Tony Stewart lost more than a fellow USAC champ and NASCAR competitor when Jason Leffler died at Bridgeport Speedway on Wednesday night.
He lost a friend. Someone he battled against, someone he roomed with and someone who shared his passion for racing.
“We grew up racing together and followed the same paths racing-wise,” Stewart said. “He loved nothing more than being behind the wheel of a race car. I was just shocked to hear what had happened and obviously it’s just a reminder of how dangerous our sport is, but we have had a lot of safety innovations over the last 15 years since I have been in Cup.
“It’s just proof that we will never get to the stage where everybody is immune to getting hurt in a race car. That is just the scenario that we are in and there isn’t anybody that gets behind the wheel that doesn’t understand that going into it, and Jason was that way as well.”
Stewart, who still competes in open-wheel racing as a driver and a team owner, has the task of remaining on the cutting edge of safety in the car and at the track. When asked what precautions he takes before strapping into a sprint car, Stewart, who has won in all three of USAC’s top divisions replied, “I am as careful as I am when I get in a car on a city street.”
“There will be more people that die in car crashes today than die in race cars today,” Stewart said. “It’s just part of it and I am one of those that believe when it’s your time, it’s your time. I don’t know the details of what happened up there but from what I have been told by people is that something broke on the race car. Whether that is what happened or not, I do not know.
“The cars I drive, I know the equipment. The sprint car that I drive is one of my own cars, and it’s prepared by our own guys. We have a full containment seat and we do everything we can do with the race car to make it as safe as possible. Just like we would with any other race car we drive. So it wasn’t the fact that it was a sprint car it was the fact that it was an accident and something went wrong and we lost Jason because of it.”
Leffler died of a blunt force neck injury on Wednesday night. As of Friday, the New Jersey State Police had not completed the investigation of Leffler’s wreck at the Swedesboro, N.J., dirt track just south of Philadelphia.
Stewart, who owns Eldora Speedway, one of the most historic dirt tracks in America, believes one of the greatest improvements promoters have made in recent years is posting safety teams at most facilities. At Eldora, Stewart installed a permanent helipad for emergency flight care. While no track provides a completely safe environment, Stewart believes that innovations are “the best they’ve ever been at this point.”
“There’s facilities that need some work and there’s facilities that put a lot of effort into it,” Stewart said. “It’s like getting on a city street today. Can it be safer? Sure. Do we have to go two lanes into oncoming traffic? No we don’t have to do that. There’s always things you can do better. Am I scared to go to any racetrack or feel concerned of not feeling safe at a racetrack? No. I think for the majority just about everywhere you go does a pretty good job and do the best they can under the circumstances they have to work with.
“The safety standards weren’t what caused the problem. I’d be grateful if you guys would understand that what happened this week wasn’t because somebody didn’t’ do something right with the racetrack. It was an accident. Just like if you go out and there’s a car crash. It’s an accident.”
Stewart, who bought Eldora Speedway in 2004, says it’s a challenge for short track promoters “to operate and just stay afloat” despite the role played in the development of grassroots racing. Following this unfortunate circumstance, Stewart asked for empathy toward his fellow track owners.
“Nobody as a track owner wants to go through what happened this week but it’s not due to a lack of effort on their part to try to make their facilities as safe as possible under the conditions they have,” Stewart added.
Stewart can appreciate the pressure since Eldora will host its first NASCAR sanctioned Camping World Truck Series race on July 24. Many have questioned whether the track will be up to standards before the event.
According to Eldora spokesman Roger Slack, the track has replaced portions of the infield wall with a new structure approved by the University of Nebraska Lincoln and the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility — the same group that developed the SAFER barriers. Energy absorbing impact attenuators have been added to the entry wall at Turn 4. The pedestrian gate at the start/finish line and the vehicle crossover gate in Turn 3 were retrofitted. And pit lane was widened in two positions.
For the Truck race, Eldora will provide an infield care center “that meets or exceeds all of NASCAR’s medical standards — including a trauma center and critical care unit.”
Stewart acknowledged that it was recommended that Eldora not install SAFER barriers.
“They did make recommendations and we made the changes accordingly,” Stewart said. “The way we looked at it was a huge honor to have the opportunity to have that group come to our race track and help us make improvements. It’s something that I’m sure if every short track across the country could have that opportunity it would make things better.”