September 16, 1975 – June 12, 2013
1997, 1998, 1999 USAC National Midget Champion
1998 USAC Silver Crown Champion
1999 Copper Classic Winner
Two-Time Turkey Night Grand Prix Winner
Two NASCAR Xfinity Series Wins
One NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Win
How do you describe a driver who could be competitive in just about any discipline of auto racing in the car, and a fun-loving person out of the car? Aggressive, caring, determined, fast, fierce, friendly, fun, hard-worker, mentor, personable, strong, talented, and wild. Jason Leffler was all of these things and much, much more.
Jason’s career started in open wheeled USAC National Midget competition. There, the Long Beach, California native quickly achieved success earning three consecutive National Midget Championships from 1997-1999, becoming only the third driver in history to do so. He also would win the 1998 USAC Silver Crown Championship.
1997 was the first time that Jason competed full-time in the USAC National Tour. Winning the Championship in his first full season showed that he was determined to make a career out of racing. One of his team owner’s at the time, Keith Kunz, spoke highly of Jason,
“Jason, he was feisty, very determined. He first started driving for me in ’97 when I was working for Pete Willoughby, and we hired Jason to come and run his first National Tour. He came back and won the Championship that year. He knew he wanted to be a racecar driver. He knew that he was going to be driving racecars for a living. He had that mentality and made that happen from there.”
Fellow competitor and current Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Kasey Kahne also remembered the early days of Jason’s career fondly,
“I always kind of go back to the first couple years of hanging out, knowing each other. My shop was across the street from Beast in Indianapolis and we just became friends. Whether he came over to our garage to help us get our sprint cars ready or we were over there watching him work on his Silver Crown cars or Midgets. It was just a fun time in both of our lives. That’s always the memories I go back to the most. I have tons of memories of the NASCAR stuff as well, but that was where it all started. The way I remember him the best was those couple of years there.”
Some of the major races that Jason won in those early years included the Hut Hundred and Belleville Nationals in 1997, as well as the 1999 Copper Classic. He also won the 1999 running of the Turkey Night Grand Prix, an event he would win again in 2005.
Jason also tried his hand at the presitigious Chili Bowl Nationals. In 1998 he won the pole but would finish second to Sammy Swindell. Leffler never won the Chili Bowl Nationals, finishing in the top-five once more in 2004. He also qualified for the storied Indianapolis 500 in 2000. Jason qualified 17thand would finish the race in 17th, three laps behind the winner, Al Unser, Jr.
One of Jason’s eventual teammates, Justin Allgaier, pointed to this as a highlight in his career,
“I don’t know that there’s one thing, but I would say from just knowing Jason, I would think his open wheel career, especially before he made the NASCAR ranks is probably one of (his biggest accomplishments) for me. I can remember, and I wasn’t really a kid at that point, watching him accomplish the things that he was accomplishing. It is pretty incredible. I think that those were, to me, his defining moments of his career. He has a list of credentials a mile long. But, the open wheel days, what he could do in a car, there are very few (drivers) that could ever replicate, and that was a highlight of his career.”
Around the same time, Jason began his NASCAR career, driving the No. 18 MBNA Pontiac for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) in the NASCAR Busch Grand National (now Xfinity) Series. In 2001, he made the jump to the NASCAR Winston Cup Series (now Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series), driving for Chip Ganassi Racing in the No. 01 Cingular Wireless Dodge Intrepid. It was with Ganassi that Jason would score his only top-10 finish (at Homestead) and his only pole position in the Premier Series at the inaugural race at Kansas Speedway.
Following his stint with Chip Ganassi, Jason took opportunity after opportunity. He drove for Ultra Motorsports in the NASCAR Craftsman (now-Camping World) Truck Series, finishing fourth in points in 2002 and winning at Dover International Speedway in 2003. Jason returned to the Cup and Busch Series with Haas CNC Racing, winning at Nashville Superspeedway in the Busch Series in 2004.
Jason never burned any bridges in his relationships with teams and team owners. He returned to JGR in 2005 for the newly formed No. 11 FedEx team. 21-races into a tough season, he was replaced with Terry Labonte, J.J. Yeley, and ultimately Denny Hamlin who still drives the No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry to this day.
Hamlin credits Jason with helping to build the No. 11 car from the ground up, in effect helping it become what it is today at JGR,
“I think Jason really is someone that helped build the 11 car at JGR. Although the results weren’t there, it’s always hard with a new team to get up to speed. He was coming from a new discipline and someone that caught Tony’s (Stewart) eye, and I think his legacy is as one of those guys that made the transition from sprint cars to NASCAR like Tony, Kasey (Kahne), Kyle (Larson) and others.”
Jason moved back down to the Busch Series, joining Braun Racing, where he had filled-in for a suspended Shane Hmiel. This quickly became the most stable portion of Jason’s NASCAR career. He would remain with the team in every iteration of the team (which merged and changed ownership several times) from mid-2005 through the end of the 2011 season.
It was with Braun Racing that Jason made NASCAR and Toyota Racing history. At Indianapolis Raceway Park in 2007, he muscled his way past race-leader Greg Biffle on the final restart. Jason lead the final three laps in the No. 38 Great Clips Toyota Camry to earn the manufacturer’s first victory in the Busch Series. That victory was the first by a foreign manufacturer in the top-two NASCAR National Series since Al Keller won in a Jaguar in 1954.
To Hamlin, this was Jason’s biggest accomplishment in NASCAR, “From a NASCAR standpoint, winning that first XFINITY race for Toyota was huge. Toyota came in as a new manufacturer and struggled to find their footing. Jason was racing for Todd (Braun), and got their first win at IRP. That was cool.”
However, this would be the final time in which Jason would reach victory lane in NASCAR competition. Although he was always a threat to win, earning 31 top-five and 85 top-10 finishes with Braun Racing alone, luck would never be on his side. At Road America in 2011, Jason ran out of fuel while leading under caution with half a lap to go. On four other occasions, Jason finished runner-up.
2011 marked the final full-season for Jason in NASCAR competition. In 2012, Jason drove the No. 18 Dollar General Toyota Tundra for Kyle Busch Motorsports. He earned one top-five and six top-10 finishes in nine races for the team. Jason once again experienced heart-break while running up front early at Rockingham Speedway. In a truck that seemed to be a favorite to win, and engine failure ended his day after just 19 laps.
In the final year of his career, Jason took rides with under-funded teams that were often considered to be ‘start-&-park’ operations. The prevailing theory was to keep his name in the garage instead of ‘staying out of sight and out of mind.’ At the same time, Jason was competing on dirt in various series in Sprint Cars.
Jason’s final NASCAR start came at Pocono Raceway for Humphrey Smith Racing. It lasted eight laps. Three days later, tragedy struck. Jason was competing in a Sprint Car race at Bridgeport Speedway in Logan Township, New Jersey. A front suspension failure sent his car into the wall, flipping down the track. Jason was killed instantly.
The NASCAR community rallied around Jason’s son, Charlie Dean Leffler, to honor the friend they lost. Hamlin ran a tribute car, painted like the one Jason drove for JGR in 2005. Allgaier, a former teammate of Jason, also drove a tribute car that mimicked Jason’s Great Clips car, and Kyle Larson replaced his name on the name rail of his car with Jason’s nickname “LEFturn.” Kahne and others made memorabilia with Jason’s nickname emblazoned on it.
“Great Clips was a big part of it,” Kahne explained. “Doug Stringer, there was a lot of people that were a big part of it. I did the hats… my Mom did the hats, it was our idea. She did them and went crazy with them and raised tons of money because of the fans supported it and supported Charlie and Jason Leffler, and Alison, and just the whole family. That was really, really neat to see the fans do that. It was also neat to see Great Clips and other people put an effort in to support Charlie and give back to what Jason did for all of us.”
“There were a lot of reasons as to how all of that came together,” Allgaier reflected on the tribute car, “Probably one of the coolest cars that I’ve driven. He was just somebody that I got along with really well and was fortunate enough to be great teammates with, but also friends with. I’m bummed that we didn’t run better that day, but all in all, it’s still a really cool car that I’ll never forget.”
Jason’s legacy still lives on today. He was inducted into the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 2003. Jason’s name will forever be in the record books as the first Xfinity Series winner for Toyota. And maybe most importantly as Kahne explained, his memory will live on with others, and with his son, Charlie,
“I remember him well as a person, working out at KKR (Kasey Kahne Racing) and our group there, bringing his son Charlie with him to work out, or just hanging out with him, bringing him to the shop, when he had him on days. Family, friends, and racing, all of it together, but I would say, probably his happiest moment, to me, was just having his son with him.”
Several in the NASCAR and motorsports community do try to check in on Charlie to support him. Allgaier, who was close with Jason, does his best to help Charlie know that although no one can replace his Dad, that he has plenty of support,
“I try to keep up as much as I can. I haven’t talked to him lately. Obviously, there is a lot of people that have tried to figure out how they can help over time. Hopefully, at some point, as he gets older, he realizes how many people are there for him and care for him. Unfortunately, there is nobody that can ever replace Dad, at the end of the day, that’s just the nuts and bolts of it. He’s definitely got a lot of support from a lot of people if he needs it, and I hope he relies on that.”
Loud Pedal Productions, a regular documentarian and historian of dirt track racing in the Midwest and other parts of the country followed Jason during the 2012 running of the Turkey Night Grand Prix. Loud Pedal posted a video honoring Jason, using footage from that night, shortly after his death: