7. Greg Moore
24 year old Greg Moore of Canada was well on his way to a successful open wheel career. In 1997, he became the youngest (at the time) to win in an IndyCar race. In four years in CART, Moore had five victories. However, early in the 1999 season finale, the Marlboro 500 at California (now Auto Club) Speedway, Moore lost control exiting turn 2 and spun into the infield. The car hit an access road and flipped onto its side. Still going over 200 mph, the car hit an inside retaining wall, drivers-side first. Greg was airlifted to a local hospital, where he died of his injuries.
Shortly after, CART mandated head-and-neck restraints. This crash may also have contributed to the beginning of the slowing down of IndyCars (at California, CART cars in this era would lap at 240mph+). There's a longer term impact though. Prior to his death, Moore had signed on to drive for Team Penske for 2000. His death left the team scrambling to find a replacement, which had to be found within days to placate Marlboro. The replacement? Helio Castroneves.
(An as aside, Helio's contract with Penske was essentially Greg's only with the names switched out. This became a big issue during Helio's tax evasion trial earlier this year.)
6. Bill Vukovich, 1955 Indianapolis 500
Bill Vukovich was Mr. Indianapolis. He won the race in 1953 and 1954 after mechanical failure prevented him from winning in 1952 after leading the most laps. In his career, he led over 70% of his career laps at the Speedway, and is still the only man to lead the most laps three years in a row. Many of his peers considered Vuky the greatest driver ever.
The 1955 Indy 500 saw Vukovich go for his 3rd straight win, which would have been (and still would be) the first time that ever happened. 56 laps in, it was looking good, as Vuky had already staked out a 17 second lead. However, three slower cars in front of him started to crash on the exit of turn 2. The car of Johnny Boyd drifted up the race track, and Vukovich struck him. Vukovich's car went airborne, somersaulted multiple times, went over the retaining wall, and burst into flames.
Vukovich was arguably the greatest driver of the first half-century of major auto racing, but outside of some old timers, he's been mostly forgotten in the minds of the modern fan. If only he had not died and won his 3rd straight Indy, it might have been different.
5. 1999 Visionaire 500k
The fledging Indy Racing League starting going to Lowe's Motor Speedway in 1997, and the partnership appeared to be working well. However, on lap 59 of the 1999 race, John Paul, Jr. and Stan Wattles got together and hit the wall. The impact sent Wattles' right rear tire and tire assembly over the catch fence and into the crowd. Three fans were killed and eight more injured. The area that the debris fell into was originally intended to be closed, but the section was opened before the race to accomodate an overflow of spectators. The race was red flagged and eventually cancelled.
This accident as well as a 1998 incident where fans were killed by a tire getting into the stands was the impetus for wheel tethers being mandated on open wheel cars (sadly, they failed in the Surtees incident). Reaction was swift as well from Lowe's Motor Speedway. Humpy Wheeler famously declared that "these cars will never be back at my race track." So far, he was right, as the IRL has never returned to Lowe's, a big hit to the series attempts to gain credibility in NASCAR nation.
The biggest impact, however, was the reminder than it's not just the drivers and crew members in danger at the race track.
4. Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison
These weren't race track tragedies, but the 1993 deaths of Kulwicki and Allison still shook NASCAR to the core. Both were right at the top of the sport the previous year. Kulwicki won the 1992 championship, the last owner/driver to do so. Allison finished 3rd that year, the second straight season he had done so. These two, along with Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin and others, were the headliners of early 90s stock car racing. Going into 1993, Kulwicki had five career victories, and Allison 18, with his 19th won in 1993.
Tragedy first struck on April 1, 1993, when a plane carrying Kulwicki crashed just before approach in Blountville, Tennessee. Kulwicki was on his way to the first Bristol race of the year. Wallace won the race and honored Kulwicki wtih his famed Polish Victory Lap.
On July 12, 1993, Allison was flying his helicopter to Talladega to watch David Bonnett test a Busch car. While attempting to land, the copter's nose suddenly flew up and crashed. Allison was pulled out alive, but succumbed to severe head injuries the next day.
Again, the "what if" game is played. How would the rest of the decade looked if Kulwicki and Allison were still alive. Would Earnhardt and Gordon have won all those titles? Also, given how NASCAR's popularity exploded after their deaths, is there any doubt the iconoclastic Kulwicki and son-of-a legend Allison would have become big stars?
(On the next page: the top 3)
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