Dave Blaney was racing at Bridgeport Speedway on Wednesday night when Jason Leffler suffered fatal injuries in a sprint-car race crash.
While he didn’t see what triggered the accident, Blaney did witness the end of it.
“From where I was standing — which was a long ways away — it looked like any other sprint car wreck,” Blaney said. “But you don’t know. You don’t know the impacts and what happens. So you stand there and assume and hope the guy hops out like 99.9 percent of the time, but … ”
Leffler, 37 and a former USAC champion and NASCAR competitor, died following his crash.
Outside of the racing community, it’s frequently asked how drivers can process a fellow competitor’s death and then jump in a car just hours or days later.
The easy answer would be that racers are simply wired differently.
“I guess I haven’t put a lot of thought into that,” Blaney said with a laugh. “I guess I don’t want to put a lot of thought into that. But yes, that’s the way it is.”
Blaney, 50, understands the allure of sprint-car racing. He currently drives the No. 7 Chevy for Tommy Baldwin Racing in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series after transitioning to stock cars in 1998. He won the 1984 USAC Silver Crown championship and the World of Outlaws title 11 years later. The second-generation racer from Hartford Township, Ohio, earned the nickname the Buckeye Bullet due to his proficiency in open-wheel cars.
Blaney says that he feels safe racing in all of his vehicles.
NASCAR stepped up its safety initiative considerably after the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001, but Blaney, who also owns Sharon Speedway, feels just as safe in a sprint car as he does in his Sprint Cup car.
“I have no idea how everyone else feels about it safety-wise, but I honestly don’t feel that style of racing is any more dangerous than this,” Blaney said. “OK, yes, you’re more exposed in those cars — open wheels — but these cars are running 210 miles per hour getting into the corners sometimes. I just don’t think it’s any more dangerous over there. It’s a little bit dangerous everywhere. So that’s what you deal with.
“For me, it’s what I grew up in. It’s what I learned to race it. It was my first love — if you want to call it that. I’ve been around it forever. I guess everyone has their own reasons (for continuing to race in sprint cars.”
While the casual sports fan might not ascertain all the differences between a stock car, as in Sprint Cup with Sprint being the title sponsor, and an open-wheel sprint car, those are dramatic.
Start with the weight. The new Generation-6 Sprint Cup cars weigh 3,300 pounds sans driver. A sprint car weighs 1,400 pounds with the driver. But the horsepower generated by the 410 (cubic inch engine) in the winged sprint cars, such as the one Leffler was racing, is very similar to NASCAR’s top division Cup cars. Those create about 900 horsepower.
Blaney believes that there are certain precautions that teams can take to improve the level of safety for the drivers. He believes “that almost all” sprint car drivers are wearing a HANS (Head and Neck Support) devices — or something of the like — and the seats are “way, way better than they used to be.” But he also says there is more that could be done.
“The seats (are) pretty much seats just like we have here,” Blaney said. “Not quite as heavy but same theory — same shoulder braces, head braces and everything. That part is way better than it used to be. No matter what type of racing, when there’s a wreck, you always look at what happened and could you improve what you got or do something to help protect yourself and try to learn.
“If you sat down long enough and looked at it, I guess you’d have to turn the sport upside (down) to do it. What’s involved? Can you slowly make changes? Yes. In that world it’s almost up to the teams or drivers or owners. If they feel like they need something on their car to make the driver safer, then do it. Don’t worry about, ‘Well, no one else has got it.’ It’s all kind of your own responsibility somewhat.”
Blaney will take the necessary precautions next week when he competes in five of the nine races of Ohio Sprint Speed Weeks. The 31st annual winged sprint car event, which was created by former Eldora Speedway founder Earl Baltes and other Ohio short track owners, will include Blaney’s Sharon Speedway.
If Blaney didn’t have a Cup conflict with Kentucky Speedway on June 29, he would likely run the entire schedule. Blaney still finds sprint car racing compelling.
“It’s completely opposite, really,” Blaney said. ”Short tracks have really lightweight, really fast race cars on a dirt track and short races — 20, 30, 40-lap races and it’s over. Every corner means a lot, There’s no, ‘I’ll wait and pass him the next corner,’ type of thing.
“If you grew up around it, that’s what you’re used to doing. If you’re a NASCAR fan and you go over there, it’s like ‘Wow, this is way different.’ It’s just a whole different way of doing things. But it’s quick and it’s fun and it’s exciting.”