Loss of Jason Leffler a reality check

DEARBORN, Mich.-- Shane Hmiel was leaving a dirt track in Indianapolis following Wednesday night's opener of the USAC National Midget extravaganza when he heard Jason Leffler had been killed in a sprint car race in New Jersey.

He was hoping beyond all hope it was a mistake -- just like it was when some pronounced he had died following a horrific 2010 crash in Terre Haute, Ind.

It wasn't.

"Today sucks," Hmiel told me by phone Thursday morning. "Yesterday sucked. But Jason wanted to keep on going."

And so will the racing community.

Race car drivers may fear death, but they don't fear the risk of dying. It is a part of their DNA.

Hmiel was left paralyzed when his USAC Silver Crown car crashed during qualifying three years ago. His vital signs flatlined four times while he was in intensive care, and he was given a 10 percent chance of living.

But tell him he could race again -- at any level -- and he wouldn't hesitate to get behind the wheel. He actually did in January, getting out of his wheelchair and into a specially designed car for an Accessible Racing event at Rockingham Speedway.

"He would do it right now," rookie Sprint Cup driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. said of Hmiel during an appearance at Ford's World Headquarters in Dearborn, Mich. "He goes to as many races as he can. It doesn't scare him away."

Stenhouse, who stopped here with other Ford drivers on the way to this weekend's Cup race at Michigan International Speedway, paused and smiled.

"It's a weird thing," he continued. "Racers are different than most people. We don't have much fear. Even when things happen like this, we try to look at the positives that come from it and see what we can learn from it and make things safer for other people."

That's what happened in 2001 when Dale Earnhardt was killed on the last lap of the Daytona 500. The world of motorsports mourned, then immediately went to work on innovations such as SAFER barriers, the HANS (Head and Neck Restraint) device, carbon-fiber seats, a wider cockpit and other things to make the competition safer.

Competitors didn't change the way they drove until the improvements were made. They understand death in motorsports can be as random and unexplainable as it is when a tornado strikes an unsuspecting community in the Midwest.

They pick up the pieces and move on. It's why we often call them heroes.

"I mean, what would we have said if [Jason] had gotten in a normal car wreck?" said Hmiel, who watched Leffler drive one of his midget cars at the Chili Bowl last year. "Would we have said, 'Damn, those GMC Sierras, we've got to work more on those to make them a little better?'

"Sometimes we say that's part of life when you die in a street car wreck. Well, this is part of it when you die in a race car wreck."

That doesn't mean people won't search for answers. There may be cries for local tracks to add SAFER barriers, even though the lack of one at Bridgeport Speedway hasn't been linked to Leffler's death.

That, by the way, is unrealistic. If tracks that host Sprint Cup events say they can't afford to put the barriers on every unprotected surface, we can't expect local tracks that struggle to break even to do so.

And don't expect drivers to stop what they do in the face of tragedy.

Denny Hamlin suffered a compression fracture in his lower back earlier this year at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., when he hit an unprotected area, but he couldn't wait to get back behind the wheel after missing four weeks that really should have been five or six.

No fear, indeed.

"My very first sprint car race ever a guy crashed and got killed," Stenhouse recalled. "It's just one of those things. It can happen. You know it. You see it. You just go on.

"People get paralyzed on the football field. It's not going to make them hit less. It's not going to make them not hit as hard. It's just part of their sport, and this is part of ours."

Leffler's death may give drivers pause to remember everything that was good about the 37-year-old father of 5-year-old Charlie Dean, but it doesn't give them pause to compete at levels where they know the conditions aren't as safe as they have in NASCAR's top series.

Stenhouse raced in a late-model event in Pocono last weekend, and he hopes to drive in sprint car events when the opportunity arises.

"I just got a dirt sprint car helmet painted up the other day," he said. "It's sitting on my nightstand. People that love to race go race. Jason loved to race. Tony [Stewart] races sprint cars more than a lot of people who race sprint cars full time.

"You still have to enjoy life and enjoy thing things you do."

That doesn't mean throw caution to the wind. Many drivers such as Stenhouse and Stewart who compete in the lower series typically check out the equipment -- particularly the seats -- before considering to race.

But they don't consider the risk of death, do they?

Stenhouse watched his dad knocked unconscious and burned in numerous sprint car crashes. He remembers when they used to drive the cars without roll cages.

He never once considered not being a driver.

"We look at those guys and say, 'Hey, they're crazy,' " Stenhouse said. "People who grew up driving late models look at us who drive sprint cars like we're crazy. It's just a way of life."

And life sometimes is taken away -- randomly.

Josh Burton was killed in late May after what was described as a terrifying crash at Bloomington Speedway in Monroe County, Ind.

"I crashed in the same exact spot at that same exact racetrack the same exact way," Stenhouse said. "I landed over the ditch the way he did. We just got lucky. His didn't look that bad."

In 2009, Carl Edwards went flying into the catch fence at Talladega Superspeedway. His car was ripped to pieces. Flames were coming out of the engine as it settled back onto the track.

Edwards climbed out and ran across the finish line.

Earnhardt's crash at Daytona didn't look nearly as horrific, yet he was carried off never to return.

"This sport has a way of being really, really mean sometimes," reigning Cup champion Brad Keselowski said.


This sport has a way of being really, really mean sometimes. You always assume risk when you get behind the wheel. You assume a much higher level of risk when you get behind the wheel at a local track.

"-- Brad Keselowski

That's the risk drivers accept, whether it's at the top level of their sport or a smaller series like Leffler was competing in.

"You always assume risk when you get behind the wheel," Keselowski said. "You assume a much higher level of risk when you get behind the wheel at a local track."

Keselowski referred to the upcoming Ron Howard movie "Rush," about the 1976 Formula One season in which driver Niki Lauda returns from a catastrophic crash to face his rival, James Hunt.

"There is a great scene in the movie where he talks about the level of risk he's willing to take," Keselowski said. "That's really what a driver does. He assumes a certain level or risk with every move."

But it doesn't deter them.

It doesn't deter drivers at any level.

Some top drivers may be discouraged by their owners when it comes to competing at lower levels, but ultimately there is risk at every level -- in everything.

"That door on that semi [truck] could fall down on you and kill you right now," said Edwards, not intending to be flippant at all. "We're fortunate in NASCAR that the tracks have the money and NASCAR has the money to research things that need to be researched so we can be as safe as we can be.

"But there's nothing inherently safe about it. Like Kenny Schrader says, 'You put on a helmet to go to work. There's always risk.' "

As disheartened as Hmiel is about Leffler's death, he would do almost anything to take that risk again. It's a perplexing mindset, one that many don't understand.

But it's one that allows drivers to deal with death one day and face death the next without thinking twice.

"It doesn't change how we race," Stenhouse said. "When we go out there to Michigan, it's not going to slow us down any."