Jason Leffler: A father's journey cut short by tragedy

Jason Leffler: A father's journey cut short by tragedy
NASCAR driver Jason Leffler in the garage at Rockingham (N.C.) Speedway last year. (Rainier Ehrhardt / Getty Images for NASCAR)

for Charlie Dean


will be wrapped up in forced smiles, compassionate hugs and faces in shadows wiping away tears.

He is surrounded by love today. Family, friends, daddy's co-workers and thousands and thousands of strangers who have yet to meet him. But it's not enough. It never will be.

What comforting words are there in the Hallmark playbook when a 5-year-old boy loses his father?

Jason Leffler died from a blunt-force neck injury suffered while competing in a heat race in the 410 Sprints division at Bridgeport Speedway in Swedesboro, N.J., late Wednesday night.

Leffler, 37, died what he loved doing most in his life. The love of his life is left behind forevermore.

Race car drivers make that uneasy pact every time they get inside one of those souped-up machines. They love this gig, the adrenaline rush of speed, competing in a frenetic chase to be the first in line at the end of a race. But their career choice can bring tragic collateral damage.

"Obviously Charlie is the one that we are all thinking about the most right now," said Tony Stewart, one of Leffler's closest friends.

Leffler — separated from Charlie Dean's mother, Alison East — was a single dad, a tough deal made tougher because of the days and nights he had to sacrifice doing his thing. He didn't make much of an impact on NASCAR's main stage, racing 73 times over the last nine years in the Cup circuit with no victories and just one Top 10.

Affectionately labeled #LEFturn, Leffler was proficient as an open-wheel racer and died in a non-sanctioned race featuring sprint cars, winged machines used in the World of Outlaws series. It was truly a "love-of-sport" infatuation: Leffler was competing for a $7,000 prize to the winner.

But Leffler's greatest legacy is his family, most notably Charlie. Jason shared his love of Charlie for the world to see via his Instagram account.

There are pictures of Jason and Charlie at the racetrack, of Charlie eating breakfast, Charlie rolling around on a rug with model cars, one of Jason taking Charlie to his first day of kindergarten, holding his hand in the hallway entrance.

There are also pictures loaded onto the Instagram account of Julianna Patterson, Leffler's girlfriend. "Morning cuddles melt my heart," she wrote under a picture that shows Jason and Charlie asleep next to each other.

But the one that crushed my heart was a recent beautiful picture of Jason and Charlie with a caption that reads: "Little Guy graduated from kindergarten today."


May is that time of year. I have similar pictures with a precious 4-year-old in my life who just graduated from pre-K.

The best thing about parenting is the journey. It is an evolving one, filled with the anticipation of what comes next.

It ends for Jason and Charlie with the graduation picture.

It's going to be a long road now, especially in the short term. Leffler had no life insurance.

"He didn't really leave anything [long-term] for Charlie," Amy East Cook, Charlie's aunt, told The Sporting News. "I don't think anybody knows that. I think they would assume he would have that."

The hope is that Charlie will be well taken care of by friends and his extended NASCAR family. A trust fund has been set up. Turner Scott Motorsports co-owner Harry Scott Jr., former Braun Racing owner Todd Braun and Great Clips CFO Steve Overholser will act as trustees.

Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski sent out a tweet Friday, saying, "I'm soliciting ideas here on Twitter for his son Charlie. How can we help him?"

Charlie will need lots of kindness and compassion over the next few days. Funeral services for his father will be held in Cornelius, N.C., on Wednesday. It brings to mind a poem by Langston Hughes.

Life is for the living.

Death is for the dead.

Let life be like music.

And death a note unsaid.

Here's to the beautiful music that all fathers and sons share.