Jason Leffler, shown here on July 21, 2012, won two Nationwide races and one Truck Series race in his NASCAR career.(Photo: Tyler Barrick, Getty Images for NASCAR)
by Jeff Gluck, USA TODAY Sports
Another race car driver is dead, but that cold fact won't discourage a single racer from competing this weekend.
Jason Leffler died Wednesday night after a crash at a New Jersey dirt track, leaving behind 5-year-old son, Charlie, who friends said idolized his father. Leffler was 37.
Those outside racing might wonder what Leffler, who drove his only NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race this season last weekend at Pocono, was doing in Wednesday night's race in the first place. Leffler wasn't a superstar, but he wasn't a local short track racer, either. So why do drivers like Leffler risk everything to enter a minor league event?
"Because they are true racers, and that is what they do," said former Charlotte Motor Speedway president H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler.
And in the motor sports culture, being a "racer" is everything.
They do it for the love of speed, competition and the thrill of taking the checkered flag -- but they all know what could happen when they strap into a car capable of traveling at uncomfortable speeds and then push those machines to the very edge.
Drivers can't win without finding the line between maximum speed and wrecking, so they go right up to it and sometimes go over - with disastrous results.
But that's not a deterrent. Racing is in their blood, in their souls. Many would race every day if they could, no matter what kind of car or venue. The risks are part of the sport.
There have been no deaths in NASCAR's Sprint Cup circuit since Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash in the 2001 Daytona 500, thanks in part to safety innovations such as soft walls, head and neck devices and a dramatically safer car.
But the type of racing done on dirt tracks is a different story. The cars and tracks are not as safe - there are no SAFER barriers, for example, and the cars are more open -- leaving the drivers less protected. The risk level is undeniably greater.
"We all know the danger of racing," Sprint Cup driver David Stremme tweeted Thursday. "Our racing family will tell Charlie for years to come how (Leffler) loved him and how he loved to race."
Leffler wasn't the only driver to moonlight on short tracks.
Superstar NASCAR drivers such as Kasey Kahne and three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart, who grew up on dirt tracks in Indiana, race on dirt all the time. Countless others make it a hobby, from Clint Bowyer to Dave Blaney - who was in Wednesday night's race with Leffler.
Though Leffler couldn't capitalize on Cup rides with Chip Ganassi Racing (2001) and Joe Gibbs Racing (2005), he was a NASCAR regular until last year. The fact he could race anything opened more doors.
"Many drivers will venture outside NASCAR even after a long career to minor-league venues in potent and sometimes dangerous race cars," Wheeler said. "We have probably the only sport where an athlete does this particularly in the late shadow of a career."
Bad things can happen, yet drivers keep racing. They always will.
Sure, they mourn when one of their own is lost. But races go on as scheduled, filled with drivers as resolute as ever to keep pushing those limits.
It's the kind of tough-guy mentality we've heard from many NFL players throughout the concussion debate over the last year: Yeah, we know the risks - but we want to play anyway. The rewards - joy and fulfilling a passion -- outweigh the risks for them.
We don't yet know what happened in Leffler's crash, but the circumstances won't have an impact on anyone's decision to race.
Drivers simply don't spend much time thinking about death until forced to by an accident like the one Wednesday. But when they do, it's almost immediately accepted and then defined by them as part of the sport.
"We hop in our race cars each time, jeopardizing the chances of hopping back out," Camping World Truck Series rookie Darrell Wallace Jr. tweeted.
They still show up to race and have fun, hoping to hang out afterward and swap stories - sometimes deep into the night. There's little consideration of a bad accident happening, and certainly not to them.
"(Wednesday) night brought up the reality that we all as race car drivers try to block out," Truck driver Matt Crafton wrote on Twitter.
Leffler will be mourned for years. His family, friends and fans will never forget him; their loss will stay with them always.
But those same people will race on in his name.
It's what racers do.
Contributing: Nate Ryan
Follow Gluck on Twitter @jeff_gluck
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