Tony Stewart says Eldora is safe

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Jason Leffler's death at a dirt track in New Jersey on Wednesday raised safety questions about Eldora Speedway, which will host a NASCAR Truck Series event in July.

Like Bridgeport Speedway, where Leffler was killed when his sprint car went into the wall and flipped multiple times, Eldora Speedway has no SAFER barriers, which are required on ovals in the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Truck series.

NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp and Eldora Speedway owner Tony Stewart said the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln that invented SAFER barriers recommended the technology not be installed at the half-mile clay oval.

"We went over that track top to bottom," Tharp said on Friday at Michigan International Speedway. "There were some recommendations they made to improve the safety features of it. Those have been done. I do know the consensus recommendation was do not install SAFER barriers because it could reverse what you want because of the way the dirt is.

"We would not have agreed to race there if we had not gotten a sign-off by all of our safety people."

Bob Bielenberg, who headed the University of Nebraska team that visited Eldora and made the recommendation, was not available for comment.

Stewart said it was an honor to have that team inspect his track. He said if every local track in the country had that type of cooperation, it would make for a safer environment.

The improvements at Eldora, where NASCAR will run one of its top three series on dirt for the first time since 1970, include:

• Replacing portions of the infield wall with new walls that feature a design approved by University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility.

• The Turn 4 pit entry wall being further protected by energy-absorbing impact attenuators.

• The track retrofitting the pedestrian gate at the start/finish line and the vehicle crossover gate in Turn 3 as well as adding a new pedestrian gate on the pit wall -- all with designs approved by University of Nebraska.

• Pit lane being widened in two positions.

• A permanent helipad for emergency flight care being installed.

• An infield care center being brought in that meets or exceeds all of NASCAR's medical standards -- including a trauma center and critical care unit.

Stewart insisted it wasn't the track that killed Leffler, and local track owners are doing everything they can to stay afloat and provide the safest environment possible.

"Cut them slack," said the three-time Sprint Cup champion, who still drives in sprint car races and was a close friend of Leffler's. "Nobody wants to go through what happened this past week.''

Reigning Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski, when asked if what happened to Leffler gave him trepidation about entering his Truck teams at Eldora, said safety at local tracks in general are "dismal.''

"If trepidation means hesitation, I don't run those races for a reason," Keselowski said. "There are a handful of drivers that run at the local level. I don't very often. 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.

"That said, that's not to say that all tracks in NASCAR have it right, either ... Jeff Gordon so eloquently pointed that out a couple weeks back, that [some] could use some serious upgrades and face-lifts, but it's even 100 times worse at the local level."

Keselowski said he understands local tracks have financial limitations when it comes to safety.

"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," he said. "That said, I don't know what happened to Jason and maybe it was completely unrelated.

"I don't want that to be confused, but still the safety standards at local short tracks are out of control. They're dismal."

Stewart disagreed, saying safety standards at local tracks are "the best they've been." He added he's not scared to drive on any track, and believes that is the opinion held by a majority of drivers.

"The safety standards weren't what caused the problem,'' Stewart said.

Stewart said he was told Leffler's wreck occurred because a part broke in the car. The New Jersey state police who are conducting an investigation into what happened would not confirm, saying only that the investigation remains ongoing.