Crashes are an unavoidable part of motorsports. The looming threat of an incident spontaneously taking a car out of competition is a significant part of motorsports’ drama. However, the danger of a crash injuring or even killing a driver is the most distressing aspect of the sport. Governing bodies do what they can to ensure the safety of everyone involved, while others claim those efforts make driver errors not as costly to their performance as they used to be.
It’s been 15 years since Michael McDowell’s catastrophic crash during qualifying for the 2008 Samsung 500. McDowell’s stock car got loose entering Turn 1 at Texas Motor Speedway and then hooked to the right, sending the No. 00 Toyota Camry head-on into the outside wall at 185 miles per hour. The car decelerated to zero mph over a single foot, then tumbled down the banking as it shed bodywork, components, and fluids.
Racing has always been dangerous. The sport began with the city-to-city events organized by the Automobile Club de France. The early era of international races came to a tragic close with the 1903 Paris-Madrid. The season’s marquee ACF race was intended to promote the automobile in Spain but never reached the border.
The race was halted in Bordeaux by the French government after reports of multiple crashes returned to Paris. Dusty roads and poor crowd control led to incidents that killed five drivers and three spectators, but at least 100 people were injured. The most notable among the dead was Marcel Renault, a co-founder of the automaker bearing his family’s name. Renault crashed when he left the road, trying to pass another competitor in the dust. His brother Louis was the first driver to reach Bordeaux.
1938 Land Speed Record Attempt
After the 1903 Paris-Madrid, racing’s fastest vehicles were no longer racing on open, public roads. Though purpose-built racing circuits still weren’t the norm even 35 years later. Most races were held on closed circuits on public roads despite the insane speeds that front-running Grand Prix machinery could reach during the late 1930s.
Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union, the German factory teams subsidized by the Nazi regime, also pushed their equipment to the absolute limit in land speed record attempts during the late 1930s. In 1938, three-time European champion Rudolf Caracciola averaged 268.7 mph over a flying mile in a Mercedes-Benz W125 Rekordwagen on a closed stretch of Autobahn between Frankfurt and Darmstadt. The vehicle was a modified version of his race car fitted with a larger engine and streamlined bodywork. Caracciola’s public road speed record stood until 2017, when Koenigsegg broke it with an Agera RS averaging 277.9 mph on a Nevada state highway.
The same day as Caracciola’s record run, Bernd Rosemeyer attempted to break the record for Auto Union. The 1936 European champion was driving a modified Auto Union Type C fitted with skirted streamlined body. Rosemeyer was driving close to 270 mph when a crosswind gust unsettled his car and pulled him off the highway. The Auto Union car crashed and tumbled down the roadway, flipping through the air. Rosemeyer, not wearing a seatbelt as was the standard practice, was thrown clear of the wreck and killed on impact.
1955 Indianapolis 500
Yes, this spectator is in the stands still watching the 1955 Indianapolis 500 in progress.
Over 40 people were killed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway by the 1950s, but the venue’s most significant death happened during the 1955 edition of the venue’s legendary race. Heading into the 1955 Indianapolis 500, Bill Vukovich was already one of the event’s greatest drivers relatively early in his career. He nearly won in the 1952 500 before winning in 1953 and 1954 dominantly. In the 200-lap classic, Vukovich led 150 laps before a steering failure in 1952. Then, he led 195 laps in his 1st win and 90 laps in his 2nd.
In 1955, Vukovich took the lead on the fourth lap and quickly began to pull away from the field. However, he had to worry about the lapped traffic in front of him. He was collected in a multi-car crash, and his car was launched over the outside wall. Vukovich was killed instantly after being partially decapitated when his car struck the bridge over the track after Turn 2 while cartwheeling.
Vukovich’s death, among other fatal incidents in 1955, would have the U.S. Senate consider banning racing across the country. Consequently, the American Automobile Association no longer sanctioned racing and Detroit’s Big Three automakers discontinued their factory racing programs.
1955 24 Hours of Le Mans
The Le Mans Disaster remains the deadliest crash in motorsports history. During the 1955 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, 83 people were killed when Pierre Levegh crashed his Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR into a spectator area on Circuit de la Sarthe’s main straight. Jaguar driver, future F1 champion and terrible human being Mike Hawthorn cut off Austin-Healey’s Lance Macklin to dive into his pit box. Macklin swerved to avoid the Jaguar and Levegh hit Macklin. Levegh’s Mercedes hit a trackside berm and flew into the crowd.
The Mercedes 300 SLR’s body was built out of Elektron, a magnesium alloy also used in aircraft and incendiary bombs. The remains of the Mercedes burned for hours as rescue teams struggled to extinguish the blaze. In the race’s aftermath, most countries in Western Europe banned racing until the next year. However, Switzerland never fully lifted its ban on motorsports.
1960 NASCAR Modified Sportsman Race at Daytona
Five years after the Le Mans disaster, NASCAR saw its largest crash by the number of cars involved. There was a massive first-lap pile-up in a Modified Sportsman support race for the 1960 Daytona 500. Of the gigantic 74-car field, 37 vehicles were involved in the wreck. Thankfully, there were no serious injuries, but 24 drivers were forced to retire from the race. It would be 30 years until massive multi-car incidents became commonplace at NASCAR’s superspeedway races.
1961 Italian Grand Prix
Formula One would have its own mass casualty incident at the 1961 Italian Grand Prix. Wolfgang von Trips made contact with Lotus’ Jim Clark approaching the Parabolica during the race’s second lap. Von Trips lost control of his Ferrari and speared off into a fence lined with spectators. The German driver and 15 spectators were killed. The FIA would ban F1 from competing on circuits with steeply-banked corners in the incident’s aftermath.
1964 Indianapolis 500
Dave MacDonald spun on the exit of Turn 4 on the second lap of the 1964 Indianapolis 500. McDonald’s car smashed into the inside wall and burst into flames. Several other drivers were caught in the blaze, but Eddie Sachs t-boned MacDonald. The impact caused another explosion, killing Sachs instantly. MacDonald was pulled from his car alive but seriously burned. The Indianapolis 500 was stopped for the first time to respond to the incident. He died later that day at Methodist Hospital. The United States Auto Club, the race’s sanctioning body after the AAA, mandated more durable fuel cells and carry less fuel after the crash.
1978 Italian Grand Prix
A huge race start pile-up at Monza in 1978 would tragically show Formula One the importance of a quick medical response. Ronnie Peterson’s Lotus was collected in the crash, but the Swede was trapped in his burning car. Other drivers pulled Peterson out of the Lotus, but the crash fractured 27 bones in his legs. It would be 20 minutes before medical personnel arrived. Peterson was pronounced dead the following day. The death led to the medical car following the F1 field around the track for the first lap of every race.
1994 San Marino Grand Prix
While F1 had four deaths in the 15 years after Peterson’s death, the world championship got its next wake-up call in 1994. Simtek’s Roland Ratzenberger was killed in a crash qualifying for the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola. The next day, three-time champion Ayrton Senna was killed when his Williams FW16 went straight on at Tamburello and smashed into a concrete wall at 131 miles per hour. Senna died instantly. The sport’s recommitment to safety after these deaths would prevent another death in F1 for three decades.
2001 Daytona 500
Dale Earnhardt, seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, was killed in a crash on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. As Earnhardt’s teammate Michael Waltrip and his son Dale Jr. crossed the finish line first and second, Earnhardt’s car came to a rest on the inside of Turn 4. The iconic black No. 3 Chevy had collided head-on with the outside wall after making contact with Sterling Marlin. Like F1, NASCAR introduced a raft of safety features over the years to prevent further fatal incidents after Earnhardt’s death.
2003 Chevy 500
Two years later, Kenny Brack survived a tremendous crash during the 2003 Chevy 500, the Indy Racing League season finale. The 1999 Indianapolis 500 winner touched wheels with Tomas Scheckter and was flung into the catch fence at Texas Motor Speedway. The Swede suffered numerous fractures in the 214g impact and spent 18 months in recovery. Brack would return for the 2005 Indy 500 and then retire from racing.
2007 Canadian Grand Prix
BMW Sauber driver Robert Kubica survived a similarly violent crash at Montreal in 2007. The Polish driver clipped Toyota’s Jarno Trulli, left the racing surface and hit a barrier at 186 miles per hour. The Sauber dramatically rolled down the track and came to a rest with just shattered pieces of the car clinging to the intact monocoque. Kubica only suffered a concussion and a sprained ankle. In Kubica’s absence for the next race, future four-time champion Sebastian Vettel made his F1 debut.
2011 IZOD IndyCar World Championship
Over the 2011 season, IndyCar and Dallara were developing a safer IR-12 chassis to replace the aging IR-05 in 2012. For a swansong, the series allowed 34 cars to enter the season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. There was a $5 million prize on offer for any guest driver who could win the race from the back. The bonus only had a single taker, the 2011 Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon. He was eligible because he only had a part-time deal to race at Indianapolis.
The Vegas event was a recipe for disaster with open-wheel car pack racing at 220 mph. The inevitable happened on lap 11. There was a 15-car pile-up that was a storm of sparks, flames, and carbon fiber. Dan Wheldon’s car ramped off another car and flew over 300 feet through the air into the catch fence. Wheldon’s head struck one of the fence’s support poles. The new chassis he helped develop was renamed the DW-12 in his memory.
2020 Daytona 500
One of the last significant moments for NASCAR’s Gen 6 car was the finish of the 2020 Daytona 500. During the second overtime finish, Ryan Newman crashed out from the lead during the run to the finish line. As Newman’s car rolled down the front stretch, Corey LaJoie struck Newman’s driver-side window. It took 15 minutes for safety team members to cut Newman out of the wrecked car and into an ambulance. The 2008 Daytona 500 winner suffered a bruised brain but survived. He only missed three races due to the pause in the season caused by COVID-19.
2020 Bahrain Grand Prix
The worst crash in Formula One in recent seasons occurred at the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix. Haas’ Romain Grosjean made contact with AlphaTauri’s Daniil Kvyat and was shunted into an Armco barrier. The Haas speared between two of the metal rails and split in half. The cockpit was stuck in the barrier as it burst into flames. Grosjean pulled himself out of the blaze after 28 seconds. He survived with only minor burns.
Grosjean’s escape was a testament to the progress Formula One has made in terms of safety and how there’ll always be room for improvement.
More from Jalopnik