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HAS SHORT TRACK RACING BEEN GIVEN UNFAIR SCRUTINY FROM MEDIA IN THE WAKE OF JASON LEFFLER’S DEATH?
By John Tiff, Jr.
Before I begin, let me say that the death of Jason Leffler last Wednesday, June 12, was a tragic accident and just another blow to the sport that is enjoyed by thousands all across the country every week. Every time there is a death in any sport, especially when the athlete competes at the top levels of their profession, there is a media storm over the dangers that come with participating. Many of the uninformed media members even go as far as to try to blame the sport itself or lack of regulations as a way to drum up readers or hits on their internet sites and unfortunately, local short track racing goes through this cycle way too much.
By now, everyone knows that he left behind a five year son who now will just have distant memories of his father as he grows into adulthood and that may be the real tragedy in this situation. Leffler knew the risks every time he strapped into the car, just as we do every time we sit in our own passenger vehicle, and died doing what he loved.
After getting over the shock of losing another talented driver, I began to read some of the articles on the situation on the “mainstream” media. There are some very well written articles out there with a lot of good information but then there are some by a few of the biggest news outlets that have really got me worried about the sport loved by so many.
The first article I read that started this whole thought process was found on the New York Times website, which is said to be one of the most well respected media sources in the nation. Written by Mary Pilon and Viv Bernstein, it was titled “Danger Lurks in Dirt Track Racing”. Seeing the title, I knew this article wasn’t going to put the sport in a good light. By reading further, I learned that was unfortunately right and the authors obviously do not follow the sport. To the uninformed reader, the article throws the sport under the bus in a big way and, although it never says it, gives the feeling the authors still believe the sport is run by, competed by, and watched by a bunch of beer drinking rednecks.
The authors would have one believe that there is no standard of safety equipment or regulations in local dirt track racing, which in itself is wrong. While the hundreds of sanctioning bodies or tracks don’t share the same standard of safety, there are standards. To be covered by insurance, there have to be standards. In New Jersey, where Leffler’s accident occurred, the state police regulate the sport and it is one of the most regulated states in the country.
The article also mentions the lack of the safer barriers, which are found at all the NASCAR and IndyCar tracks, at the local level. The biggest reason given for not having safer barriers locally was cost, which is partially true. But in all reality, are safer barriers at a quarter mile bullring really practical? The speeds at a majority of the dirt tracks don’t even come close to matching those at the major league level, and more often than not, the track announcers at the local level often “inflate” the average speed to give the impression that the cars are moving faster than they really are. There are definitely some high speed dirt tracks out there, especially some of the ones that race the 410 Sprint Cars that Leffler was killed in, but even those tracks don’t reach the speeds that some of the smaller NASCAR tracks can produce.
Then there was the mention of the wings that are used on Sprint Cars, which is quoted from another so-called expert. “They have this giant wing up there, and that is going to raise the center of gravity,” said Diandra Leslie-Pelecky, a physics professor from West Virginia University and author of the book “The Physics of Nascar.” “The higher the center of gravity, the less stable it is.” I didn’t study physics, but I can understand where someone with no knowledge of this type of car would believe this, and why wouldn’t they? This person is an “expert”, right? The reality is that the wings are made of aluminum and can often be seen being carried around the pits by one crew member. Also, if you look at a winged Sprint, they are low to the ground, and even with the wing the majority of the weight of the 1400 pound car is just 12 to 18 inches off the ground as the motor and the driver are the heaviest things in the vehicle. The wings also absorb most of the impact when flipping, and provide some major down force at speed which helps keep all four wheels on the ground.
NASCAR is not totally innocent in this either, as their propaganda machine seems to fuel the idea of how unsafe it is for its stars to moonlight. Often posting articles on the inherent dangers of racing at non NASCAR events and how team owners oppose the practice, NASCAR may be trying to protect itself. Why would you pay the thousands of dollars to one of their events (after paying the tickets prices, jacked up hotel and restaurant prices, and transportation) when you can go and see Tony Stewart at your local track for as little as 20 dollars?
Is racing at NASCAR’s top level safer? Yes it is, for several reasons. Since NASCAR lost its biggest star in the 2001 Daytona 500, they have been very diligent in making the sport safer. Yet on any given Sunday, there are only 43 drivers racing per week at the top level. At the local level, there are thousands of people competing at the hundreds of dirt tracks across the county which greatly increases the odds of someone getting injured in the local level.
Is auto racing dangerous? Absolutely, but isn’t that part of the attraction? Every sport has its dangers, and in fact, auto racing is one of the safest sports when measured by number of injuries per participant. Unfortunately, when someone gets hurt in motorsports, it usually isn’t a pulled muscle or “turf toe”; it is usually a severe injury which attracts all the naysayers to preach how dangerous it is.
As Tony Stewart has gone on the record saying, accidents happen and sometimes people die. People can slip and fall in the shower or walk into traffic and get hurt. The chance is there for any daily activity. That is life, and we shouldn’t stop living it in fear of getting hurt. I have yet to see an article titled “The Danger of Grocery Shopping” or “The Dangers of Taking Showers.” If I let my kids do half the things I did as I child in this day and age, I would probably be arrested for neglect in this era.
Is local racing getting a black eye because of the mainstream media coverage of Leffler’s death? In my opinion, yes. Millions of people now know about some track in New Jersey called Bridgeport Speedway because someone died there, not because of the racing entertainment it provides to thousands of race fans.
Let’s not dishonor Jason Leffler’s memory, or any other driver who has died doing what they loved by letting the misinformed masses change the sport enjoyed by so many.
This piece is strictly my opinion and feelings and do not represent any organization or sanctioning body.