The recent tragic death of Henry Surtees and near death of Felipe Massa, as well as JrCanuckFan's recent article
on NASCAR safety got me thinking about the past and all the disasters that have come before and how they shaped auto racing today. Admittely this is a morbid conversation piece, but for today I present what are IMO the 10 worst tragedies in (relatively recent) motorsports history. I tried to measure these in terms of shock value, who was affected, and any future impact. Many of these accidents can be viewed on YouTube. I won't be putting them here or linking them, since many are quite gruesome.
10. The 1982 Season
Formula One looked like it was finally getting safer, after having many fatal accidents in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. However, rule changes for 1982 caused complaints about safety before the season. Unfortunately, those concerns were founded. It started at Belguim, when popular driver Gilles Villeneuve collided with Jochen Mass in qualifying, sending his Ferrari somersaulting in the air. Villeneuve was thrown from the car upon impact with the ground. He died later that night.
The black cloud continued at Canada a few weeks later. The other Ferrari, driven by Didier Pironi, stalled at the start. The other cars swerved to avoid him, but Riccardo Paletti, a rookie making only his second Grand Prix start, could not and slammed in the back of Pironi. The impact resulted in serious chest and internal injuries to Paletti. He needed immediate medical attention, but that became impossible when the leaking fuel from his car ignited. It took 25 minutes for the fire to be put out and Paletti to be removed from his car. He died shortly after arriving at the hospital.
To top off a horrible year, the Indianapolis 500 witnessed its first fatality in nine years when Gordon Smiley slammed into the wall in qualifying, dying instantly. Smiley's hit might just be the hardest impact ever seen in a race car. His wiki entry describes the immense trauma his body took.
9. 1964 Indianapolis 500
At the start of the Indianapolis 500, rookie Dave McDonald started charging, moving up 5 spots in the opening lap. On Lap 2 though, he lost control in turn 4 and hit the inside wall. The impact ignited his fuel tank. McDonald then drifted back onto the track, sending multiple cars crashing. Popular driver Eddie Sachs attempting to get out of the way, but McDonald filled the opening Sachs was going for at the worst possible time. Sachs hit MacDonald broadside, killing Sachs immediately. The collision also caused a second explosion, seen in the picture above. MacDonald was pulled out of the wreck, but died later that afternoon from acute pulmonary oedema (fluid in the lungs).
1964 was the first time the Indy 500 had ever been stopped due to an accident. As a result, USAC (who sanctioned the 500 at the time) mandated that the cars carry less fuel. The teams responded by switching the very next year from gasoline to methanol fuel. IndyCars used methanol until 2007, when they switched to ethanol.
8. Adam Petty
Adam Petty was supposed to be the next one to carry on the Petty legacy, the one that was going to be closer to grandfather Richard than father Kyle. While still a teenager, Adam began to make noise in the ARCA and Busch Series. Everything was on track for a full-time Cup ride in 2001. The sky was the limit. However, on May 12, 2000, while practicing for a Busch race in New Hampshire, Petty's throttle stuck. He struck the wall head-on and died instantly.
In the aftermath of Petty and the death of Kenny Irwin that same year at New Hampshire, NASCAR implemented a kill switch on the steering wheel. NASCAR also put restrictor plates on the cars during the fall race that year at Loudon, a famously boring race. Overall though, the impact of Adam Petty's death was to show that tragedy can strike at any time, and of course, the forever feeling of what might have been.
(#4-#7 on the next page)