DEARBORN, Mich. ? When they aren't competing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, it isn't unusual to find Cup drivers at local short tracks, racing anything from winged Sprint cars to full-bodied Late Model Sportsman entries.
The threat of injury perhaps much higher, the financial reward much lower. Yet still they race.
Jason Leffler's death June 12 in a 410 Sprint car at Bridgeport Speedway in Swedesboro, N.J. won't change that.
"I just got a dirt Sprint car helmet painted up the other day," Roush Fenway Racing driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. said Thursday during a stop at Ford world headquarters prior to this weekend's Cup race at Michigan International Speedway.
"People that love to race go race. Jason loved to race.
"You still have to enjoy life and enjoy the things you do. This is our job over here, and we love our jobs, but you still have to go do the things you enjoy."
Stenhouse, a two-time Nationwide Series champion, is competing for Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors for RFR. He said he "ran a Modified race in Pocono" while there for this past weekend's Cup race.
Team co-owner Jack Roush "has been very supportive of us doing things" outside of the Cup program, Stenhouse said.
"He knows every time I go dirt racing. They are aware of it. ? I think different owners look at it in different ways. They definitely have a lot invested in us; they've got a lot riding on it as well. But Jack's been very supportive of it."
Defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski said drivers assume risk every time they climb behind the wheel. Those risks increase, he said, when it's done at a local track.
"They are surrounded by less resources safety-wise," he said, "and they are surrounded by more hazardous conditions, whether it's the track itself, the cars they are running and the rules, or even the competitors. And that can be a very dangerous combination. Unfortunately, we saw that."
Then why take the risk at all? Why put yourself in a compromising position that could impact, or perhaps end, a career?
"We all know that racing is dangerous," fellow RFR driver Carl Edwards said. "Anything you race.
"We're racers. It's not something any of us want to think about because we love racing so much."
From 2005 through 2011, Edwards competed full-time in the Nationwide and Cup series. He stopped competing in Nationwide to focus on winning a Cup title, he said, not because of any concern over injury.
Tony Stewart often competes in World of Outlaws series events in addition to his efforts in the Cup series, where he is a three-time champion.
Stewart "races Sprint cars more than a lot of people that race Sprint cars full time" said Stenhouse Jr.
Kasey Kahne, Clint Bowyer, David Reutimann as well as several others often can be seen racing at local venues when the schedule allows.
"I guess it's changed somewhat over a period of time," Richard Petty, whose Richard Petty Motorsports fields Cup teams for drivers Marcos Ambrose and Aric Almirola, said. "It was one of those deals before where, when it came to a big race like Daytona, where you worked all winter (to prepare), you didn't want your driver running (other races) then.
"After that, you'd say 'OK. These guys have got to have a life, they've got to do other things.'
"Driving a race car is just like shooting pool or bowling or golf, the more you do it, the better you're going to be. Even if you've got different equipment, you're still going keep that edge.
"From that standpoint, we didn't have any issues with that sort of thing."
Leffler, a former NASCAR regular whose only 2013 national series start came just three days earlier at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway, was winless in 73 starts at the Cup level. He won twice in the Nationwide Series where he enjoyed a five-year run of top-10 points finishes.
He also earned one win in NASCAR's Camping World Truck Series, a 2003 victory at Dover (Del.) International Speedway.
"I was a huge Jason Leffler fan when I was racing my local dirt track because he was breaking records and winning races and USAC championships in the late '90s," Edwards said.
"Just an awesome guy, an awesome competitor, always a real solid guy that you could go talk to about anything and he'd shoot you straight."
His passing will give them pause, but it won't stop racers from doing what they do best.
"Hopefully this opens people's eyes to the fact that ? life is a mist, it's here and then it's gone," said 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne. "I just hope people will remember that -- that you're only here for a short time and what you do with that (time) is really important."
- Motor Racing
- Sports & Recreation
- Jason Leffler