O’LEARY: Hoosier Pit Pass
When Pete Willoughby and Keith Kunz formed a two-car team for 1997, Leffler and Jay Drake were selected as the drivers. With six feature victories, including prestigious events like the Hut Hundred and the Belleville Midget Nationals and a streak of 21 consecutive top-five finishes, Leffler captured the national midget championship.
Hired to drive for the premier midget team in the country, the Lewis squad fielded by Bob East, Lefflernotched four feature wins and eight more second-place finishes as he repeated his title in 1998. He added the Silver Crown title in his first full season, with nine top-10 finishes in 11 races.
“I’ve learned a lot about the chassis,” he explained as we sat on the wall at IRP so long ago. “How to make them go fast and how to keep the car underneath you for the whole main event and conserve the car, just little things like that. I’ve learned from numerous people and Bob East has been number one. I’ve learned a lot of things from Steve Lewis and my good buddy Tony Stewart has been a real big help. I’m having a lot of fun this year and I’m learning a lot and hopefully I can put it all to good use.
“I’ve always been around real good people as far as the mechanical side of racing goes. Last year I hardly worked on the cars at all and this year I’m back working on them. Bob East, he’s a thinker, you know. He’s a real, real racer. He has a wealth of knowledge and you just pick little things up every day that helps you out.”
Leffler had already begun to test an Indy Car for Fred Treadway. Not surprisingly, he said that the rear engine was a huge change for a driver who grew up on short dirt tracks.
“The last tests we did was really the first time I got to feel the car push and feel the car get loose,” he explained. “The aerodynamics of it and how the air really upsets it. And of course the speed is obviously the biggest difference. The car is made to go that fast, so it doesn’t feel that bad until you get yourself into a situation.”
Then, his third midget crown came the next season as he piloted the Lewis “Nine Car” to a dozen top-three finishes, with five victories, including the Turkey Night Grand Prix and the high-paying Summer Sizzle.
Leffler had been sharing Stewart’s house, actually using the bedroom that Tony had when he grew up in Columbus, Ind. By this time, he was on NASCAR’s radar and he competed in four Busch Grand National events in a car fielded by Joe Gibbs.
So, why was he in a sprint car on a Wednesday night?
Put simply, it’s because he was a racer. That is what he did. A dream had been to be able to field cars for younger racers, to help them climb the ladder, which he accomplished in recent years.
Now, without a full-time NASCAR gig, Leffler was putting bread on the table the best way he knew how, by climbing behind the wheel of a racing machine and standing on the gas.