We have always loved the sport of racing, whether it be directly competing or merely watching. At the turn of the 20th century we replaced horses with internal combustion motors and brought competitive racing to a new level. Over 100 years later, motorsports – or auto racing – is one of the most exciting spectator sports around. Almost every weekend somewhere you can find a competition that pits a field of racers against one another. We love the cars, the sounds they make, the drivers who fearlessly pilot them and all the drama that seems to unfold during and after every battle on the track. Formula 1 is the most popular worldwide motorsport and in North America, the king remains NASCAR. In between there is everything from the Japanese Super GT series (formerly known as the JGTC) to the World Rally Championship (WRC) introducing us to a variety of new tracks, cars, drivers and challenges.
What draws spectators to the race day itself is the competition and excitement occurring on the track. Drivers overtaking one another, cars breaking down, underdogs coming from behind to snatch a victory – these are all crowd pleasers. Of course, what also attracts much attention to this high-speed sport are the crashes. That’s not to say fans love a crash – most cringe and worry at the sight of one – but they do provide a mix of the spectacular with the tragic and unexpected. When they do happen, crashes remind us that motorsports are exciting but extremely dangerous.
The following list looks at 15 of the worst crashes in auto racing history. As you’ll see, no one sport holds the monopoly for crashes as these tragedies strike as easily on the Formula 1 tracks as they do on the gravel and snow of the Rally circuits. These crashes are all considered bad for a number of reasons. Some are rated as the worst because of the number of people killed and injured. Other crashes are listed because of the spectacular nature of the crash itself. Many led to the introduction of new rules and regulations meant to keep drivers and fans safe, while others are simply remembered because they took the life of a well-liked or promising driver.
16 Honorable Mention: Old Bridge Township Raceway Park, 2008
Scott Kalitta was one of the most successful racers in American drag racing history. Competing in the Funny Car and Top Fuel classes, he won 18 races and claimed two championship titles in 1994 and 1995. On June 21st, 2008 Kalitta was entering the final round of qualifying for the Lucas Oil NHRA SuperNationals held at the Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in New Jersey. Near the end of the race his engine exploded, damaging the parachute meant to slow the car down. The dragster continued through the sand trap and over a retaining wall at approximately 125mph before striking a crane. Kalitta was killed from the impact. In response, the NHRA shortened the length of the tracks to 1000 feet, lengthened sand traps and padded the retaining walls.
15 The 1964 Riverside International Raceway
Known as “The Clown Prince of Racing,” to say Joe Weatherly had an outgoing personality would be an understatement. Weatherly was known to be a practical joker and often stayed up to early hours of the morning (even before a race) partying with friends. He reportedly even undertook a practice while wearing a Peter Pan costume. On the track, he was a proven NASCAR champ, winning the 1962 and 1963 Grand National Series in addition to 25 career races. In January 1964 he took part in the fifth race of the season at the Riverside International Raceway in California. During this race he lost control and hit the wall. Investigation confirmed Weatherly’s head had gone outside the window and been crushed against the wall. He had not been wearing a harness and did not have a window screen installed. His death resulted in the further development and mandatory installation of window nets in all NASCAR vehicles.
14 The 1976 German Grand Prix
The 1976 Formula 1 season was one of the most hotly contested campaigns in that sport’s history. Made famous by the 2013 film Rush, everyone into motorsports knew of the rivalry between Englishman James Hunt and Austrian Niki Lauda. The 1976 German GP was held at the famed Nürburgring Nordschleife, a challenging track with a dangerous reputation. Things were made even worse with wet conditions. On lap 2, Lauda lost control during a fast left-turn and struck the wall. His car burst into flames. The fire was made worse when another racecar struck Lauda’s damaged Ferrari seconds later. Engulfed in flames, Lauda was stuck in his car until fellow racers could help him get free. The German suffered severe burns and scars to his face. It was the last Grand Prix ever to be held at the old Nordschleife.
13 The 1998 JGTC at Fuji
Known today as Super GT, the JGTC utilized many of Japan’s famous race tracks and brought together a wide range of sports and supercars from Ferraris and Porsches to Nissans and Toyotas. In 1998, conditions at Fuji Speedway were terrible, with heavy rain and very thick fog. Before the start of the race the safety car had been going too fast before breaking suddenly. This caused two Porsches to aquaplane and collide. One Porsche settled on the grass off the track before a Ferrari 355, also aquaplaning, came out of the fog and struck it. Both cars burst into flames, with the Ferrari sliding across the track. The Ferrari’s driver, Tetsuya Ota was trapped in the burning car for a minute and a half before another driver stopped to put the fire out with an extinguisher. Ota required plastic surgery for the burns to his face and never raced again.
12 The 2001 Daytona 500
For race fans, especially those who follow NASCAR, February 18th, 2001 was a dark day. On the final lap of the Daytona 500, heading into turn 4, Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s car was bumped by Sterling Martin’s front bumper. Earnhardt veered off the track before swinging back onto the racing surface. His car was then struck by Ken Schrader’s car which pushed Earnhardt into the wall at around 160mph. Later investigations suggest the force was equal to being dropped from a height of nearly 20 meters. To spectators, the crash didn’t look as bad as it turned out to be. Unfortunately, Earnhardt Sr. had struck the wall at a bad angle with enough force to cause injury, including a fatal fracture to the skull.
11 The 1978 Italian Grand Prix
At the 1978 Italian Grand Prix a mix-up with the starting signal caused the race to commence before all the drivers were in position. The resulting surge of vehicles from the back half of the pack caught up to the leaders and caused a major crash. The nine-car pile-up was preventable but, more importantly, shouldn’t have led to any deaths. Driver Ronnie Peterson became stuck in his burning car following the crash. Peterson sustained leg injuries and minor burns but was pulled from the car by fellow drivers. Poor communication and decisions from race officials and medics meant he waited for nearly 20 minutes before help arrived. He died the next day in hospital from complications due to his injuries – complications which may have been avoided had medical help been administered much sooner.
10 The 1903 Paris to Madrid Race
One of the earliest organized motorsport races was also one of the most dangerous. The first recognized car race occurred almost ten years earlier but as the 1903 race demonstrated, much more experience and practice was needed. The competition was over 1300km long and involved around 300 racers who used cars and motorcycles. No repairs were allowed between stages – only during race time. It is therefore unsurprising that around half of the vehicles retired or crashed during the race. The relative inexperience of officials, racers and crowds were also demonstrated with numerous crashes. Drivers struck railway crossings signs, trees and each other. Cars caught on fire or fell apart. Spectators stood out on the road or ran in front of cars causing numerous crashes and injuries. By the end, eight people were confirmed killed and dozens of others were injured.
9 The 1999 Marlboro 500
The final race of the 1999 CART World Series was held at the California Speedway – known now as the Auto Club Speedway. Taking part in the race was 24 year old Canadian driver Greg Moore. He had been involved in an accident the week before the race when a vehicle knocked him off his motor-scooter. With an injured right hand, Moore was allowed to enter the final race. On lap 9, Moore lost control of his car, spinning onto the infield grass at 200mph. The car skipped over an access road, flipping and striking a concrete barrier directly with the top of the car. Moore was pulled from the car suffering from massive internal and head injuries. He died soon after.
8 The 1982 Belgian Grand Prix
Another Canadian racer on this list, Gilles Villeneuve had a spectacular and fatal crash while qualifying for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder. With only a few minutes of time left for the session, Villeneuve’s Ferrari came around a bend to discover a much slower car in his path. Unable to slow quickly enough, the Canadian tried to go around but was cut off by the slower car. The Ferrari launched into the air at around 130mph, cartwheeling and disintegrating in the process. Villeneuve, still strapped into his seat, was thrown 50m from the car and struck a fence at the edge of the track. Still alive but suffering from a broken neck, he was taken to a nearby hospital where he later died.
7 The 1986 Tour de Corse
Throughout the 1980s, the cars of the World Rally Championship pushed the limits of power and speed on non-race track surfaces such as snow and gravel. The cars of this era belonged to notorious Group B, a class which saw very light cars with very powerful turbocharged engines. Some of these vehicles were capable of going 0-60 in under 3 seconds - on gravel. It was only a matter of time until the power became too much for the narrow courses and during the 1986 Tour de Corse on Corsica, Henri Toivonen and his co-driver Sergio Cresto crashed their Lancia Delta S4. The car went off the road, down a ravine and landed on its roof before bursting into flames. Both men were killed and the car was unrecognizable once the flames were put out. Toivonen had complained about the car being too powerful and this incident proved to be the nail in the coffin for the cars of Group B in the WRC.
6 The 1964 Indianapolis 500
If there is a crash during a race, traditionally the yellow flag comes out and cars drive under caution until the situation is sorted out. During the 1964 Indy 500 driver Dave MacDonald reportedly had a very fast but unstable car. Other drivers reported that MacDonald was taking risks and that his car seemed a bit out of control at times. On the second lap, his car spun out and struck the wall, bursting into flames. The blazing car slid back onto the track causing several cars to crash. Driver Eddie Sachs tried to find an opening in the chaos to get through but ended up hitting MacDonald’s vehicle broadside, causing another explosion. Sachs was killed instantly and MacDonald later succumbed to significant burns to his body. The race did not continue under a caution - It was the first time the Indianapolis 500 was stopped because of an accident.
5 The 1977 South African Grand Prix
During lap 22 of this race, the car driven by Renzo Zorzi pulled off to the side of the track before experiencing a fire. Two marshals ran across the track with extinguishers to help. Just at that moment two more cars appeared catching the marshals on the track. The first marshal made it across, the second – Jansen van Vuuren - was hit by the car of Tom Pryce graphically killing van Vuuren and sending him flying into the wall. The extinguisher he had been carrying smashed into Pryce’s head, nearly decapitating the driver and killing him instantly. Pryce’s car continued down the track until it crashed at the next turn.
4 The 1986 Rally de Portugal
Happening a little earlier than the above mentioned incident at the Tour de Corse, the accident at the 1986 Rally de Portugal made the WRC officials take notice and begin an investigation which would lead to the end of the Group B cars. The Portuguese stage was known for having fans standing very near or even on the road. Add in high powered cars sliding around corners and you can imagine what happened. Some drivers reportedly feared the Portuguese leg of the competition because of this. Early in the rally, the Ford RS200 of Joaquim Santos came over a crest and lost traction. Video shows the Ford heading into a left turn but failing to negotiate the move. Fighting for control, the driver could not prevent the inevitable and the car smashed into the crowd. Three people were killed and dozens more injured.
3 The 1994 San Marino Grand Prix
The 1994 San Marino Grand Prix was the third race of the season. Pole position was held by Brazilian Ayrton Senna, a position he held in the previous two races as well. Race festivities had been dampened by two serious crashes in qualifying. First, Rubens Barrichello had been badly hurt when his car was launched into the air and crashed into the tire barrier – knocking him unconscious. Second, Austrian Roland Ratzenberger was killed when he lost control at 190mph, striking the concrete wall and suffering a skull fracture (similar to Dale Earnhardt Sr.). On race day, there was more bad news as Senna’s car struck the wall on lap 7 at 135mph, fatally injuring him. It is believed the front wheel separated during the crash and struck his head causing massive trauma. All of this led to the enforcement of new safety measures in Formula 1.
2 The 1957 Mille Miglia
The Mille Miglia was a yearly endurance race similar to today’s rally races. All types of cars were entered with the slowest vehicles starting first so roadways would not have to be closed as long. In 1957, the combination of speed and spectators led to the banning of this race. There were two fatal crashes involving drivers. The most serious involved Alfonso de Portago and his co-driver Edmund Nelson. The Ferrari that they were in was travelling at an estimated 120mph when a tire burst. The blowout caused the car to leave the road, rolling over and reportedly tearing the two drivers in half. If that wasn’t bad enough, the vehicle struck a crowd and killed an additional nine people.
1 The 1955 24 Hours of LeMans
This is deadliest single race and killed the most spectators at a motorsport event. The races at LeMans are legendary in the world of motorsport. In 1955 an accident occurred which left a black mark on this event and led to new safety regulations. A sudden braking by a Jaguar near the pits caused a number of cars to try and avoid a collision. A Mercedes driven by Pierre Levegh could not avoid the chaos, hitting an Austin-Healey and launching up into the crowd. The hood, engine and an axel flew into the crowd crushing and decapitating spectators. The car, built with magnesium, caught fire and burned even more to death. Levegh was thrown from the car and killed. In total, the crash claimed the lives of 84 people and injured over 100 others. Truly tragic.