Clinton, S.C., Thursday, June 13, 2013, 10:05 a.m.
A race-car driver at 37 is a veteran. He has experience. He has seen more than his share of triumph and tragedy.
A man at 37 is just getting started. When I heard of Jason Leffler’s death last night, one of my first thoughts was that I couldn’t believe he was 37, but then I remembered that my high-school teammates and I were winning a state football championship the year Leffler was born. It didn’t make me feel old. It made me realize Leffler was young. I looked at photos of him with his 5-year-old son. I thought of conversations in the garage. I thought of Leffler’s unruly red hair. I thought of songs by John Prine and Tom T. Hall, my go-to guys when I’m feeling philosophical.
While I thought of the words of others, I struggled to come up with ones of my own.
Lots of hands are wringing this morning. Why was he driving in one of those sprint-car races? Those things are dangerous.
Why does a man (or a woman) climb into a race car in the first place? Those of us who follow these crazy people live vicariously through them, but it’s not the same as being them. We play “simulation” games in which the consequence of running into a wall is that the game needs to be reset and the race restarted. Ask your kids. Those games do everything but hurt, whether it’s a wall, a bone-crushing tackle or a beanball. They allow us the imagination but not the reality.
Reality is harsh.
Leffler came along when NASCAR teams were signing up sprint-car drivers as if they were fruit pickers at some barren crossroads. For every Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne, there was another name, some shooting star from USAC, who disappeared quickly, at least in NASCAR, and was never heard from again. Then there were those who occupied the middle ground, those who “stuck” in NASCAR but never rose to the top. They had their moments. They migrated to NASCAR because, at the time, it seemed as if everyone did.
They never forgot where they came from, though, and that’s one of the reasons Leffler was driving a 410 sprint car at Bridgeport Speedway in southern New Jersey on a Wednesday night.
Now, in the imaginary chorus that always accompanies tragedy, everyone wails that something has to be done so that no tragedy like this will ever happen again. Good will come of this, but it will be only fleeting. Men and women will test the horizon again and again until, eventually, another will tumble out into eternal space.
As my mother is fond of saying when assessing the tribulations of our own wildly dysfunctional family, “We all crazy.”