Over the past 100 years of motorsports, manufacturers and racers continually pushed the limits of technology and driver capability in order to entertain crowds and win prizes. Engines became more powerful and efficient, cars became more aerodynamic or rugged and race tracks and courses were developed across the world. From Touring Championships to Formula One to NASCAR, over the years, racing series have grown in popularity and competitiveness.
Of course, as a fan, spectator or driver, it is understood that any sport involving high powered cars or motorcycles brings with it a degree of risk. Putting several dozen cars on a track and running that at a high speed creates an environment where crashes and injuries are likely. Driving a turbocharged car over gravel roads surrounded by spectators is perhaps not the safest of situations to be in. Flying along at 150mph on a sport bike over public roads through a small English village is another cringe-worthy scenario. Yet, competitors and drivers continually put themselves in these situations for the thrill of the race. As a result, death and injury are commonplace in the world of motorsport racing among both spectators and competitors.
Over time, certain races have developed reputations for being especially dangerous. What makes these races so dangerous? There is often no single answer as drivers, cars, weather and tracks can all play a role in deciding how safe or dangerous a race is. In rally sport, the cars became too powerful and light in the 1980s. In NASCAR, certain speedways had design features which made them more dangerous than others, especially as cars gained more power. In Formula One, engine power outpaced track design. Whatever the reason, certain events and tracks have established themselves as being especially dangerous. In certain instances, the dangers are deemed so great that the event or track is banned from the respective series. So, what are the top 10 deadliest racing venues in the world?
10 Targa Florio
The Targa Florio was an endurance race held on the island of Sicily, in Italy, from 1906 until 1977. The course went through a number of changes from its beginnings, ultimately ending up as a 72 km track of public roads. At the time, it was considered one of the hardest races in Europe.
This is the circuit that the World Rally Championship deemed too dangerous to drive in the mid-1970s. Considering the WRC was using 300+hp RWD driven on gravel and snow, that’s quite a statement. Targa Florio was not the fastest rally, nor did it kill the most drivers. Average top speeds were around 120 kph and only 9 people were killed. That said, the course went through the mountains and roads often had no guard rails or barriers. In 1978, the race was transformed from an endurance style competition to a rally series and continues on today.
9 Baja 1000
At most races, it’s unlikely that you could be robbed, shot or kidnapped. Welcome to the Baja 1000. This event may not kill a lot of drivers but it is one of the most dangerous races in the world. The Baja 1000 is an annual rally which sees bikes, cars, trucks and buggies tackle a grueling course mapped out in the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. Despite its name, the race is usually less than 1000 miles. The drivers probably do not care as they are often too busy looking out for booby-traps, barriers and jumps created by spectators along the way. Not challenging enough? Throw in gangs, drug cartels and ex-police officers who kidnap drivers or raid the local morgues to steal bodies of people killed during the race. If this still isn’t exciting enough, in 2007, a helicopter carrying a drug cartel boss crashed during the race and killed several people.
While dozens of spectators and drivers have been killed and injured during this event, famous people including NASCAR’s Jimmie Johnson and actors Paul Newman and Steve McQueen have taken part and it continues to draw hundreds of thousands of spectators every year.
8 Circuit de la Sarthe
Any fan of the Gran Turismo video games knows this track as the one with a long straight and those two annoying chicanes in the middle. Racing fans will know this as the famed track of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Located near Le Mans, France, the Circuit de la Sarthe was opened in 1923 and is composed of purpose built track and public roads. During the track’s early years, collisions on the public road sections were not uncommon. As cars became more powerful, speed-related accidents and fatalities increased. Average race speeds attained here are well over 200 mph. Total driver deaths on this course stands at 22, with the most recent occurring last year. The deadliest crash occurred in 1955 when a car lost control and went into the crowd killing 85 spectators and injuring over 100 others. Since then, changes have been made to the track to limit top speeds and protect fans.
7 Paris-Dakar Rally
Commonly referred to as just the Dakar Rally, this event is a test of endurance for both driver and vehicle. With 800+ km stages, drivers must cover a variety of terrain including sand, mud, rocks, water and grass. Originally held in Africa, the event is now held in South America because of political and military instability. Over the years, this endurance event has claimed the lives of 28 competitors and at least 40 spectators, journalists and officials. Exact numbers are impossible to determine as records for spectator fatalities are incomplete. In addition to crashes, landmines, rebel soldiers and animals all played their role in increasing the number of fatalities and injuries. Perhaps indicative of the dangers of the Dakar Rally, the race’s founder, Thierry Sabine, was killed scouting a portion of the course in 1986.
6 Daytona Speedway
The Daytona Speedway is home to the Daytona 500, the most prestigious race in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series. It is one of two Sprint Car tracks which require the use of restrictor plates to keep speeds down. The policy was enforced largely as a result of Bobby Allison’s dramatic crash at Talladega in 1987. That said, crashes and fatalities continued to occur at Daytona after the new regulations were enforced. This legendary circuit has claimed the lives of 36 competitors over the years. Incidents include ‘normal’ crashes, heart-attacks and crew members being run over. Arguably the most notable death on this track was that of Dale Earnhardt Sr., who was killed during the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
5 Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps
Home to the Formula One Belgian Grand Prix and the Spa 24 Hours endurance race, the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps is a challenging course for any driver. Originally 15 km long when completed in 1921, the track has been continually altered into a 7 km course. Don’t let this small size fool you. The Spa track remains one of the most challenging tracks in Europe thanks to its twists, hills and fast speeds. Since its opening, 47 drivers have died racing their cars and motorcycles around this course. More recent track changes have clearly made Spa safer as only 2 of those fatalities occurred after 2000.
4 Autodroma Nazionale Monza
Located north of Milan, Italy, Monza was opened in 1922. The 3.6 mile track gained a reputation for speed thanks to its numerous straights which allowed cars to open up the throttle. This was demonstrated by F1 cars reaching speeds of 230 mph before engine regulations limited speeds to just over 200 mph. Of course, all of this speed led to numerous crashes. Since its opening 52 drivers, 1 official and 35 spectators have been killed. Safety regulations implemented after the death of Ayrton Senna reduced the fatalities at this track. Larger gravel traps, reworked chicanes and a slightly shorter track were all implemented after 1994.
3 Indianapolis Speedway
Since 1909, 56 competitors have been killed at the Indianapolis Speedway. The 2.5 mile track is a rectangular oval with two long and two short straights. The longer 5/8 mile stretches allow for cars to increase speed greatly. Average speeds can be anywhere in the range of 160-230 mph depending on the competition. In the track’s early years, the speed was usually much lower but still high enough to cause problems. A number of cars rolled during this period, often killing the driver and riding mechanic. As speeds increased, crashes came about from loss of traction, usually in the corners. Cars either struck the wall or struck other cars, killing and injury drivers. That said, the last race car related fatality for a driver came in 2003 when Tony Renna lost control of his vehicle and caught the fence.
Three-time Formula One Champion Jackie Stewart once called the Nürburgring the most dangerous circuit in the world. With 68 drivers killed in sanctioned competition and practice, it is easy to see why Stewart thought this. Unofficially, it is widely reported that an additional 3-12 drivers are killed per year as they try to negotiate the challenging course.
The track itself has gone through a number of configurations and changes over the year. Most of these have been to try and make it shorter and safer, especially after the fiery crashes of 1970s; one of which has been immortalized in the 2013 film Rush. By far, the most famous section of the course is the North Loop, known as the Nordschleife. This section is currently 13 miles long and has over 150 turns. The track itself is relatively narrow and has considerable changes in elevation throughout. With little to no run-off, drivers who lose control are likely to slam into the barrier. Yet, the track as it sits today is safer than the bumpy, jump filled track of the pre-1976 Formula One era.
1 Isle of Man / Snaefell Mountain
The undisputed title of deadliest racetrack surely belongs to the Isle of Man’s Snaefell Mountain Course. The oldest motorcycle circuit in use today, since 1911, the Isle of Man has claimed the lives of 240 racers in competition and practice. An additional 14 lives have been lost in unofficial accidents and by race officials. When you see you how fast the racers move on the course, it is easy to understand why so many have died. The current lap record for this track was set in 2013, with an average speed of 131 mph.
There are a number of factors which make the Isle of Man the deadliest venue for racers. First, the track makes use of public roads. As a result, surface condition, banking and track width are far different from a purpose-built racetrack. Second, in its earlier years, the track was not closed to the public during practice sessions. The mix of public vehicles and high speed bikes led to a number of accidents and the Isle of Man claimed its first victim because of this. Third, at over 37 miles in length, it is roughly three times longer than the current Nürburgring Nordschleife and has relatively few corners and an elevation change of over 1300 feet over its length. None of this has seen a shortage in racers arriving at the Isle of Man bent on leaving their mark on the race. Unfortunately, they are just as likely to leave their mark on the asphalt.