COMMENTARY | I remember hearing the terrible news about up-and-coming fourth-generation driver Adam Petty after his fatal crash at New Hampshire in 2000 (This can't be happening, running through my head), and immediately calling my best friend to break the bad news to him at work.
I remember being the recipient of the call from him when the same sort of bad news came about Kenny Irwin Jr.'s fatal crash at New Hampshire later in 2000. (This can't be happening, running through my head), stunned it had happened again so quickly.
I remember being in the middle of writing up a story about Michael Waltrip winning the 2001 Daytona 500 when I heard my neighbor in the media area say, "I think Dale Earnhardt died", and later hearing it directly from the mouth of Mike Helton as he spoke to a silent room filled with the sport's dignitaries. (This can't be happening, running through my head), The Intimidator can't die.
And last night, in the age of Twitter, I remember seeing the terrible news unfold before my eyes about Jason Leffler. (This can't be happening, running through my head)
First it was reported he was in a bad wreck, then he was said to be in critical condition and we all were praying he would survive; and finally, Leffler was offiically pronounced dead by officials after his crash at Bridgeport Speedway in Swedesboro, N.J.
To put things in perspective, just Wednesday afternoon, Leffler - who won three straight USAC Midget titles in the late 1990s before moving on to dabble in Indycar and then compete across the various levels of NASCAR, including a stint at Joe Gibbs Racing in Cup and wins in the Nationwide and Truck levels - was tweeting out a funny picture on Twitter that was snapped on his way to the racetrack.
Then, about seven hours later. he was tragically departed.
He leaves behind a 5-year-old son, Charlie Dean, just days ahead of Father's Day. Even as someone who lost my own father just last year, I can't even imagine how a 5-year-old is affected by such a loss. Perhaps no one can truly comprehend that.
The racing community
It's a strange phenomenon in a way, but whenever something this terrible happens, it shoots a hole in the heart of everyone who is part of the auto racing community, from fans to drivers and everyone inbetween.
Jason Leffler raced for many years across NASCAR's Cup, Nationwide and Truck series (not to mention Indycar racing and other forms of motorsport), but I have had little to no personal or professional interaction with the man in my life.
I knew his name, I knew his history in the sport, but I didn't avidly follow his career by any stretch of the imagination.
So why is it that when I heard the news of what happened, that I felt like my heart had just dropped to the floor, as if I did know him well?
On one hand, there's the deeply personal realization that a human being has suddenly been taken from this Earth. It's just a natural human response to feel sadness for his parents, siblings, other family members; and especially in this case the young child Leffler leaves behind.
When we're prepared for someone to die, due to an extended illness for example, the blow is dulled a little bit. But in this type of instance, when a young man just 37 years into his life passes, it's a shock that leaves you shell-shocked. Why did it have to happen? That's the though we all were thinking when we heard this terrible news.
Another thing is that despite all of our bickering and sometimes bitter arguments, all of us who are involved in the racing community (drivers, team owners, crew members, journalists, fans, etc.) share a sort of common bond that brings us all together. This is our thing, what we enjoy watching and/or doing, and the rest of the world just doesn't get that. And that's fine with us.
When someone in our circle passes in such a tragic way, it's hard not to take it hard even if you never had any personal interaction with them. It's like losing an extended family member.
These are just my initial thoughts while the sting is still fresh from this latest racing tragedy. I'm not going to weigh in on what it means for driver safety issues or any political topic like that.
I'll just keep it simple and to the point, and say Rest in Peace Jason Leffler, and my prayers and thoughts are with your family and friends. You lived a great life, doing the job you loved doing, had a great sense of humor and the racing community has lost a cherished member.
Matt Myftiu can be reached on Twitter @MattMyftiu.
- Death & Funeral
- Sports & Recreation
- Jason Leffler