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.
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."
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.
Although ISC had lobbied for a public/private partnership with the state of Florida, the Florida legislature failed to act on a tax subsidy bill during its 2013 session. The bill would have provided the speedway with $2 million a year in property tax breaks for 30 years if officials invested at least $250 million in track renovations.
The company has now cut back on plans that would have included a redeveloped midway.
"If we're going to continue to be the world center of racing and host NASCAR's Super Bowl every year, we have to make sure we live up to that from a fan-amenity side and infrastructure side," Chitwood said while promoting the project.
Leffler fund established
An unfortunate postscript to the Jason Leffler tragedy is that he was a single dad who leaves behind a 5-year-old son, Charlie Dean. Leffler also had no insurance.
The reaction in some circles is that Leffler was irresponsible. But the fact is that liability and life insurance for racecar drivers is extremely expensive and only issued only by Lloyds of London. Leffler simply didn't have the money to spend on insurance.
But help is on the way, hopefully.
The Charlie Dean Leffler Discretionary Trust has been set up, with three trustees.
Donations can be made to The Charlie Dean Leffler Discretionary Trust, SunTrust Bank, 232 Williamson Rd., Mooresville, N.C. 28117.
The fund will be administered by Turner Scott Motorsports co-owner Harry Scott Jr., former Braun Racing owner Todd Braun and Great Clips chief financial officer Steve Overholser.
"All Jason would want now is for Charlie to know who his dad was, to be cared for and to know how much he loved his little dude," Julianna Patterson, Leffler's girlfriend, told the Associated Press. "He wasn't irresponsible, he wasn't careless and he wasn't reckless. He took every step possible because Charlie was his world."
Leffler's funeral is scheduled for 1 p.m. Wednesday at Grace Covenant Church in Cornelius, N.C.
Brad being Brad
I'm amazed by some of the indignation after Brad Keselowski criticized Rick Hendrick and Joe Gibbs for poaching some of Ford's top employees from Penske Racing and Roush Fenway Racing.
It's a good thing his owner has his back.
"I want him to be Brad Keselowski," Roger Penske said. "That would be the wrong thing for me to do."
Exactly. Not sure I follow the logic when some media types and fans are always screaming for more honesty and personality from drivers, then rip drivers for their honesty and personality.
"It's good to speak your mind," Hendrick said. "There's nothing wrong with that. It's good to have an opinion. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that."