BRISTOL — The bad news always hits close to home.
Jason Leffler, 37, was killed from injuries sustained in a 410 sprint car race at Bridgeport, N.J. Although the four-time USAC champion and NASCAR veteran was racing a different type of car on a different type of track, hundreds of miles away, NHRA drivers in town to race the Ford Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol Dragway know the dangers all too well.
Six drivers have been killed in the NHRA’s top three professional classes over the past 30 years including the deaths of Funny Car drivers Eric Medlen and Scott Kalitta, a little over a year apart in 2007-08.
“The only thing that gives you any solitude is that you’re doing what you want to do,” Funny Car driver Bob Tasca said. “I’ve got four kids and my wife has asked why I’m doing what I’m doing at 320 miles per hour. It’s what he love to do and what the Good Lord has in store for us. It doesn’t make it any easier for that family and his son.
“We went through it in drag racing with Eric and Scott. It puts it into perspective. We love what we do, but there’s a lot of risk in driving race cars.”
The 2010 season was especially tragic for the NHRA circuit. Top Alcohol racers Mark Niver and Neal Parker were killed in separate crashes and a spectator was killed in Phoenix after a being struck by a tire which came off a Top Fuel car.
Thankfully, Bristol Dragway has avoided tragedy in recent years although there have been some scary moments. Top Fuel pilots Larry Dixon and Cory McClenathan each survived spectacular crashes which saw their cars break into pieces.
Lizzy Musi lost control of her Camaro at an ADRL race in 2012 and it went over the retaining wall at the end of the track, narrowly missing a cameraman.
Any time cars race at speeds in excess of 100, 200 and 300 mph, risk is involved. Those of us around the sport know the danger is present, but often take it for granted.
“It just shocks you,” four-time Pro Stock champion Greg Anderson said. “I don’t know if we all think we’re invincible or what it is, but you don’t think it’s going to happen to anybody. It happens very seldom, but when it does, it shocks everybody.”
Johnny Gray, currently second in the NHRA Funny Car point standings, is a veteran of different forms of racing. His sons and grandsons race both on drag strips and ovals as well. However, Gray isn’t a big fan of the winged sprint cars like Leffler was driving.
“I feel sprint cars are pretty dangerous cars,” he said. “They’re going to turn over all the time. I never cared for the sprints that much. I more liked the late models.
“But it really doesn’t matter what kind of car you’re in, when you put yourself in there, you know you take that chance. Still, I look at it like this, ‘You’re safer in a race car than driving any street out here.’ If it’s your turn, it’s your turn.”
As NASCAR driver Michael Waltrip said, safety is always a moving target in motorsports. Since the deaths of Medlen and Kalitta and another crash which left star driver John Force hospitalized for months, numerous safety measures have made the sport of drag racing and in particular, the Funny Car division, safer.
Still as many of the racers noted, they know the risk they assume by participating in the sport they love.
“If something like that happens, I guess we’re OK with it because we’re doing what we love,” Anderson said. “If you can pick a way to go out in life, you would pick to go out doing what you love to do. You can’t dwell on it. If you did, you couldn’t do this.”