Worst Racing Crashes in the History of Motorsport

The Age of Prohibition is thought to have ushered in the desire for fast cars. Running bootleg whiskey brought in from Canada or transported across states considered to be dry required speed if you were going to outrun the law. From there, illegal street racing grew, with the 1950s being remembered as a decade that lost many drivers and spectators to accidents in these unlawful racing events. According to recent reports, 33 people die daily in an accident due to speeding.

Organized racing events became widely supported by government entities to reduce the deaths and illegal racing contests on the highways. The formation of the National Hot Rod Association grew on the West Coast, and the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) formed on the east coast. At the same time, IndyCar racing had already found its way to Portland, Oregon, in the early 1900s and was inspired by Formula 1 racing that began in Europe.

Bringing the races from the streets to official tracks was not without its dangers. Looking at some of the worst racing crashes in motorsport history serves as a reminder that speed, human error, and mechanical malfunctions play a critical factor in safety.

Motorsport Racing Crashes

The term motorsport casts a wide net and covers a lot of motorized equipment. But cars are what most people get excited about. Nascar remains the second most-watched sport on television, falling just behind football. 

There have been racing crashes in the history of motorsport that have been so devastating and impactful that they have changed the way motorsports are conducted, leading to innovation and regulations that protect the drivers and the dedicated crowd that shows up to cheer their favorite team to victory.

1955 Le Mans Disaster

The label spoke for itself and changed the course of racing history. The competition was fierce, with the giants in the industry, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, and Ferrari, bringing their best to represent in the race in France. Reports indicate that between the second and third hour of the race, Jaguar’s lead driver, Mike Hawthorn, who had been ignoring signals to fuel, made a split decision to enter the pit, swerving in front of the Austin-Healey driver, Lance Macklin.

Macklin, braking and swerving to miss Hawthorne, ended up in the path of Mercedes-Benz driver Pierre Levegh who was calculated to be driving more than 150 miles per hour. Hitting the Austin-Healey driven by Macklin, the Mercedes, and Levegh went airborne, landing near a packed spectator’s arena. Not only did the car burst into flames, but parts from the Mercedes became high-speed projectiles as the car broke into pieces, grotesquely killing bystanders.

A fire, fed by the water used to control it, created a scene of purgatory that continued to burn for hours and added to the devastation. Reports vary, but over 80 people died that day, with another 100 reported injured. A champion driver at Le Mans, contributor to motorsports history, and Mercedes-Benz team member, John Fitch, became instrumental to racing and road safety following this horrific incident.

1957 Mille Miglia 

In the early days of motorsport in 1927, a 1,000-mile stretch of highway was designated for racing through the countryside of Italy. Already considered a dangerous race, the end became imminent in 1957 when a worn tire on the Ferrari of driver Alfonso de Portago and navigator and co-driver Edmund Nelson crashed in the village of Guidizzolo, killing an estimated nine to 10 onlookers, with five being children. A second crash in that same race claimed the life of another driver.

The original Mille Miglia claimed the lives of 56 people during its race history. But it is still celebrated today.

1960 Daytona Modified Sportsman Race

No race in the history of NASCAR has seen as much metal carnage as this race produced. A record number of 73 cars entered this race. Because of the extent of the wreckage, no race has ever been permitted to have this many participants again. 

Less than two minutes into the race, Dick Foley’s Chevrolet temporarily got away from him, leaving 37 vehicles wrecked in his wake producing the most significant smash-up in Nascar history. Somehow, amidst all the wreckage, no one was seriously injured. And Foley was able to finish the race in tenth place.

2001 Daytona 500

Few people have not heard of Dale Earnhardt and how his death traumatized NASCAR and its fans, forever becoming known as the crash that saved NASCAR. In the final lap of the race, his car came in contact with a competitor’s car, spinning out of control at 180mph. Earnhardt’s car continued to slide down the track and hit another competitor before careening into a retaining wall and killing the legendary driver.

Within a decade, 12 of the 15 racers killed in auto races were reported to have died of the same injury that claimed Earnhardt’s life. After his crash, NASCAR created a safety research center, changed its points system to reduce dangerous driving practices, and required all drivers to be fitted with head and neck protectors. 

2002 Aaron’s 312, Talladega

This race involved the largest accident in modern Nascar history. Reports vary, but a 27 to 33-car pileup took out almost three-quarters of the field on lap 14 during this race. A sequence of bump-ups started the events that led to Johnny Sauter’s car landing sideways in the middle of the track after rolling twice, blocking the raceway. 

Somehow, no serious injuries resulted from the pileup. But Talladega has gained a reputation for its history of catastrophic car accidents and death

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