright bully — all 150 pounds of him.
"Oh man, he never hesitated to give you the bumper if you were holding him up, which I did quite often," recalled Dario Franchitti of his Nationwide Series experience in 2008. "He might have been as aggressive a driver as I ever met, and he taught me a few things. But he was the nicest guy outside of his race car."
Leffler learned that aggression in USAC, where he excelled on the bullrings and short tracks in midgets — winning three consecutive championships from 1997-99 and also the USAC Silver Crown title.
"I met him when he was 12 or 13. He came over to our shop and never left," said Jones, who along with brother Page were the West Coast hot shots in midgets at Ascot Park in the late ’80s and early ’90s. "He was a helluva mechanic and he worked on our midgets all the time. We ate lunch together every day and he had a cheesburger, french fries and a bottle of ketchup.
"Bascially, he became the third Jones brother and then after working on our cars he decided he wanted to be a driver. Hell, he didn’t start driving until he was 15 or 16 but he was fast learner."
Six years after starting, Leffler was a USAC midget champ at age 22 and those were the days when being a front-runner in USAC was a direct ticket to NASCAR. He followed Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne to stock car country in 2000 and instantly won three pole positions in the Nationwide Series.
That got Jason a seat in Chip Ganassi’s Cup team for 2001 but it wasn’t a top-tier operation and he struggled before being replaced by Jimmy Spencer. That set off a car and series and car-hopping odyssey that pretty much defined the next decade. Fast in the truck series and with a couple wins in Nationwide for different teams, Leffler got the nod from Joe Gibbs in 2005 to wheel the FedEx Special in the Sprint Cup Series. It ended after 19 races and that was pretty much it as far as getting another shot in NASCAR’s top rung.
"We talked about it a lot, and I just don’t think Jason was mentally ready for Cup. He just didn’t seem to have the confidence he usually carried," continued Jones, whose success in sports cars for Dan Gurney led him to Indy cars and NASCAR’s three divisions, as well.
Like Sam Hornish Jr., it seemed like Jason found a home in Nationwide. He scored Toyota’s initial NASCAR win in 2007 at Indianapolis Raceway Park and was rewarded with a ride in the Toyota Great Clips car from 2009-2011 — sharing the seat with Kahne. He was back in trucks in 2012 along with some one-offs in Cup but had no stomach for the start and park circuit.
"I know it’s decent money but I didn’t start doing this to pull in after a couple laps, so I’ll just go back to short tracks in midgets and sprints," said Leffler last January at the Chili Bowl.
His lone NASCAR start this year was last weekend at Pocono in that exact scenario ("He probably needed a quick 10 grand," reckoned Jones, "plus, he was already in Pennsylvania.") in between running the All-Star sprint series.
P.J. talked to his old friend a few days before his fatal crash.
"We were joking around and I said, ‘You’re getting your ass kicked,’ and he laughed and said, ‘Yeah, it’s not that easy in these winged cars,’" said Jones. "You know he’d never driven a winged sprinter before this year but he was getting better. He was all excited because he’d finished right behind Sammy Swindell in a heat race."
Jones didn’t think Leffler missed the big time all that much, other than the money it could bring.
"He was having fun, taking Charlie (his 5-year-old) son with him to the races and they had started karting. They were having a blast," Jones said. "I’m headed to Colorado with my two boys to go karting and I keep thinking of Mini Me and Charlie. It just tears your heart out."
USAC HELPING CHARLIE
Leffler had no life insurance, but longtime racing promoter/publicist Bill Marvel has started the Charlie Dean Leffler Fund through the United States Auto Club’s Benevolent Foundation.
Marvel announced Saturday that USAC’s Benevolent Foundation, which has been supporting and aiding deceased drivers, mechanics and their families for six decades, will match any donation dollar-for-dollar up to $25,000. After the $50,000 mark is reached, all donations will be added to it.
In addition, Marvel is setting up a PayPal account but it won’t be operable until Tuesday.
Donations should be sent to USAC Benevolent Foundation, 4910 West 16th Street, Indianapolis, Indiana, 46224. Inquiries should be emailed to bill marvel@gmail.