NASCAR superstar Jimmie Johnson won the Daytona 500 on Sunday, and Danica Patrick made history by becoming the first woman to crack the top 10. However, these stories were very nearly overshadowed by tragedy.
On Saturday, during the Nationwide Series race at Daytona, a nasty wreck on the final lap sent Kyle Larson’s car up against the barrier, spraying debris—including tires—into the crowd. Luckily no one died; however, two people came very close. And if they had perished, the tragedy would have made that wreck one of the most deadly in the history of motor sports.
Now, I know that seems like an exaggeration, but it’s true. Though motor sports deaths are quite common, there are surprisingly few examples of multiple deaths at a single event. Most of the time, it’s just a single driver that gets killed, and even then the collisions don’t always look as bad as one would expect. (That certainly was the case in Dale Earnhardt’s untimely death.) However, every once in a while the true potential of auto racing to produce catastrophic carnage is realized. And when that happens, you do not want to be there.
Today, in light of the weekend’s close call, we’ll take a look at 11 of the most deadly wrecks in motor sports history. Most of them involve the death of more than one person. However, there are a few exceptions.
Have a look.
What really makes the this tragedy remarkable is that fact that only one person died. NHRA star Antron Brown's dragster inexplicably lost a wheel during a Top Fuel drag race at the Firebird International Raceway in Chandler, AZ. The wheel flew up and over the grandstands entirely—avoiding multiple deaths—before bouncing and hitting a woman seated next to a camper in the parking lot. So as terrible as it sounds to say, the NHRA was actually lucky only one person was killed. It could have been so much worse.
11. NHRA Arizona Nationals, 2010
At #10 we have another racing wreck in which "only" one person died. However, the circumstances of the wreck and this death make it remarkable.
WARNING: the details of this tragedy are gruesome, so if you are squeamish, proceed with caution.
You see, during a qualifying run at the 1982 Indianapolis 500, Smiley collided nose-first with the all at 200 mph. The impact completely disintegrated the car, causing the fuel tank to explode and sending Smiley tumbling hundreds of feet across the track. According to CART medical director Steve Olvey—this is where it gets bad—Smiley's body suffered severe trauma. His helmet and the top of his skull had been ripped off, and his brain was scattered on the track. In addition, there was a huge wound in his side that looked as though he'd been bitten by a shark.
Thus, while only one person died in this wreck, it has to be considered one of the most deadly in the history of motor sports. In terms of shocking bodily harm, it's second only to #7 on this list.
10. Indy 500, 1982
On May 27, 2012, two spectators were killed while watching a rally car race in rural Ireland. The car ran out of control, crashed through a fence, and into a crown of 30 people about 50 miles northwest of Dublin, killing a 29-year-old woman and a 50-year-old man and injruing seven others. The car, a modified Ford Escort, went over a hump in the road and into the air, and the river lost control upon landing.
The Cavan Rally event was appropriately cancelled after the tragedy.
9. Cavan Stages Rally, 2012
Sadly, it often takes a tragedy to prompt major changes in motor sports that enhance safety. Such was the case with the wreck that killed Dave MacDonald and Eddie Sachs at the 1964 Indianapolis 500.
At the time, the cars at the Indy 500 still used gasoline for fuel, which is extremely flammable. So when MacDonald spun and hit the wall after just the fourth turn, his car turned into a raging inferno as it slid back across the track. The fire created a thick cloud of smoke that blinded drivers. Six more ended up wrecking as a result, including Sachs, who couldn't see and plowed into MacDonald's car dying on the spot.
For the first time in it's history, the Indy 500 was halted for a wreck. After that cars had to use methanol.
8. Indy 500, 1964
This tragedy is almost unbelievable. At the 1987 South African Grand Prix, a driver named Renzo Zorzi pulled off to the side of the course with car trouble. Soon his car caught fire and sent Zorzi scrambling, so race marshals rushed to the scene with fire extinguishers.
Unfortunately, one of the marshals, a 19-year-old named Frederick Jansen Van Buren, never made it. As he was running across the course carrying a fire extinguisher, the car driven by Tom Pryce hit him at 170 mph, and basically tore his body in half.
But that wasn't all. The fire extinguisher hit Pryce in the head, partially decapitating him. His car eventually came to a stop after crashing into another driver and then the wall.
Auto racing deaths don't get any more horrific than that.
(If you really want to see footage of this awful tragedy, you can watch it here. I just couldn't bring myself to include such footage in this list.
7. South African Grand Prix, 1987
This one shocked the racing world when it happened. On July 28, 1998 at the 1998 Firestone Indy 400 at Michigan International Speedway, a single car crashed sent debris flying over a 15-foot barrier and into the grandstand, killing three spectators and injuring 6 others. After that, attendance at the race declined (go figure), and in 2001 the struggling CART series left the MIS, handing the Firestone Indy 400 over to the IRL.
6. U.S. 500, 1998
In 1999, less than one year after the tragedy at Michigan, three more fans were killed at the VisionAire 500K, an Indy Racing League event at the CHarlotte Motor Speedway. And once again, the deaths were the result of debris—in this case, a tire off the car of Stan Wattles—flying into the stands.
However, what makes this tragedy worse is the fact that the fans killed were sitting in a section of the grandstands that was only opened to accommodate an unexpected influx of additional spectators. If that section had not been opened, the tire would have hit a bunch of empty seats.
5. VisionAire 500K, 1999
If the danger is high in professional auto racing events, it's astronomically high at amateur events–a lesson learned the hard way back in 2010.
At a Mojave Desert Racing 200-mile off-road race in the desert east of Los Angeles, California, a truck crashed into a crown of spectators, killing eight. In this case the tragedy apparently was not the driver's fault. Rather, it seems that fans ignored barricades and the warnings to stay 100-feet back from the course.
4. Mojave Desert Racing Event, 2010
Technically, this isn't one wreck. However, the carnage was too great to ignore. That's because, at the experimental Paris-Madrid road race of 1903—one of the earliest attempts at major auto races—half of the 224 cars crashed or retired, and an insane eight people died...on the first day of the race. Five of the dead were racers, and three were spectators. The absurdly dangerous conditions outraged the French Parliament, and a special council of ministers was called that forced organizers to shut the race down.
3. Paris-Madrid Race, 1903
THe Mille Miglia was a very popular open-road, 1,000-mile endurance race that ran from 1927 through 1957. The reason it was cancelled for good? In that last running, a Ferrari driven by Alfonso de Portago and Edmund Nelson crashed into a crowd of spectators along the road in the village of Guidizzolo. The drivers both died (reportedly cut in half when the car fell on top of them) as did nine spectators—five of whom were children.
2. Mille Miglia, 1957
The deadliest crash in the history of motor sports happened at the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans—an epic endurance race that still goes on today. Driver Pierre Levegh's Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR got into a wreck and flew into a grandstand. Levegh was killed, along with 83 spectators. This tragedy led to a number of safety measures being introduce in motor sports. However, it took quite some time for the sport to recover from fallout of this disaster.
1. Le Mans, 1955
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