Jason Leffler death reflects dirt track dangers

NASCAR deserves praise for the way officials reacted to safety concerns following the death of its signature star, Dale Earnhardt, in 2001.

But dirt tracks remain in a time warp, largely unregulated and a pit of dangerous mayhem for drivers chasing speed.

Jason Leffler, 37, became the latest casualty when he was killed last week during a sprint-car race at Bridgeport Speedway dirt track in New Jersey. The New York Times reported that Leffler became at least the sixth driver to die in a crash on a dirt track in the last 13 months.

The Delaware County (Pa.) Medical Examiner ruled that Leffler died from a neck injury he sustained after his car hit a wall.

Many NASCAR regulars — most notably Tony Stewart and Kenny Wallace — are huge fans of dirt tracks and spend as much time as possible competing in local events throughout the country.

But others won't, for obvious reasons.

"I'm not gonna say I never have, but I don't very often because they don't have SAFER barriers and they don't have the safety standards that we have here in NASCAR," defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski said.

"I'm pretty sure safety has taken some pretty big leaps forward since 1970-sometihng, and I think that's the issue facing safety at most local tracks.

"Obviously, it's not a simple issue. They have funding limitations that kind of plague that level, but I'm nervous for anyone that races at those levels because I know what happens if something goes wrong and those safety standards aren't there.''

It's a matter-of-fact situation involving economics. Racetrack owners at these local tracks can't afford modern safety equipment, Protection devices like a head-and-neck restraint system aren't required, and safety regulations that are standard in NASCAR and IndyCar aren't in play either.

"The safety standards at local short tracks are out of control. They're dismal," Keselowski said. "But we still go on and we keep racing because that's what we do as racers and we'll race here today and we'll race at the next short track on a Friday or Saturday night that doesn't have those things — someone will — because that's the love and passion that we have for this sport, and what makes it what it is.

"It's a shame that our industry is reactive, and I wish it wasn't. That's a much bigger piece than NASCAR — that's the whole industry of racing. We have a tendency to wait until something bad happens before we fix things, and we need to stop that."

Bu that will take money, and that is always an issue. Leffler died in an event competing for a $7,000 top prize.

"Of course, it's scary," Clint Bowyer said, "but we're all racers and we love to go to the race track just like he [Leffler] did and compete. It's what we've done our whole lives, and it's probably not going to stop now."

Read George Diaz's blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/enfuego or e-mail him at gdiaz@orlandosentinel.com

Daytona makeover

The proposed makeover at Daytona International Speedway got an official nod Tuesday when the International Speedway Corporation approved funding to redevelop the frontstretch.

The multi-year project will break ground on July 5, 2013, and is targeted for completion in January 2016, in conjunction with the 54th Rolex 24 At Daytona and the Daytona 500.

Costs are expected to run between $375 million to $400 million.

"In our 50 years we've never made this kind of investment," Speedway president Joie Chitwood said.