The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

June 14, 2013

Shawn Wood's motorsports column: Highs and lows in one week

Daily Item

---- — It was a week in motorsports that showed us just how great our sport is and how tragic it can be.

The week began last Wednesday when the rim-ridding style of "The Modern Day Cowboy" Daron Clayton of Sikeston, Mo., had the capacity crowd on their feet at Grandview Speedway in the opening-night race of the United States Auto Club's Eastern Storm for the National Sprint Cars.

Over the final dozen laps, Clayton and two-time defending sprint car points champion Bryan Clauson of Noblesville along with Levi Jones of Oley, Ill., had a race amongst themselves that the late Jesse Hockett would have approved of.

Clayton used every inch of the cushion to secure the win which was in doubt over the final few laps.

His style of racing had won over many central Pennsylvania sprint car fans a few years ago to the point where he sold out of t-shirts in one night!

I had the pleasure of watching Clayton and Hockett among others showcase their skills in the Midwest in the summer of 2006 when I was broadcasting the Sprint Bandit non-wing tour over the Internet. I could sense then that these guys had a special talent.

The race itself had the fans buzzing so much afterwards that they majority of them stayed and took in the ARDC 20-lap feature.

I think they were still trying to soak in what they had just saw, including the fact that Clauson came from 13th on the starting grid on the 1/3-mile bull ring!

"Grandview Speedway gave us a great race track, and we were just able to knife our way through," Clauson said. "Bob Miller is one of the best promoters we have and I'm glad he lets us race here."

Don't get me wrong, there is plenty of talent in central Pennsylvania between the 410s and 358s ranks that can come from 13th to the front, but a non-wing sprint car is a different animal than a winged 410 sprint car.

Two long-time non-wing drivers Dave Darland of Lincoln, Ind., and Shane Cottle of Kokomo, Ind., won the other two Eastern Storm features at Port Royal and Susquehanna Speedways, respectively. The event at Path Valley was rained out.

If you were unable to get to Grandview for this year's Hockett Classic, you might want to put it on the calendar for next year. It is safe to say was the best sprint car race to date in the commonwealth and it could be a candidate for race-of-the-year once we look back on the 2013 season.

On Wednesday of this past week, our racing community was rocked again by the on-track death of 37-year-old Jason Leffler.

Leffler's death comes a few weeks after 22-year-old Josh Burton was killed at Bloomington Speedway (Ind.) in a non-wing sprint car race.

Leffler, who made more than 400 starts in his NASCAR career and finished 17th in the 2000 Indy 500, came from the open-wheel ranks where he was a standout midget driver.

Among his midget wins are the Belleville Midget Nationals, Hut Hundred, Turkey Night, Copper World and the Night Before the 500.

Leffler was going to be the subject of a Friday motorsports feature in The Daily Item. I had spoken with him about a month ago as we were working on setting up a time to sit down and do an interview.

He called me just before I left for Indianapolis to apologize about not getting back to me sooner. He went on to say thank you for wanting to do an article on him. I told him not to worry about not getting back to me sooner, I understand that drivers have busy lives.

We never did get to sit down and talk as his schedule in May had him on the road while I was in Indy, but being a fan of midget racing and having had the pleasure of broadcasting the Belleville Midget Nationals before, I was looking forward to hearing about that win and his other midget accomplishments.

Although I was not in attendance on Wednesday at Bridgeport, I can tell you that the New Jersey State Police -- who govern auto racing in the state -- are very tough on their safety rules. They won't let a car onto the track until it passes their inspection, regardless of who you are.

I have often wondered what it would take to incorporate a SAFER-barrier type system into guardrails for dirt tracks. I am sure it would be very expensive, but if it would saves lives, it would be worth it.