BRIDGEPORT, N.J. — NASCAR driver Jason Leffler died after an accident Wednesday night in a heat race at a dirt car event at Bridgeport Speedway.
The 37-year-old Leffler, a two-time winner on the NASCAR Nationwide Series who had the nickname “LefTurn” above the driver’s side window on his race cars, was pronounced dead shortly after 9 p.m., New Jersey State Police said.
“NASCAR extends its thoughts, prayers and deepest sympathies to the family of Jason Leffler who passed away earlier this evening,” NASCAR said in a statement. “For more than a decade, Jason was a fierce competitor in our sport and he will be missed.”
After losing his NASCAR ride, Leffler had been racing dirt car events most of this year, including the 410 Sprint Car race Wednesday that promised a $7,000 prize to the winner at the 0.625-mile, high-banked dirt oval. On Sunday, Leffler finished last at Pocono in his lone NASCAR Sprint Cup start of the year.
From Long Beach, Calif., Leffler made 423 starts in NASCAR’s three national series, but won just the two Nationwide races and one Truck Series event in a career that began in 1999. He also made three IndyCar Series starts, finishing 17th in the 2000 Indianapolis 500.
Leffler’s last full NASCAR season was 2011, when he ran the entire Nationwide schedule for Turner Motorsports. He finished sixth in the standings that season and hadn’t had a steady NASCAR ride since.
Although he never made it at the NASCAR Sprint Cup level, Leffler ran almost the entire 2001 season for Chip Ganassi Racing and ran 19 races in 2005 for Joe Gibbs Racing in the car now driven by Denny Hamlin.
Leffler is survived by 5-year-old son Charlie Dean.
“Really sad for Jason Leffler and his family,” NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski said on Twitter. “Thinking about his little boy.”
Leffler won three consecutive USAC Midget championships from 1997-99 before following mentor Tony Stewart’s path into NASCAR.
Stewart-Haas Racing, owned by Stewart, tweeted: “Thoughts and prayers to the family and friends of Jason Leffler. A good man; a good racer. Godspeed friend.”
Leffler originally signed with Joe Gibbs Racing, the same team Stewart drove for, and ran the 2000 Nationwide season for JGR. He grabbed four top 10s as a rookie, and moved to Cup the next year with Ganassi in the deal that lasted only one season.
IndyCar driver Justin Wilson tweeted: “Another reminder of how this sport we love can be so cruel. Thoughts with his family.” Wilson included the hashtag “LEFturn.”
NASCAR driver Clint Bowyer also included the hashtag “LEFturn” in a tweet, saying: “So sad to hear about Jason Leffler. Was a wheel man and a fun fun person to be around.”
Family drives Rahals
Bobby Rahal found it difficult at times over the last six years watching son Graham driving for other open-wheel teams.
But the three-time CART champion and 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner wasn’t going to be a meddlesome father.
“There were a lot of times when I wanted to say something to the team. My tongue bled a lot,” the elder Rahal said. “There were a number of races where he was in a position … maybe win, and some of these strategy calls would come out and basically take him out of a chance from winning the race.”
Graham being on his own, with a chance to make a name for himself, was part of the Rahals’ plan all along before they were going to work together. The youngster won his IndyCar Series debut in 2008, after a year in Champ Car, and had six other IndyCar podium finishes before driving for dad.
Now on the same team this season, they are racing alongside another IndyCar father-son combo with a famous racing name — the Andrettis, Michael and Marco.
“It’s been great,” said Graham, at 24 already in his sixth IndyCar season. “Dad and I, for those that know us really well, he and I are much the same person. … I’m excited for what the future has in store for us together as a team.”
While it’s been a tough start — through eight races, Graham was 18th in points, four spots below teammate James Jakes — the Rahals know they are just getting started together.
“We’ll get there, and I have complete confidence in his abilities to drive a race car,” Bobby said.