IRL: Leffler learning Fast

LEFFLER PROVES TO BE QUICK STUDENT DURING IRL APPRENTICESHIP INDIANAPOLIS, Sept. 23, 1998 - For Jason Leffler, the memories of his initial laps in a Pep Boys Indy Racing League missile remain fresh, even after a few months. ...

LEFFLER PROVES TO BE QUICK STUDENT DURING IRL APPRENTICESHIP

INDIANAPOLIS, Sept. 23, 1998 - For Jason Leffler, the memories of his initial laps in a Pep Boys Indy Racing League missile remain fresh, even after a few months.

"My first impressions were of the speed," said Leffler, reigning USAC midget national champion and IRL hopeful. "You know right away that you're going really, really fast. That was pretty different."

Different, indeed, from anything Leffler had done to that point in his bright young career. Just 23 years old and schooled aboard midgets, spring cars and Silver Crown machines on short tracks across America, Leffler signed as a test driver for Treadway Racing's Pep Boys Indy Racing League team earlier this summer. He had never been on a track bigger than a fairgrounds dirt mile when he took to the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway for a Firestone tire test in mid-June. It was his maiden voyage in an Indy-style car.

In that two-day session, Leffler reached speeds of more than 221 mph, well over 100 mph faster than the pace he attains at some of the bullrings he visits on a weekly basis driving Silver Crown cars for Bob East and midgets for Steve Lewis.

"The hardest part of driving the Indy car was getting used to the g-forces in the corners," said Leffler, from Long Beach, Calif. "You get thrown over to the right side of the car. Your head lays against the headrest, and you can't pull it away even if you try to, and you have to try hard to keep your left foot from sliding over and banging into your right foot."

But he adapted quickly.

Not long after the Texas outing, Leffler got another taste of the high-speed Pep Boys Indy Racing League action by taking part in two-day Firestone programs at the Atlanta Motor Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway. All told, Leffler has amassed what he figures is "a little over a thousand miles" in the cockpit of Fred Treadway's Sprint PCS-RadioShack-QUALCOMM G Force/Aurora/Firestone, and all of that seat time has begun to pay off in terms of a growing confidence.

"Atlanta was pretty much wide open," Leffler said. "You've got (the accelerator) on the boards all the way around that place. The team had the car set up pretty conservatively so I'd be comfortable, and we never really built any speed there. We basically stayed at one speed for the whole two days.

"But at Las Vegas, I could feel myself getting more and more relaxed with every lap, and the speeds showed that. We just kept getting faster.

"Everybody on the team has been great. They're a very professional bunch of guys, a small group that works very hard and really has its act together. And most of them are midget and sprint-car fans, so I think they can relate to me a little bit."

Leffler has also had some solid tutorial help along the way in the form of two championship-caliber racers. Arie Luyendyk, lead driver for Treadway and twice an Indianapolis 500 winner, looked over Leffler's shoulder at Texas. Defending Pep Boys Indy Racing League champion Tony Stewart - at whose home Leffler lived for several months upon moving from his native Long Beach to Indiana to further his racing career - lent some guidance at Atlanta and Las Vegas.

"Having Arie at my very first test was a big help," Leffler said. "He wasn't able to be at the other two sessions, but luckily Tony was there testing with his team, and he talked to me quite a bit. I was really comfortable with him helping me just because I know Tony so well. I knew I could trust everything he said."

Much of what Stewart told Leffler centered around the differences between the feel of an Indy-style car and the vehicles in which the two friends cut their racing teeth. While admittedly still growing accustomed to the idiosyncrasies of the Indy Racing League car, Leffler discovered quickly that the key to coaxing out its maximum speed is to drive it with finesse.

"It doesn't roll as much in the corners (as a midget or Silver Crown car)," Leffler said. "When you get loose in an Indy car, it's not like you've got the whole back end of the car hanging out, and when it pushes, it's not a really big push like you feel in a short-track car. And you don't make any huge corrections with the steering wheel in an Indy car. You do everything with minute little (hand) movements.

"Mentally, it's a very tough form of racing. You've just got to be prepared for anything that might happen and be sure you don't make any mistakes."

Nevertheless, Leffler believes that "there are definitely some things that relate" from the different motorsports disciplines he has experienced.

"Luckily, I've run a lot of pavement races with the midgets and Silver Crown cars, and that has taught me to be smooth," he said. "On pavement, smooth is fast. I've tried to keep that in mind every lap in the Indy car."

At present, the Leffler-Treadway deal doesn't extend beyond the tire-testing arrangement with Firestone, although the two have discussed the possibility of teaming Leffler with Luyendyk aboard a second Treadway Racing entry in the future.

"We talked a little bit about running at Las Vegas," Leffler said about the season-ending Las Vegas 500K on Oct. 11, "but I've got a direct conflict with the USAC Silver Crown race at Sacramento that same weekend. I'm committed to run for both the midget and Silver Crown championships, so it's something I can't just push aside, even for an IRL ride."

Still, the test program is giving Leffler plenty to look forward to, particularly Sept. 23, when he fulfilled a boyhood dream by taking his first laps around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during a Firestone test.

"You race your whole life just dreaming that you might get to run at Indianapolis one day," Leffler said with a smile a few days before the test, "so I'm really looking forward to it. Arie is going to be there helping me, and I'm excited about that."

The goal, of course, is that the Firestone test might lead to a return engagement for Leffler at the fabled old Brickyard, specially on Memorial Day weekend in 1999, when the starts of the Pep Boys Indy Racing League will gather for the 83rd running of the Indianapolis 500.

"It's a long time between September and May, and you never know what's going to happen," Leffler said. "Right now, the (USAC) championships I'm running for this year mean the most to me, and I'm trying to focus on them. Once I get through this season, we'll start thinking more about next year.

"But I'm really excited just to be able to test at the Speedway. I want to get some laps in and get some good experience, and that way I'll be more prepared for whatever does happen in May."

And given the way Leffler has gotten the hang of steering Indy-style cars, his choice of words -"whatever does happen in May" - could cover a whole lot of ground.

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Jason Leffler , Arie Luyendyk