In the wake of Jason Leffler’s tragic death in a sprint car crash last week in New Jersey, there’s been an outpouring of support from the racing community. Drivers and fans alike have taken to Twitter and other venues to share memories of the 37-year-old’s life and legacy, which included many dirt track successes and a NASCAR Sprint Cup career marked by inconsistency. There’s been even more love shown to his young son, Charlie, who will now grow up without his father, whom friends and family said he idolized.
One of the most common phrases that have been uttered in pieces about Leffler’s accident is “he died doing what he loved.” But, why do we say that? Yes, Leffler was a racer, and he truly had a passion for the sport, but I’m sure there are other ways he would have preferred than the violent, end-over-end incident that took him from this world so early. Dale Earnhardt loved racing, too, but lost his life in a 2001 accident in which his seat belt broke as his car slammed into the outside wall in turn four at Daytona International Speedway. Is that how he would have wanted to die as well?
And yet, we say things like this about all manners of violent deaths. When we lose police officers and firefighters, we say they died doing what they loved, even if their lives were taken by gun-wielding criminals or five-alarm blazes. They were killed while performing a job they desperately wanted to do, but would almost certainly have asked to remain on this planet longer and eventually pass on more peacefully.
It’s a phrase we cling to. In the short write-up I did on Leffler’s accident last week, I had to consciously stop myself from penning it on several occasions. Because he did die doing what he loved, but still, the fact is that he’s gone forever. We will never again see Jason Leffler on the track, showcasing his talents to youngsters and adults, to fans old and new, to his adoring son. So, why would we take comfort in his death coming on that very track?
It’s simple, really. We say it because we’re selfish. We say it because we’re confused. We don’t do it to be rude, to disparage the incident or to somehow say that it’s okay. We do it because we can think of no other way to rationalize someone being taken from us before they reached their 40 birthday. We do it because without giving ourselves some small, miniscule shred of reason for the loss, we wallow in what is for all intents and purposes a senseless tragedy that has left a young boy without his father.
For the very same reason we choose to celebrate deceased individuals’ lives rather than focus solely on their death, we take solace in the fact that, for Leffler, his young life ended at the place he spent the majority of his time, at the place that he chose, the place that allowed him to provide for his family. So we will remember him in that context. We will remember him as a man who loved nothing more than strapping into a race car and accepting risks he knew were there every single time he did so to experience the thrill of speed and put on a show for the fans who want that same experience.
We will continue to say that Leffler died doing what he loved. And we will say the same thing when we lose other athletes during games, and we will say the same thing when we lose law enforcement officials. We will say it because it will help us heal, and it will help us move on, and it will help us remember our fallen heroes as passion-filled superstars, doing what they do because in their heart and soul, it is what fulfills them the most.
And we will say it because, if the time comes where we too are taken before we feel we’re ready, we hope it’s when we’re doing what we love.