Racing is known to be one of the most exhilarating and adrenaline-fueled spectacles in the world of sports. It is also, historically, one of the most notoriously dangerous, with deadly accidents occurring on a relatively frequent basis. When this fascinating sport turns sour, million-dollar cars turn into somersaulting balls of fire and destruction.
As the following incidents demonstrate, no one is ever really safe at a Formula One, NASCAR, drag or stock car event – not the drivers, the crew members, the field marshals, nor even the spectators. Although safety precautions are constantly revamped and upgraded – unfortunately, usually in the wake of some new tragedy – the racing world is an inherently dangerous one. As long as there’s a person behind the wheel, and as long as human error is possible, car racing will remain one of the most dangerous sports in the world. The following are the twenty most horrific, tragic crashes in the history of this particularly dangerous form of entertainment.
20. 1976 German Grand Prix – Niki Lauda
A very memorable crash in Formula One history, Niki Lauda was racing at the Nürburgring when his Ferrari’s suspension failed and he crashed into an embankment and then into Brett Lunger’s Surtees-Ford.
The car burst into flames and Lauda, a three-time F1 World Champion, was pulled from the wreckage – not before inhaling toxic fumes and suffering severe burns. While in the hospital and in a coma, a priest administered his last rites. Miraculously, Lauda survived and raced again six weeks later at the Italian Grand Prix.
His story is memorialized in the blockbuster film “Rush.”
19. 1964 Charlotte World 600 – Glen “Fireball” Roberts
Glen “Fireball” Roberts was considered the first superstar of NASCAR in the ‘60s. His cruelly ironic crash reinforced his nickname…
Roberts was involved in a single-car crash during the seventh lap of the Charlotte World 600. He was trying to avoid the two-car collision in front of him when he lost control and crashed into the retaining wall, flipping his car. His car burst into flames, and he was pinned in the cockpit as streaming gasoline burned 80% of his body. He died in the hospital six weeks later.
18. 1986 Tour de Corse – Henri Toivonen and Sergio Cresto
The Tour de Corse, a world rally around the island of Corsica, was one of the toughest races in Group B rallying. During the race, former European Rally Champion Henri Toivonen and his co-driver Sergio Cresto had their Lancia Delta S4 shoot off the side of a cliff and land on its roof, bursting into flames after the fuel tanks ruptured. Their charred bodies were found half an hour later when rescue crews discovered the scene after Toivonen and Cresto hadn’t arrived at the finish. This tragedy, and another one involving the death of Joaquim Santos and three spectators, caused the end of Group B rallying.
17. 2008 Old Bridge Townships Raceway Park – Scott Kalitta
Drag racing is the fastest of all car racing sports; so fast is it, that it’s the only racing division that requires a parachute. In 2008 in New Jersey, audiences got to see just how dangerous the sport is when the engine of Scott Kalitta’s car exploded while he was traveling at 300 mph.
The parachutes were damaged from the eruption, making it impossible to stop the car. Kalitta barreled into a post at the end of the race, a collision which took his life.
16. 1970 Goodwill Circuit – Bruce McLaren
The New Zealander Bruce McLaren founded McLaren Motor Racing Ltd. in 1963. Since then, the name has become known as one of the preeminent racing teams in the world and one of the world’s leading sports-car manufacturers.
Though he never won a Formula One Championship, McLaren won the 24 Hours at Le Mans event in 1964, and McLaren drivers swept the Can-Am series in 1969, winning 11 of 11 races.
Bruce died behind the wheel, but not in a competition: His fatal accident happened in 1970, when his Can-Am car crashed in England during a test run for a new body-style on his vehicle.
15. 1964 Riverside International Speedway – Joe Weatherly
Known as the “Clown Prince of Racing,” Joe Weatherly was a two-time NASCAR champion and winner of 25 races. He was known to play pranks on fellow drivers, party into the early hours with fellow driver Curtis Turner, and he even once took a practice run wearing a Peter Pan suit.
Weatherly was the defending series champion when he was killed at Riverside International Raceway in 1964, when he impacted a wall and his upper body was thrown out of the window and was crushed. His death led to the development of window nets, now widely used in stock car racing.
14. 1967 Monaco Grand Prix – Lorenzo Bandini
Lorenzo Bandini was an Italian Formula One racer for Scuderia Centro Sud and Ferrari. At the 1967 Monaco Grand Prix, Bandini’s rear-wheel hit the guardrail, sending his car sliding into a light pole.
The car flipped and sparks ignited his fuel tank. Bandini was trapped underneath, and when track marshals tried to right his car to rescue him, leaking fuel contacted the hot exhaust headers and the car exploded.
13. 1964 Indianapolis 500 – Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald
Eddie Sachs coined the phrase, “If you can’t win, be spectacular,” and was known to race with a lemon tied to his neck (for unknown reasons). At the 1964 Indianapolis 500, racer Eddie MacDonald lost control and collided with the inside wall on the second lap, causing his 100-gallon gas tank to explode. An inferno of fire and smoke rose into the air, and seconds later Eddie Sachs hit MacDonald, causing a second explosion and killing Sachs instantly. MacDonald died later that day at a hospital.
12. 1955 Indianapolis 500 – Bill Vukovich
Bill Vukovich won the Indianapolis 500 in both 1953 and 1954 – earning the title of Mr. Indianapolis – before the race tragically took his life in 1955 while he was going for his third straight win.
56 laps in, Vukovich had a 17-second lead when he tried to lap three slower cars. Those three cars crashed, and the car of racer Johnny Boyd drifted up the race track. Vukovich struck him, his car went airborne and somersaulted multiple times before going over the retaining wall and bursting into flames.
11. 1978 Italian Grand Prix – Ronnie Peterson
At the 1978 Italian Grand Prix, an ecstatic starter turned the lights green before all of the drivers could get into position. The bunching effect created a nine-car pileup and multiple collisions. Racer Ronnie Peterson was trapped in his fiery vehicle and suffered minor burns and leg fractures.
Unfortunately, a second human error occurred when race officials kept anyone from reaching the crash site, including medics. Peterson went untreated for several minutes and died from his injuries.
10. 1975 Talladega Superspeedway – Mark Donohue and fire marshal
“Captain Nice” Mark Donohue was a Formula One and NASCAR driver who earned the nickname “The Can-Am Killer” after winning the 1972 Indianapolis 500. He was also the first champion of the now-defunct IROC series.
During a practice run at Talladega Superspeedway, one of Donohue’s tires failed and he went careening into the catch fence. A track marshal was killed from the debris, but Donohue appeared to have survived the crash. His head struck a post, however, and a headache resulted that ended in Donohue going into a coma and dying from a cerebral hemorrhage the next day.
9. 1982 Belgian Grand Prix – Gilles Villeneuve
Gilles Villeneuve was a Canadian Formula One racer who won the Championships in 1976 in both the US and the Canadian Formula Atlantic. In 1982, he died while qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder.
Villeneuve hit a slower car and launched into the air at speeds of 120 to 140 mph. The car slammed into the track and somersaulted, launching Villeneuve from the car and into the catch fence.
8. 1999 Marlboro 500 – Greg Moore
24-year old Canadian racer Greg Moore became the youngest driver at the time to win an IndyCar race. In the last round of the 100 CART Championship, Moore had injured his wrist the day before, but was cleared by the medical team.
Following a restart on lap nine, Moore lost control of his vehicle and struck an access road, sending him through the air and into the infield wall, killing the up-and-comer on impact.
6. 1999 Visionaire 500k – Three spectators
This crash reminded people that it’s not just the drivers and crew members who were in danger during races. On lap 59 of the 1999 Visionaire 500k, racers John Paul, Sr. and Stan Wattles tangled together and hit the wall.
The impact sent Wattles’ right tire and tire assembly over the catch fence and into the crowd, where it killed three spectators and injured eight others. The race was eventually canceled.
6. 1977 South African Grand Prix – Tom Pryce and field marshal
Although all of these crashes are tragic and sad, this is one of the most horrifying in the history of the sport. At the 1977 South African Grand Prix, Pryce was passing by an accident while a young field marshal crossed the track with a fire extinguisher.
Pryce had no time to react and hit the marshal at nearly 200 mph, tearing his body in half. The fire extinguisher, meanwhile, flew from the marshal’s hand and hit Pryce in the head, nearly decapitating him. Both men instantly died from the freak occurrence.
5. 1903 Paris-Madrid – Eight spectators
One of the deadliest crashes came during one of the earliest races. Cars were relatively new, but still powerful enough to kill. During a long-distance race to Madrid, 216 cars and 59 motorbikes set off and resulted in an on-going bloodbath.
Cars crashed into spectators and ran over people, flipped themselves and ran into trees, and the race was called off during the first day, but not before an unofficial tally counted eight dead spectators and many more injured.
4. 2001 Daytona 500 – Dale Earnhardt Sr.
The crash that killed Dale Earnhardt Sr. left one of the most lasting impacts on NASCAR racing culture. Hugely covered by the media, Earnhardt was one of the most successful NASCAR drivers of all time, winning 76 races and seven championships. On the final lap of the Daytona 500, Earnhardt was tapped by driver Kenny Schrader, spinning Earnhardt into the wall head-on. The angle and speed killed Earnhardt instantly, when his head snapped forward into the steering wheel.
Earnhardt’s death caused a massive stir and an overhaul of NASCAR, mandating a HANS device and the SAFER barrier at all of their oval tracks, as well as being the catalyst for the development of the Car of Tomorrow. #3 is still remembered everywhere, and his car number has not been driven since.
3. 1994 San Marino Grand Prix – Ayrton Senna
Ayrton Senna is considered one of the greatest drivers in the history of Formula One. He is the third most successful driver of all time in terms of wins and holds a record six victories at the Monaco Grand Prix. Following fellow driver Roland Ratzenberger’s death the previous day, Senna was leading the race when his car went off the tracks at the Tamburello turn. Many people believe the cause of the accident was a broken steering shaft, and that he hit the wall at such a speed that the front wheel of his car swung up and impacted his head, killing him.
Like Earnhardt, Senna was a worldwide icon and his death was mourned by millions – it was Formula One’s safety wake-up call. The years following Senna’s death saw many changes to the tracks and cars, and since then there haven’t been any Formula One deaths in over 20 years.
2. 1957 Mille Miglia – Alfonso Portago, Edmund Nelson, nine spectators
One of the deadliest crashes in racing history threatened to destroy Ferrari’s name. At the 1957 Mille Miglia, racer “Fon” Portago and his co-driver Edmund Nelson were racing through a small village when they struck a ditch and their car was launched into a crowd, killing both of the drivers and nine spectators, five of whom were children. Portago’s body was found severed in half.
1. 1955 Le Mans Disaster – Pierre Levegh and 82 spectators
The worst disaster in racing history came at Le Mans in 1955. The accident shook up the racing world and forever changed the way cars compete. Just two hours into the race, Driver Pierre Levegh, behind the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR, attempted to pass a slower Austin-Healey. Levegh struck the rear of the car and his Mercedes catapulted into the air, striking the trackside embankment.
The car shattered and sent flaming debris into the crowd, where over 100 spectators were injured and 82 were killed, along with Levegh. Mercedes did not field an official team in competition for the next 30 years, and many believed racing would be outlawed worldwide following the catastrophe.