3. Dale Earnhardt, 2001 Daytona 500
(Note to NASCAR fans: Read the top two before ripping on me please.)
I'm sure this one requires little background. Everyone knows Dale Earnhardt, and everyone remembers him on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, defending the top two cars, which he owned, from the charging pack. They remember him making contact with Sterling Marlin and charge right up the track, hitting the wall head-on. The angle and speed of the impact killed Earnhardt instantly.
What followed was the long mourning of NASCAR's greatest icon, the asinine blaming of Marlin or Ken Schrader by some idiots, the seatbelt controversy, and the autopsy photo controversy. I could go on, but we'd be here for days.
Even today, the specter of Dale Earnhardt looms long in NASCAR. He's still revered by many fans, which have passed their fandom on to his son. #3 references are still everywhere. Also, his death (and others like Petty and Blaise Alexander) finally woke up NASCAR as to the need to make things safer. In October 2001, they mandated the HANS device. NASCAR also made sure the SAFER barrier would be installed at all their oval tracks (contrary to what some say though, they had nothing to do with the development of SAFER). Finally, Earnhardt's death was the catalyst for the development of the Car of Tomorrow. While fans haven't warmed up to it, there is ancedotal evidence that it has improved safety.
2. 1994 San Marino Grand Prix
The short version of that: the death of Ayrton Senna. That wasn't the only tragedy of that fated weekend though. During Friday qualifying, Rubens Barrichello hit a curb, flipped in the air, hit upside down in a tire barrier, and landed upside down. Somehow, he only suffered a broken nose and arm. On Saturday, Roland Ratzenberger lost control of his car in a fast corner and hit a wall head-on. He suffered a fractured skull and died that day. It was the first death during an F1 race weekend since Paletti in 1982. Despite this, the race went on Sunday afternoon.
Of course, during the race, Senna lost control of his Williams at the famed Tamburrello corner. He would strike an unprotected barrier at around 135 mph. It remains a controversy of whether Senna died instantly, but given the three possible things that could've killed him (more info here), it's likely he did. In his cockpit, they found an Austrian flag, which Senna planned to unfurl in honor of Ratzenberger after winning the race.
Much like Earnhardt's death and NASCAR, the death of Senna, who was a worldwide icon, was Formula One's safety wake-up call. The years that followed saw many changes to the cars and the tracks (especially chicanes) in the name of safety. Luckily, since this terrible weekend, there has not been a death in Formula One.
1. 1955 Le Mans Disaster
The name tells you this was bad. Heading into the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans, there was an intense rivalry between many different makes of car. One of which was Mercedes, and one of their cars was driven by Pierre Levegh at the start of the race. After about two hours, Levegh was driving right behind Mike Hawthorn's Jaguar, who was leading the race and had just passed a slower car. Hawthorn then braked suddenly to head into pit lane, causing the slower car, driven by Lance Macklin, to move to the center of the track to pass Hawthorn. Macklin, however, didn't notice Levegh's car right behind him. Levegh hit the left rear of Macklin's car, and thanks to a ramp-like rear bodywork on Macklin's car, flew airborne.
Levegh flew up and struck a mound designed to protect spectators. However, the speed and angle with which it struck the mound caused the car to start somersaulting. Parts flew off the car and into crowds, including the engine block. Levegh was also thrown from the car, killing him when he landed. Making things worse, the fuel tank ruptured, starting a fire. This caused burning embers to go into the crowd as well as parts. The car had magnesium parts, something firefighters were unaware of when they sprayed the fire with water, which only made it worse. In total, 80 spectators died.
While the race did continue (to keep spectators from leaving and clogging roads for ambulances), there were many questioned about track safety afterward. Motor racing was banned in many countries until the tracks improved their safety standards. To this day, motorsports are still banned in Switzerland becuase of his incident. In terms of people killed, it's the most catastrophic accident in motor racing history. Hopefully there will never be a repeat.
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