Ask any car racing fan what they enjoy about watching the sport, and the majority will tell you they get a kick out of the high speeds and battles for pole position. However, these high speed chases can come at a price. As sadistic as it may sound, crashes in car racing are some of the most exciting, and horrifying spectacles of any sport.
Viewers can’t help but get a thrill from the sound of metal crumpling, watching the explosion after a gas tank ignites and seeing the driver emerge from the wreck and walk away. However, when it comes to the worst of the worst, lives are lost. Chronicled below are the 10 worst accidents in car racing history:
10. Daytona 500 2001 – Dale Earnhardt
One of the most notable things about Dale Earnhardt’s accident at the 2001 Daytona 500 was just how unremarkable the actual crash was. After briefly brushing another driver, Earnhardt’s #3 car veered to the bottom of the track then started to ascend. At this point Dale Earnhardt’s car collided with fellow racer Ken Schrader and hit the wall.
What makes the crash so notable was Earnhardt, one of the greatest NASCAR drivers in history, died setting off a firestorm of scrutiny and safety modifications. A $1 million dollar NASCAR investigation discovered the force of the crash to be equal to a parked car being hit by another traveling at a speed of 80 mph.
9. Charlotte World 600 1964 – “Fireball” Roberts
In a tragic twist of irony Glen “Fireball” Roberts, considered the first superstar of NASCAR, was involved in a single car accident that reinforced his nickname.
During the seventh lap of the Charlotte World 600 in 1964, two cars in front of Roberts collided. This caused leaked fuel to ignite in a burst of flames. Trying to avoid the accident, Roberts lost control and crashed into the retaining wall of the infield, flipping his car which subsequently burst into flames. Roberts was pinned in the cockpit as gasoline streamed in from the fuel tank and burned 80 percent of his body. He died in the hospital six weeks later.
8. Italian Grand Prix 1978 – Ronnie Peterson
The crash at the Italian Grand Prix in 1978 is one of the worst and most controversial race car accidents in history.. Human error caused driver Ronnie Peterson to get tangled up in the 9-car pileup and lose his life.
At the very beginning of the race, an overenthusiastic starter turned the lights green before all the drivers could get into position. This created a bunching effect, as the rest of the pack tried to catch up to the leaders. Multiple cars collided, including Peterson who became trapped in his vehicle after hitting the wall which caught his car on fire.
Peterson suffered minor burns and significant fractures to his legs. Unfortunately, race officials kept anyone from reaching the crash site, including medics, leaving Peterson untreated for several minutes which resulted in his death from the injuries he incurred.
7. Indianapolis 500 1964 – Dave MacDonald and Eddie Sachs
The accident at the Indianapolis 500 in 1964 wasn’t so much a fiery crash as it was an inferno. The result was the death of two drivers.
Dave MacDonald hit the track in a car that housed the engine and gasoline in the rear. During the second lap he lost control and collided into the inside wall, which caused the 100 gallons of gas in his tank to explode. This sent a massive plume of fire and smoke into the air and across the entire track. Seconds later, Eddie Sachs hit MacDonald, killing Sachs instantly and causing a second explosion. MacDonald was taken to a hospital where he died later that day.
6. Belgian Grand Prix 1982 – Gilles Villeneuve
If there is one crash that could be characterized asbeing in slow motion, it is Gilles Villeneuve’s during the qualifying race for the Belgian Grand Prix in 1982. That’s because both car and driver were launched into the air.
While coming around a bend, both Villeneuve and a driver ahead of him swerved in the same direction resulting in a collision. The crash sent Villeneuve’s car into the air at approximately 120 to 140 mph. Villeneuve’s car crash landed and sent him flying into the track’s fencing, fracturing his neck. After spending time on life support, he finally surrendered to his injuries and passed away.
5. Old Bridge Townships Raceway Park 2008 – Scott Kalitta
Drag racing is arguably the loudest and fastest of all categories of car racing, as well as the most dangerous. It is, of course, the only racing sport that requires a parachute.
In 2008, at the Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in New Jersey, spectators witnessed just how dangerous the car racing can be. The engine of Scott Kalitta’s car exploded while he was travelling at 300 mph. As a result of the flames, the car’s parachutes were severely damaged. Thus, Kalitta’s car couldn’t be stopped as it barreled into a post at the end of the track, quickly taking his life.
4. South African Grand Prix 1977 – Tom Pryce and field marshal
The accident that occurred at the South African Grand Prix in 1977 was so horrific it seemed to be out of a screenplay for a movie.
While trying to assist with another accident, a young field marshal crossed the track with a fire extinguisher. At that same moment, racer Tom Pryce was passing through a kink in the track into the open straightaway and didn’t have time to react. Pryce hit the field marshal at nearly 200 mph, tearing his body in half. Meanwhile, the fire extinguisher hit Pryce in the head and almost decapitated him. Both men died instantly.
3. Mille Miglia 1957
The Mille Miglia was a yearly endurance race in Italy that was similar to the rally races of modern times. It was banned, for good reason, after the tragic accident in 1957.
The cause of the accident is still unknown, but its aftermath is well documented. During a stage that passed through a small village, a driver crashed his Ferrari, killing himself, along with his co-driver. The worst part was that the crash resulted in the death of nine spectators, which included five children.
2. Paris-Madrid Race 1903
One of the very earliest races in history was also one of the deadliest. Although cars were more or less still in their infancy, they still had enough power to kill.
Starting in Versailles, 216 cars and 59 motorbikes set off on a long distance race to Madrid. Before long, a list of crashes began to occur. In an on-going bloodbath, cars crashed into spectators, ran over people crossing the streets, slammed into trees and flipped themselves over. The race was called off the day it began, with an unofficial tally of eight people dead and many injured.
1. Le Mans Disaster 1955
If fatalities in car racing arerare and multiple fatalities are even more rare, then what happened at the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans race was a once in a lifetime event.
As cars in front of Pierre Levegh came to a sudden stop, the driver collided into the rear of another car. This forceful impact sent Levegh’s car into an embankment which separated the track from the crowd. The impact literally tore the car apart and the resulting debris struck and killed onlookers. Adding to the carnage, the car’s fuel tank ignited sending a rain of fire into the panicked crowd. When it finally ended, 84 people were dead, including Levegh, and over 100 were injured.
If there is one silver lining out of the worst car racing accidents in history, it is the resulting safety improvements that have saved the lives of many drivers and fans.