When Frankie Kerr saw the remains of Jason Leffler’s winged sprint car on the Internet, his first impression was “it doesn’t look that bad.”
But it was.
Leffler, 37, was pronounced dead on Wednesday night from injuries sustained during a wreck at Bridgeport Speedway in Swedesboro, N.J.
Kerr, who raced open wheel cars “for 17 years to make a living” before he transitioned into a crew chief in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series, knows the track well. He not only raced on the 0.625-mile high-banked dirt oval, Kerr won there in both modified and sprint cars.
“It’s a fast racetrack, but there’s faster,” Kerr said. “There are pictures of the car on the Internet and it doesn’t look bad enough for someone to die in. I’m not really sure what happened – whether something broke off or someone else hit him, it’s just unfortunate.”
On Sunday morning, Kerr sat next to Leffler in the Drivers Meeting at Pocono Raceway. Although Leffler was a West Coast kid, he and Kerr raced against each other on short tracks over a decade ago.
“He was more of USAC (United States Auto Club) racer,” Kerr said. “He was concentrating on that tour like Jeff Gordon did. It’s like JJ Yeley. He still runs that kind of car, too.
"But Jason was a good racer. He was a young kid out of California trying to make it. He was a hard charger to be honest.”
Kerr said Leffler was excited about the upcoming sprint car race, two hours south of Long Pond. As Leffler detailed his schedule, Tony Stewart dropped by and crowed about his open-wheel exploits for the upcoming month.
For the last eight years, Kerr has called the shots from on top of the pit box. He currently oversees David Gilliland’s team at Front Row Motorsports. But the Pennsylvania-native would be lying if he told his fellow racers – or anyone outside of that elite fraternity – that the urge to drive didn’t still exist.
“It’s the greatest type of racing that there is, period,” Kerr said. “There’s no substitute for the thrill you get in sprint cars. That’s why guys come back to it. That’s why Stewart, Kasey Kahne and (Dave) Blaney continue to run these events.
“If I wasn’t so fat and out of shape I’d be running them too. They’re just that cool of a piece to drive.”
Kerr won “too many races to count” and several championships along the way including multiple King’s Royal crowns at Stewart’s Eldora (OH) Speedway. But as his son and daughter grew older, Kerr’s priorities changed.
“I wanted to do better for them,” Kerr said. “I always promised when I got to 40, I was going to quit. I didn’t get there, but I could see it was getting to be time. When I raced sprint cars, they weren’t nearly as safe. The seats have come a long way since then. I’ve broken my back three times in that kind of car (that Leffler was driving). The last time was in ’89 and I raced 10 years after that. The car doesn’t even look that bad. It just looks like a normal flip.
"But we’ve seen guys die in those wrecks. They’re violent race cars. The problem is you don’t think about how bad it is until someone gets hurt or killed.”