O’LEARY: Hoosier Pit Pass
STANFORD, Ind. — With Jason Leffler’s tragic death in a sprint car accident this past week, a lot of questions are being asked.
This column will not attempt to answer any of those questions. But, to help understand why Leffler was at the wheel of a winged sprint car in New Jersey on a Wednesday night, it is helpful to take a quick look back in time.
In August 1998, Leffler was embroiled in a tight point battle as he defended his USAC midget championship. In the middle of the 29-race season, a hot night at the very fast Indianapolis Raceway Park was in many ways typical of the tough midget competition at that time, as Leffler dueled with Tracy Hines, Dave Steele, Jay Drake and Ryan Newman.
Running second to Hines on the last lap of the race, Leffler pushed his Steve Lewis-owned Beast inside of Hines going into turn three, but slid up to the top of the groove after completing the pass. This opened the door for Hines to turn down and, hoping that his car stuck like glue, drive back under Leffler as they ran through the fourth turn. They crossed the finish line wheel to wheel, with Hines slightly ahead. The second-place result put Leffler on top of the national midget points.
As the crew loaded the cars and equipment on the frontstretch of the IRP oval, we sat and talked about his road to the center of the midget racing stage. Like so many of us, it began with his father, who was a close friend with legendary midget owner and mechanic Larry Howard. This not only kindled a love for midget racing, but Leffler said it also had a bigger impact.
“The number one thing he taught me is to listen to the right people,” Leffler said then. “He got me started in the right direction.”
He soon found some good friends near his California home, Parnelli Jones’ boys, P.J. and Page. Leffler said that he was over at their shop every day, after school. In addition to generally hanging out, he began sweeping floors and washing parts, to become a part of what they were doing.
“Just being around Parnelli, Page and P.J. really taught me a lot,” he recalled. “It was a great experience. It was the same shop with the super-team in the early ’70s, so there was a lot of old relics around there, a lot of good machinery. I taught myself to weld, I taught myself to use the mill, the lathe, and just picked up a lot around there. I’m a lot smarter because of it.”
Leffler talked about Page being his best friend and someone he looked up to. “He and I spent a lot of late nights working on his midget,” Leffler said. “His Dad taught him right. They had to do all the work on their cars. They were just racers from the heart and real hard racers. I picked up all kind of things, not to be intimidated by anybody and just things that you don’t learn on your own.”
At 19, Leffler and his father fielded their own midget in USAC’s Western States midget series. He ran half of the season’s races and earned top-10 finishes in half of those. At the end of the season, the national midgets came West for races at Ventura and Bakersfield. Leffler earned his first national points, finishing sixth and 19th.
In 1995, he made his first laps on tracks like the mile at Phoenix, IRP and Kokomo as he ran six national events in addition to part time with the Western midgets. His best finish was a sixth in the finale at Perris, Calif. Showing his tenacity in getting his career on track, he spent more time in the Midwest in 1996, running a dozen national races, and also earning the Most Improved Driver award with USAC’s Western States midgets.