“I just want to cry,” Parnelli Jones said, and a moment later tears welled in the eyes of the legendary race car driver Thursday.
The tears were for veteran driver Jason Leffler, a Long Beach native who died Wednesday night from injuries in a sprint-car racing crash in New Jersey. He was 37 and left behind a 5-year-old son, Charlie.
As tributes from the racing community poured in for Leffler, who also raced in all three of NASCAR’s national series, his death was acutely felt at Jones’ race shop in Torrance.
That’s where Leffler as a teenager learned about race cars while working alongside Jones, whose accomplishments included winning the Indianapolis 500 in 1963, and Jones’ sons P.J. and Page, who also raced at the time.
Leffler dreamed of racing, so he happily swept floors, cleaned car parts and soaked up everything he could about the sport at the Torrance shop, with the elder Jones becoming his early mentor.
“He probably had more desire to become a race driver than we realized at first,” Parnelli Jones said. “That’s why he wanted to work on the cars.”
Over the years, Leffler stayed close to Jones’ family, which first got word of Leffler’s fatal crash when P.J. Jones heard about it from family friend Jimmie Johnson, the five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion.
“It’s just a dead feeling all over,” Parnelli Jones, 79, said as he sat at his desk in the Torrance facility. “I still feel that way. I can’t get over that.
“I just can’t imagine [Leffler] not being around,” Jones added. “We’ve never really been far apart.”
Leffler might not be familiar to casual racing fans and he never achieved the results or status of Johnson and NASCAR’s other stars. But Leffler was an accomplished driver.
Starting in the 1990s, he drove sprints and midget cars, lightweight but powerful open-wheel cars often raced on dirt tracks, and won four U.S. Auto Club (USAC) championships in those series.
(Sprint cars are not to be confused with NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series, which is named after the sponsoring telecommunications company.)
His record included twice winning the traditional Turkey Night Grand Prix midget car race in Southern California on Thanksgiving (in 1999 and 2005), a race Parnelli Jones himself won.
Leffler then moved mainly to NASCAR. He never won in 73 starts in the Cup series, and won twice in 294 starts in its second-tier Nationwide Series over a 12-year period. He also had one victory in 56 starts in NASCAR’s truck series.
Leffler also drove in the Indianapolis 500 in 2000, finishing 17th.
But when the 2013 season arrived, Leffler was without a full-time NASCAR ride, so he returned to sprint car racing.
“I think he was not happy doing that,” Parnelli Jones said. “He was happy to be still driving something, but I think he — I didn’t like it, I didn’t like the fact that he had to do that.
“I felt badly for him because somebody else didn’t pick him up in the Nationwide Series or the truck series or something like that.”
But Jones acknowledged that there are “a lot of young, talented racers” and that, “like in the movie industry or anything else, as long as you’re climbing that ladder, everything is good. But when you falter, pretty soon people start writing you off.”
Regardless, “We lost a great race car driver and a great friend,” P.J. Jones said. He recalled how Leffler “came to the shop every day” as a teenager, and “It was like an apprenticeship. For a kid that was 13, 14 years old, he was incredibly sharp about race cars.”
“I also remember how every day we would go to lunch,” P.J. Jones added, and Leffler “would order a cheeseburger with French fries and pour a whole bottle of ketchup on the fries. Every day.”
Leffler’s death came as Jones’ shop prepared for a previously planned barbecue for Friday, and workers were setting up tables and hanging checkered flags for a party that now had taken a solemn turn.
“It’s kind of a sad deal,” Parnelli Jones said. “I’m sure the topic is going to be all about Jason.”