June 17, 2024 | Kaddy Gibson

Car Racing's Biggest Tragedies


In Remembrance

It’s hard to deny the thrills that come with motorsports, where drivers push their vehicles to the limits of speed and power. But with those thrills comes a whole lot of danger, and when disaster strikes, the results can be painfully tragic. 

Here are ten crashes that left their mark on the world of racing.

Car Racing's Biggest Tragedies

Ayrton Senna, 1994 San Marino Grand Prix

Many fans of motorsport considered Ayrton Senna to be one of the world’s best Formula One (F1) drivers, which is probably why his fatal crash was such as terrible shock. 

It happened during the weekend of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, which had already proved deadly after Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger crashed into a barrier during qualifying. 

Ayrton Senna Imola 1989Gabriele, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

A Rough Start

Senna had an Austrian flag in his car, which he had planned to raise in memory of Ratzenberger as he crossed the finish line. Sadly, he never got the chance. 

Senna’s race on the Imola circuit got off to a tense start, with Pedro Lamy and JJ Lehto crashing at the beginning of the competition. But it was lap 7 that would be deadly for Senna.

Ayrton Senna 1992 MonacoIwao from Tokyo, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

The Accident

As Senna passed the Tamburello corner at 309 kph (192 mph), his car went off the track. Senna managed to slow down to about 211 kph (131 mph), but still crashed into a concrete wall. 

The collision tore off the front of the car and sent pieces of the suspension and steering into the cockpit, killing the legendary driver.

Ayrton Senna crashAnton Want, Getty Images

What Changed? 

After Ayrton Senna’s fatal crash, F1 took steps to improve safety for drivers. Restrictions were placed on the size of car engines, the sides of the cockpits were raised and reinforced, and the suspension was strengthened and modified to prevent wheels from detaching. 

They also changed the design of F1 tracks, creating more space between the track and the walls to give drivers more time to slow down before a collision.

Ayrton Senna in blue shirtInstituto Ayrton Senna, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Maldwyn Price, 1977 South African Grand Prix

Though he passed on decades ago, Thomas Maldwyn Price still holds the title of the only Welsh driver to win a Formula One race and lead an F1 World Championship Grand Prix. 

At the practice session for the 1977 South African Grand Prix, he made the fastest run in the wet conditions, beating out champions like Niki Lauda and James Hunt. Sadly, the actual race would see his burgeoning career cut short.

Tom Pryce 1975 Watkins GlenChristian Sinclair, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

The Marshal 

In the middle of the race, a Junior Marshall named Frederik Jansen van Vuuren ran out to save another driver from burning car. He was holding a 40-lb fire extinguisher and, along with a panel beater who ran out with him, wasn’t paying attention to the other cars on the track. 

That turned out to be a fatal mistake.

Niki Lauda And Tom Pryce 1974 Watkins GlenChristian Sinclair, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Close Call 

Pryce was right behind driver Hans-Joachim Stuck when the two pit hands ran onto the track. Stuck managed to move over at the last second, just barely missing the panel beater. But Pryce couldn’t see van Vuuren in time to maneuver around him.

Tom Pryce 1975 RocMartin Lee, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

The Accident 

Pryce was going 270 kph (170 mph) when he hit van Vuuren. The young marshal went flying into the car and died on impact. 

The fire extinguisher that van Vuuren was holding also went flying and the force of it hitting Pryce’s head was so strong, it killed the driver almost immediately.

Hunt, Lauda And Pryce At 1975 Dutch Grand PrixCroes, R.C, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

What Changed? 

After Pryce’s tragic accident, F1 officials introduced stricter protocols for marshals and other pit hands in the event of an emergency on the track. 

They also made the yellow and red flag system better, so that drivers and teams would be immediately informed of emergencies.

Tom Pryce's memorialRichard Hoare, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Richard Petty, 1970 Rebel 400

Glass windows are a rare sight on race cars because they add weight and present too much of a hazard after collisions. In NASCAR vehicles, the openings for windows are covered with safety nets, and that’s all thanks to Richard Petty’s crash at the 1970 Rebel 400 in Darlington, South Carolina.

Richard Petty with his Plymouth NASCAR Cup carRacingOne, Getty Images

Nothing There

Before 1970, they would just leave the window openings uncovered. Petty was driving a Plymouth Road Runner when he cut a tire in lap 176 of the race, sending him crashing into a wall. 

The car flipped several times, with Petty’s arm and shoulder getting injured after falling outside the window.

Richard Petty 1970RacingOne, Getty Images

What Changed? 

While he was severely injured, Petty survived the crash and continued racing for years. After his crash, he helped NASCAR develop safety netting to cover the driver’s side window, which has probably saved countless other drivers.

Richard Petty's CrashBettmann, Getty Images

Jules Bianchi, 2014 Japanese Grand Prix

Jules Bianchi’s passing was a shock to the racing world, since it was the first F1 Grand Prix fatality since the loss of Ayrton Senna twenty years earlier. Bianchi’s fatal crash happened at the 2014 Grand Prix, but he didn’t succumb to his injuries for another nine months, in July 2015.

Jules Bianchi 2013 Usa GpSteve, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Wet Conditions 

It was raining on the day of the race and slick conditions had already proved dangerous for Andrian Sutil, who crashed in the 42nd lap. 

One lap later, Bianchi lost of control of his car, careening into the massive crane that had responded to help Sutil. It was a shocking accident that left people questioning what had happened.

Jules Bianchi 2014 Singapore Fp3Morio, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

What Changed? 

The Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) pointed to a several factors that led to Bianchi’s crash, including the wet track, the driver’s speed, and a mechanical error in the car. 

Still, Formula One did change drainage regulations for tracks and race start times so that drivers wouldn’t be racing in the dark.

Bianchi And Van Der Garde's Accident (Suzuka 2013)Norimasa Hayashida, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Scott Kalitta, 2008 National Hot Rod Association SuperNationals

In June 2008, Scott Kalitta got into his Funny Car, ready to compete in the drag races at the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) SuperNationals. For those who don't know, a Funny Car is a type of dragster that has the engine placed in front of the driver. 

Unfortunately, there was nothing funny about Kalitta’s race that season.

Scott Kalitta drivertwm1340, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

The Explosion

Kalitta was no amateur when it came to racing in Funny Cars and won the NHRA series championship twice before in 1994 and 1995. But in the 2008 season, things took a fatal turn during the qualifying run for his race. 

Kalitta was going 483 kph (300 mph) when his engine exploded near the finish line.

Scott KalittaIcon Sportswire, Getty Images

The Accident 

Kalitta’s parachutes were damaged in the explosion and failed to slow the car. An investigation after the crash showed that Kalitta hit the brakes, but the clutch was locked, powering the rear wheels. 

Kalitta hit a sand trap at about 201 kph (125 mph), which sent his car over the concrete wall at the end of the track. He was rushed to a hospital but was pronounced dead on arrival.

SCOTT KALITTAEddie Maloney, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

What Changed? 

After Kalitta’s fatal crash, the NHRA limited the speed of vehicles, reduced the length of the tracks, and made sandpits and runoff areas larger so that other drivers would have a real chance at slowing down before hitting barriers.

Kalitta's crew working on his dragstertwm1340, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Dale Earnhardt, 2001 Daytona 500

Even people who don’t watch NASCAR know that Dale Earnhardt was a legend on the track. They also know about his tragic death, which aired on live television. 

The race had already proven to be dangerous in lap 173 with a huge crash that saw 18 cars eliminated from the competition, but it was the final lap that ended in tragedy.

NASCAR champion Dale EarnhardtDarryl Moran, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Securing Their Victory 

Earnhardt was in third place, blocking Sterling Marlin from getting ahead of him and making sure that his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and his protégé, Michael Waltrip, stayed in the lead. 

But as Earnhardt took the final turn of the final lap, his car tapped Marlin’s and careened off course.

Dale EarnhardtJames Phelps, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Title

Earnhardt managed to turn the car back onto the track…only to cross in front of Ken Schrader. Schrader hit Earnhardt’s car, dragging it up the racetrack until Earnhardt struck a retaining wall head-on. 

It’s estimated that he was going about 257 kph (160 mph) and the impact of the collision broke the rear wheel assembly of the car, sent the hood slamming into the windshield, and, ultimately, taking the life of a racing legend.

Dale Earnhardt SrRacingOne, Getty Images

What Changed? 

Waltrip ended up winning the deadly race but with the loss of Dale Earnhardt Sr., it was a bittersweet victory. After Earnhardt’s death, NASCAR opened its safety research center and implemented regulations that required drivers to wear high-tech head and neck protection. 

To discourage unsafe driving, they also changed the point system. The changes seem to have worked, and there haven't been any fatalities since the loss of Earnhardt.

Dale Earnhardt memorialRacingOne, Getty Images

Niki Lauda, 1976 German Grand Prix

Niki Lauda was no stranger to driving on a wet track but the varying conditions during the 1976 German Grand Prix almost led to his doom. Some parts of the track were slick while others were dry, and Lauda ran into trouble at the Bergwerk corner, which was known for being dangerous.

Niki Lauda 1975 Watkins GlenChristian Sinclair, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

The Inferno 

As Lauda made the turn, he lost control of his car and spun into an earth bank before bouncing back onto the track. But by that point, the vehicle was engulfed in flames—and Lauda was trapped inside.

Niki Lauda 1974 Watkins GlenChristian Sinclair, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

No Help Coming 

Louda crashed on a nearly 23 km-long stretch of the track that was difficult for emergency services to get to. With no help nearby, four drivers—Brett Lunger, Harald Ertl, Arturo Merzario and Guy Edwards—managed to pull Lauda from the fiery wreck. 

He was alive, but the danger hadn’t passed.

Niki Lauda Niki Lauda car after crashBernard Cahier, Getty Images

A Miraculous Comeback 

Lauda suffered severe burns from the crash and fell into a coma on the way to the hospital. Because he’d been stuck in the cockpit, he’d inhaled hot, poisonous gases that damaged his lungs. 

In the hospital, the situation was so dire that they read him his last rites. Miraculously, though, Lauda survived and stepped back onto the racetrack just six weeks later.

Lauda At 1982 Dutch Grand PrixHans van Dijk, Wikimedia Commons

What Changed? 

Niki Lauda’s crash proved that the old Nürburgring track had become too dangerous, mainly because the emergency helicopter only landed on one side of the track. That meant it took up to six minutes to get to Lauda's crash

If he didn’t get help from his fellow drivers, he most likely would have died before emergency crews could get to him. In addition to rebuilding the track, F1 also reduced the length of European grand circuits.

Andreas Nikolaus Lauda 2011Waerfelu, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Dave MacDonald, 1964 Indianapolis 500

Dave MacDonald made a name for himself racing in Corvettes and Shelby Cobras but his rise to prominence was cut short by a deadly accident. MacDonald was in the second lap of the 1964 Indianapolis 500, exiting Turn 4 when he crashed into the inside wall of the track.

The crash was bad enough, but then came the flames.

dave macdonaldVintagesportscars, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Pileup 

The flaming car slid back onto the track, causing six other cars to crash as their drivers were blinded by the smoke and fire. Eddie Sach was the unluckiest one, and he t-boned MacDonald’s car. 

Sachs died instantly but the impact only made the fire bigger.

Photo of Dave MacDonaldVintagesportscars, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

What Changed? 

Officials were able to pull MacDonald out of his car alive, but the burns he sustained were too much. Two hours after the accident, he passed on in hospital. 

MacDonald’s crash was a tragic shock, but it did lead to better safety standards at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, including the use of better fuel cells and putting limits on the amount of fuel cars could carry.

Dave MacDonald accidentThe Enthusiast Network, Getty Images

The 1986 Tour de Corse Rally Race

With races run on real roads and few barriers between the racecars and bystanders, it’s easy to see why rally racing is one of the most thrilling kinds of motorsport. 

And the years from 1982 to 1982 were the most adrenaline-inducing, when races featured the wicked fast Group B rally cars. But as the Group B cars proved, there is such as thing as “too fast”.

group b 1986Jim Culp, Flickr

He Predicted It

At the 1986 Tour de Corse rally race, Finnish driver Henri Toivonen and his co-driver Sergio Crestos met their end behind the wheel of a Lancia Delta S4. 

Because of their location on the course, we’re still not really sure what caused their fatal accident, but Toivonen’s comments before the race now seem like an eerie premonition.

Henri Toivonen  racingDon Morley, Getty Images

Deadly Speed

In his last comments to the public, Toivonen talked about the speed of his car, and how it made it “impossible” to race in a rally like the Tour de Corse. His comments proved true when, during the second leg of the race, his car sped off the road as he tried to make a tight left corner. 

With no guardrail, the car rolled down a ravine, landing on its roof. Seconds later, it exploded.

Lancia Delta S4 006Tennen-Gas, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

What Changed? 

The final verdict was that the speed of Toivonen’s car was to blame for his loss of control on the turn. Makes sense considering the Lancia Delta S4 cranked out more than 500 brake horsepower and could go from 0 to 60 mph in just 2.5 seconds. 

Such capabilities were common in Group B cars, and since they were eventual deemed impossible to race safely, the whole Group B class was banned from rally racing.

Lancia Delta S4Thesupermat, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Pierre Levegh, 1955 Le Mans

All of the crashes on this list were tragic, but there’s a reason that they call Pierre Levegh’s fatal accident the worst crash in motorsports. 

Levegh was competing in the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans race, driving a Mercedes, when a series of freak accidents turned it into one of racing’s darkest days.

Pierre Levegh in car racingBert Hardy, Getty Images

The Accident 

During the race, driver Mike Hawthorne cut into the pits, which caused the driver behind him, Lance Macklin, to swerve. Unfortunately, Macklin’s evasive maneuver sent him right into the path of Levegh. 

Levegh’s car ran up the side of Macklin’s before flying into the air. Levegh was flung from the vehicle and died on impact—but he was only the first casualty that day.

Pierre Levegh accidentUnknown Author, Getty Images

Mass Casualties 

The car hit a retaining wall which scattered pieces of the vehicle into the crowd. Moments later, it burst into flame. 83 people were killed and over a 100 more were injured.

Pierre Levegh accidentBernard Cahier, Getty Images

What Changed? 

This accident marked an important shift in the world of racing as it opened people’s eyes to just how dangerous motorsport could be. As a result, people began to make tracks safer not just for drivers, but spectators too. 

Mercedes also took a beat and wouldn’t return to the world of auto racing until 30 years later.

Pierre LeveghKeystone-France, Getty Images


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