For Clint Anderson, the June death of a fellow driver in a race hundreds of miles away sent shock waves.
Anderson of Belle Fourche didn’t know Jason Leffler, but the Black Hills Speedway driver knew of him because of his accomplishments in short-track racing before a NASCAR career beckoned.
Three days after competing in a NASCAR race at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania, Leffler died at Bridgeport Speedway, a half-mile dirt track in New Jersey, when his open-wheel sprint car careened into a concrete retaining wall and rolled several times during a heat race.
Leffler's death was a stark reminder that auto racing remains a dangerous sport, especially at the local level, where recent advances in safety equipment are considered too expensive by many drivers.
It's a dilemma that drivers at Black Hills Speedway and short tracks across the country face every week — do they spend their hard-earned money to make their cars go faster or on equipment to make them safer.
Tragedies like Leffler's death often raise that question anew for local drivers.
Leffler left a 5-year-old son, Charlie. That hit home for Anderson, who races sprint cars at BHS as well as at other tracks in the region.
“I have a little girl now. That changes things a little bit, the older I get. It puts things in perspective,” Anderson said.
A New Jersey State Patrol investigation of Leffler’s crash revealed that a mechanical failure in the front suspension likely caused his car to veer out of control.
At BHS on June 14, Anderson lost the lead on the next-to-last lap of a 15-lap feature to winner Randi Miller of Rapid City. After the race, Anderson discovered the same suspension pieces missing from his car.
“Five to eight laps before the end of the race, I noticed the car starting to handle a little funny. I just thought it was the track changing. I’m thinking that’s when my bar probably left. We’re standing there trying to figure out what happened and I’m looking down and it (the bar) is gone,” Anderson said.
“It kind of turns your stomach,” he said.
Queasiness and close calls often aren’t enough to get the message through for many drivers however. More often than not, the quest for higher speed trumps an investment in better safety gear in an ever-expensive sport.
The old adage is: give a weekly driver with tight finances a choice between buying a new set of tires or a better helmet and he or she will spend for the go-faster stuff almost every time.
“That pretty much hits the nail on the head,” Anderson said of the maxim. “It’s a hard decision to make. A guy’s got to be smart about it.”
If there are positives from racing fatalities, they usually come in the form of advancements in car design and safety innovations.
After World of Outlaws sprint car driver Kevin Gobrecht died after being struck by a flailing steering linkage in a crash in Greenwood, Neb., in 1999, safety companies designed a simple tether to hold the linkage in place in the event of a crash.
The well-publicized deaths of drivers Dale Earnhardt, Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin prompted NASCAR to completely redesign their cars, largely with safety in mind.
Among the changes mandated were a larger driver compartment, the use of full-containment seats moved closer to the center of the car and head-and-neck restraint devices to hold drivers’ helmeted heads in place.
Some of the new advancements have worked their way to the local level, although sanctioning bodies that govern local racing, including Wissota, the International Motor Contest Association and the American Sprint Car Series, often will mandate basic safety rules, while leaving use of other measures up to individual drivers.
For instance, the ASCS in its general rule book, only requires that cars be equipped with an “adequate” driver’s seat. The use of steering linkage tethers is “strongly recommended.”
Joe Jackmovich of Rapid City, a regional technical inspector for the Wissota promoters group, which sanctions four of the eight classes racing at BHS, said such vagueness is meant to make safety issues the responsibility of individual drivers, instead of the sanctioning body.
Mandating the use of certain safety equipment could result in court action if a driver is injured or killed in spite of using the required safety measure, he said.
“A lot of the use of the 'recommendation' is based on having to be concerned with litigation. You don’t want to mandate something that you’ll have to defend in court somewhere down the road,” Jackmovich said.
It's also not something drivers like to hear.
“You have to remember who you’re dealing with. It’s hard to tell us what to do,” Anderson said.
Eric Flatmoe of Sturgis didn’t need to be told to build safety into the sprint cars he races at BHS.
“If you skimp on the safety side, the only one you’re hurting is yourself,” Flatmoe said.
Flatmoe has used a Head-And-Neck Support (HANS) Device since he started racing sprint cars more than five years ago.
The HANS device consists of a carbon-fiber yoke that fits around the driver’s neck, held in place by shoulder safety belts. Small straps attach the full-face helmet to the yoke to keep the driver’s head from snapping forward in a hard impact. Complimenting the HANS device is a wrap-around headrest built into a seat, which limits side-to-side head movement.
Leffler wore a head-and-neck restraint, but his car was not equipped with a full-containment seat. An autopsy revealed he died from blunt-force trauma to the neck, caused by a head whip to the side.
“If it’s $1,000 to keep your head on your shoulders, it’s money well spent,” Flatmoe said of the HANS device.
The restriction in movement is a double-edge sword, Flatmoe said,
“Getting into the car isn’t a big deal. We have a process we go through. Getting out of the car in a hurry, it could be restrictive if it’s on fire. I guess if you’re conscious to be able to get out of the car, that’s the main thing,” he said.
Lyndon Bolt of Rapid City said a minor crash at BHS three years ago prompted him and his brother Grant, both drivers in the modified division, to buy HANS devices.
Lyndon’s wife, a nurse, purchased the device after he suffered a neck injury in a side-to-side collision with the late Travis McDonnell at BHS a few years ago.
“I slid the car sideways to basically hit him door-to-door. It jacked my neck over to the right and messed up the top vertebrae in my neck,” Bolt said.
Bolt said the extra restraints help in the normal bumping and banging in dirt-track auto racing.
“You can really notice when you have a HANS devise and a full-containment seat. You’re not sore the next day,” he said.
Street Stock driver Leonard Ferguson of Kyle learned his safety lesson the hard way in the season-opener at BHS in 2012.
Ferguson’s Chevy was struck broadside in the driver’s door by another car driven by Glenn Puckett of Kyle.
The heavy impact sheered off the protective roll cage posts and left Ferguson with a concussion and a broken leg.
He was back at the track a few weeks later with a new car.
“We checked out the welds and made it safe,” he said. “We welded it a lot better and put extra bars in for support. It did tear the tubing.”
Flatmoe hopes his safety gear won’t be seriously tested.
It’s kind of like insurance. It’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it,” he said.
“You’ve only got one neck,” Lyndon Bolt said. “And one melon.”