9 Most Tragic Auto Racing Deaths
Yesterday’s heartbreaking death of Dan Wheldon at the Las Vegas Indy 300 serves as a stark reminder of the dual nature of auto racing. When things go right, it is the most electrifying sport on earth. Yet when things go wrong, it is by far the most tragic.
Wheldon, of course, was one of IndyCar’s top drivers and a two-time Indy 500 champ. More importantly, he was one of the best-liked guys on the circuit, and a loving father and husband. Sadly, he is just the latest in a long line of people who will be remembered in such a way.
Today, we bring you a list commemorating the most tragic deaths in the history of auto racing. Unfortunately, we’ll one day have to figure out where the late Dan Wheldon fits in.
9. Scott Kalitta
Kalitta was an all-time great in American drag racing. He was a two-time champ in the NHRA’s Full Throttle Drag Racing Series, winning in 1994 and 1995, and he was the first driver to win events in both Full Throttle divisions (Funny Car and Top Fuel). Sadly, on June 21, 2008, Kalitta died during a qualifying run at Oldbridge Township Raceway in Englishtown, NJ. Near the end of the run his engine exploded, his parachute failed to deploy, and he crashed into a concrete wall.
8. Joe Weatherly
Weatherly was one of NASCAR’s great larger-than-life characters. He was known to stay out partying into the wee hours on the night before a race, and he once took some practice laps dressed up in a Peter Pan costume. He was the reigning two-time NASCAR champion (1962 and 1963) when he died on January 19, 1964 during a race at the Riverside International Raceway. To date, he is the only defending points champ to die in a race. (The 1992 champ, Alan Kulwicki, died in a plane crash in 1993.)
7. Eddie Sachs
Sachs, a practical joker, was nicknamed “the clown prince of auto racing.” For some reason—he would never tell anyone why—he always raced with lemon on a string tied around his neck. Sadly, Sachs died in a horrific, fiery crash at the Indianapolis 500 on May 30, 1964. At this point in time, some racing teams still used gasoline for fuel (which was heavy, but long-lasting), while others had switched to methanol or ethanol (which were lighter, but faster-burning). In response to this tragedy, Indy officials mandated that, in the future, all cars must make at least two pit stops. This removed the only advantage to sticking with the more combustible gasoline.
6. Adam Petty
Adam Petty was not nearly as established as the other drivers on this list. But, as a member of the legendary Petty family—grandson of 7-time Daytona 500 champion Richard Petty and son of Kyle Petty—he was seen as an up-and-coming star when he died during a practice run for the Busch 200 on May 12, 2000. The 19-year-old was killed instantly when he lost control of his car and crashed into the wall at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
5. Gilles Villenueve
Canadian Gilles Villenueve was one of the most popular drivers in Formula One during his short career. He never captured a points championship, but he finished 2nd in 1979 and won 6 grand prix races, racing for both McLaren and Ferrari. The racing star died on May 8, 1982 while attempting to qualify for the Belgian Grand Prix. In 1997, Gilles’ son, Jacques Villenueve, accomplished what his father wasn’t able to do in his shortened career: he because the first Canadian to win the F1 World Championship.
4. Mark Donohue
Donohue was a jack of all trades. He raced in NASCAR, he won the Indy 500 (in 1972), he raced in Formula One for Penske, and he actually built some of the cars he drove. If that wasn’t enough, the guy’s nickname was “Mr. Nice.” So it was a huge blow to the international auto racing community when Donohue died on August 19, 1975, from injuries suffered in a crash during a training run for the Austrian Grand Prix.
3. Dale Earnhardt
The death of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt—a.k.a. “The Intimidator”—is easily the most infamous auto racing fatality in recent years. Earnhardt won 76 races (including the Daytona 500 in 1998) and 7 points championships in his career. After Richard Petty, Dale was perhaps the most accomplished racer in NASCAR history. Sadly, he died on February 18, 2001, during the last lap of the Daytona 500. Since his death, no one has raced with Dale Earnhardt’s #3.
2. Ayrton Senna
Three-time F1 champion Ayrton Senna is generally considered one of the greatest race car drivers of all time. The Brazilian died at the age of 34 on May 1, 1994, during the San Marino Grand Prix. He was leading the race when his car left the track at 135 MPH and crashed into a retaining wall. Inside his car, rescue workers found an Austrian flag which he planned to raise at the end of the race in honor of driver Roland Ratzenberger, who had died the previous day on a training run.
1. Pierre Levegh
What makes the death of Pierre Levegh so utterly tragic is that he did not die alone. When he crashed at the 24 Hours of Le Mans on June 11, 1955, his car flew up into the stands, killing 83 spectators. It was and still is the worst tragedy in the history of auto racing, and it nearly killed the sport entirely because car manufacturers pulled sponsorship and governments around the world place moratoriums on races.