Other Racing

The 10 Worst Tragedies in Motorsports History

8/15/09 in Other Racing   |   Eric_   |   7716 respect

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)

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)

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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10/25/11   |   Debi_L   |   11848 respect

 Of course with the recent tragedy that took the life of IndyCar's Dan Wheldon, this list might have to be updated....

8/26/09   |   arnielcamora

dont care

8/26/09   |   richard_music   |   67 respect

I think one of the worst moments for me was the Roger Williamson/ David Purley incident at Zandvoort back in 1973. Roger would also have survived if the marshalls had got him out of the wreckage. This stuck in my mind so much I made a song and music video about it. Its on my profile if you´re interested.

8/16/09   |   Diablorain   |   4425 respect

these are some sad stories....especially Earnhardt and Moore....like the saying goes god wanted them on his race team:)

8/16/09   |   MarkTheShark   |   590 respect

Amazing read, Eric. I hope for the sake of their worldwide base of fans, F1 can put this latest scrap behind them and move on into the 21st Century.....safely.

8/16/09   |   richjames41   |   29 respect

what a great article ....thanks !!

8/15/09   |   Debi_L   |   11848 respect

Excellent memory Tina!!! I'd forgotten all about those freak F1 accidents!  I wasn't really following F1 back then, but I do remember reading about them because they were sooooo  "WTH Happened?" kind of accidents.
Good catch!

8/15/09   |   Eric_   |   7716 respect

The "ten years since a fatal accident" sentence has been removed. Eventually, I assume that will show up in the database.

8/15/09   |   Eric_   |   7716 respect

(Edited by Eric_)

Whoops. For some reason, I thought Pryce and Peterson were both early 70s incidents (I think I got them confused with Roger Williamson's incident). I'll fix that. Now that I think about it, Peterson might be a better #10 than Gilles and co., but oh well, I"m not changing now.

8/15/09   |   JKB37   |   2409 respect

Awesome read Eric! 

8/15/09   |   Debi_L   |   11848 respect

Excellent article, Eric, although incredibly sad as you said.  Oddly enough, I remember all of the F1 and IRL wrecks as well as the NASCAR ones, and remember watching the "story" of the LeMans disaster on History TV (I think). 

I often wonder what would have been, had all these talented drivers not had their lives cut short.  I honestly think that Kulwicki and Allison would have been multiple champions, and I frmly believe Adam Petty would have as well. 

Greg Moore's death had a profound effect on us as a family.  We were huge fans and his death just numbed us.  I stayed away from racing for a couple of months after it, but once a fan, always a fan, I guess.