TULSA, Okla. — This year’s run at the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals presented by General Tire is extra special for California veteran Damion Gardner and longtime car builder Bob East.
Thirteen years ago, Gardner and East celebrated a Chili Bowl victory with Gardner racing to the win in a car owned by the late Jason Leffler, who began his career in open-wheel racing before moving to NASCAR.
This week, Gardner and East are back for another try at Chili Bowl glory and for the first time since 2013 the Leffler name will return to the Super Bowl of Midget Racing along with them.
Charlie Dean Leffler, Jason’s son, is riding along with Gardner during the 35th Chili Bowl as Gardner pursues his second Golden Driller. The younger Leffler is the listed co-entrant of the Klatt Enterprises No. 71g that was originally built by his father and carried Great Clips sponsorship on board.
He was five years old when his father lost his life in a sprint car crash at Bridgeport (N.J.) Speedway.
Charlie Leffler’s name appears on the driver’s side of Gardner’s Beast-Chevrolet midget, something Gardner and East circled as “really valuable” to the entire Klatt Enterprises team.
“It means a lot,” said Gardner of Leffler’s involvement. “We’re so glad to have him be a part of this. This race always meant so much to Jason, and fortunately when I was able to win it, it was in a car that he had built and took a lot of quality time to put it together. I brought it out here and we won and got to do that together. Now his son’s getting old enough to be involved (in the sport) and starting to pay attention and get into it.
“Hopefully, we can run well here for him and he can enjoy it when it’s all over.”
East is Charlie Leffler’s grandfather and couldn’t help but smile when talking about how the 13-year old’s involvement in this year’s Chili Bowl effort came about.
“Charlie’s father and I were building this car when Jason was unfortunately taken from us,” East recalled. “The car was auctioned off … Tony Stewart was supposed to drive it the first year (2014) and then he broke his leg, so Kasey Kahne ended up driving it for us and then it got auctioned off.
“(Illinois businessman) Doug Stringer and Great Clips actually bought the car back in that auction because of Jason and his impact,” East continued. “They wanted us to run it and keep running it and we have ever since in Jason’s honor. As Charlie got older, we’ve put his name on it so he feels part of it.”
Gardner’s 2008 Chili Bowl win, when he passed polesitter Josh Ford on lap 11 and went on to lead the final 40 circuits for the victory, was one of the first things he brought up when asked to recall some memories of his late friend and rival.
“There are a lot of good stories I can think of, but some that we probably could never tell,” Gardner said with a laugh. “But the days of me and Jason and Dean Thompson hanging out never get old to think about. When I first met those guys, Dean introduced me to Jason and right away I knew we had the same desire to win and had a lot in common in the sense of just wanting to perform and wanting to drive hard.
“There were a lot of good moments watching each other race back and forth through the years. Jason would always come back and race midget stuff, while I was more in the sprint cars, but the whole West Coast relationship from down in Southern California always led to a lot of good times out there,” Gardner added. “One specific memory would have to be 2008, though. To do what we did that night, win the Driller in Jason’s car … I don’t know that much can top that. It was really special for all of us.”
Charlie Leffler was going to attend this year’s Chili Bowl to see his name on the car in person but was ultimately unable to do so because of COVID-19 restrictions at the River Spirit Expo Center.
While East tipped that the younger Leffler “doesn’t really want to drive,” he said that Charlie likes to be at the track when he can be to be inside the sport that his father loved.
“He goes to quite a few races during the year, (Indiana) Midget Week and bigger shows like that. That’s been a good way to keep him involved and it definitely gives him more interest in watching,” East said. “He comes out to the shop sometimes and runs a little RC car around and does some stuff like that, but he hasn’t figured out the work mode just yet. He was going to come (to the Chili Bowl) this year except for the virus and everything. He’s trying to stay as safe as he can and we understand that.
“Hopefully, he’s here next year and we can give him a good time, but we’re glad he’s a part of what we’re doing and thankful for everything his dad did before with our team and within the sport.”
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