Though considered to be something of a niche sport, NASCAR has a tremendously devoted, loyal, even rabid fanbase. The NASCAR diehards will roll out to the tracks in their motor homes, or even pitch a tent on the infield, ready to spend a beer fueled weekend devouring as much of the high octane, high speed adrenaline rush the sport provides.
But most people out there aren't as familiar with it, nor have the passion for it that the NASCAR diehards do. For most people, NASCAR entails a bunch of cars driving around in a big circle for six hours – most people don't like it because it reminds them of their daily commute.
But if there is one point of commonality between the diehards and the not-very-big-fans-of-the-sport, it's that the wrecks that often occur on these super speedways are terrifyingly breathtaking. Indeed, there is a segment of people out there who tune into NASCAR simply to see cars exploding and general chaos – perhaps not so coincidentally, there is a segment of people who tune into the NHL to see the brutal fistfights that sometimes break out on the ice.
There is no doubt that some of these wrecks are terrifying things to see. With cars flying through the air, slamming into walls, crashing into one another and kicking up huge clouds of smoke and debris, and sometimes even bursting into flames, wrecks on the NASCAR tracks are simply amazing things to see. And not necessarily in the good way. Though most times, the drivers turn out to be okay – shockingly so considering how violent some of the wrecks are – once in a while, they sometimes have tragic results.
But that thrill, that speed, and the intensity of continually flirting with death is why some people keep watching – and why some of the drivers keep racing.
Here then, are 25 of the worst wrecks in NASCAR history...
25 Ricky Rudd – Daytona (1984)
During the 1984 running of the Busch Clash (now called the Budweiser Shootout), Rudd came out of turn four and was bumped from behind. He lost control of the car, slid off the track and then shot back down the track toward the infield. Rudd's car hammered the low concrete retaining wall which shredded the vehicle.
24 Richard Petty – Pocono (1980)
Pocono is a race track that has claimed a good number of victims in terrifying, sometimes fiery wrecks. There are some who fear the tri-oval track at Pocono. And with good reason.
During the running of the 1980 Coca Cola 500, Richard Petty – the King of NASCAR, and likely the only driver who can compete with Dale Earnhardt Sr. in terms of popularity – suffered a crash that some believe, he never truly recovered from.
Coming out of the dreaded “Tunnel Turn” at Pocono, Petty's car lost a tire which sent him up the track where he kissed the wall. Several drivers barely managed to maneuver by him. Unfortunately, through the cloud of smoke, another driver hit Petty flush on the driver side door.
23 Michael Waltrip – Bristol (1990)
Waltrip himself has described the fact that he survived his crash at Bristol Motorspeedway, a “miracle.” Which, given the fact that most athletes tend to downplay the seriousness of injuries and all, should tell you that it was a really bad one.
As Waltrip tried to pass Robert Pressley on lap 170 of the Budweiser 250 Grand National Race, their cars bumped slightly. That brief brush was enough. On the slick and narrow track, Waltrip was sent – in excess of 115 mph – barreling straight into a steel gate. The gate gave way and Waltrip was then sent head on into a concrete barrier.
22 Mike Harmon – Bristol (2002)
Michael Waltrip's wreck in 1990, some believed, was a complete fluke. He'd hit a gate which buckled and sent him into a concrete barrier behind it. It was a one in a million shot. Unless it wasn't.
21 Lee Petty – Daytona (1961)
Long before NASCAR had the emphasis on safety that they do today, a terrible accident ended the career of one Lee Petty – the father of NASCAR legend Richard Petty.
Back in 1961, at Daytona International Speedway, the field was running the twin qualifying races used to determine the starting order for the big Daytona showdown. While leading the field, Banjo Matthews spun out, which started a chain reaction. Johnny Beauchamp clipped the back of Petty's vehicle which sent both cars up the track. And this is where things got hairy.
Rather than having the protective barriers that line raceways today, there was a simple metal guardrail around the track. Both cars hit that guardrail at a high rate of speed and went straight through it. The accident launched both cars right off the track and led to one of the most terrible looking accidents you'll see.
The cars were a fiery wreck of twisted metal yet somehow, both drivers survived. Petty though, was in a coma for four days, sustaining a number of life threatening injuries including a punctured lung, crushed chest, busted leg and collarbone. He spent four months in the hospital rehabbing from his injuries.
While explaining the accident to reporters, Petty displayed the classic Petty dry wit when he said, “It was a left turn, we went straight.”
20 Steve Park – Atlanta (1998)
During a practice session for the Primestar 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, driver Steve Park suffered a terrible injury during an accident.
Driving full out, Park's car blew a tire sending him directly into the wall. It then came off the wall and slid down the track, slamming into the wall twice more before getting turned around and shot straight down through the infield grass where it slammed into the pit road wall head on. After the violent multiple collisions, Park's car finally came to a stop on the infield.
19 Rusty Wallace – Daytona (1993)
Rusty Wallace gave NASCAR and its fans a lesson in aerodynamics not once, but twice during the 1993 season. With a car traveling nearly 200 mph on the track, the margin for error – and for tragedy – is incredibly slim.
During his run at Daytona, Wallace was clipped from behind by a pair of cars that had gotten tangled up and were in the midst of spinning. The small bump was enough to get Wallace sideways where the air that got beneath his car lifted him into the air and sent him flipping and rolling down the track.
18 Ricky Rudd – Atlanta (1990)
Pit Road can be a scary place. It's a narrow lane with cars flying in and out all willy-nilly. Most times, everybody manages it just fine. But in 1990, a tragedy struck that nobody was prepared for.
17 Too Many Drivers to List – Daytona (1960)
Back in the day, before NASCAR was as big, safety conscious, and technologically advanced as it is now, it was almost a free for all on the tracks.
During a Sportsman race on the track at Daytona back in 1960, history was made. Of a sort. That race featured a wreck that still stands as the largest single wreck in NASCAR history. Back then, the field was made up of 68 cars – and of those 68, 37 of them were involved in one big wreck. Thankfully, despite a lot of cars being mangled, very few people were, and no serious injuries were reported.
16 Ryan Newman – Daytona (2003)
15 Kyle Larson – Daytona (2013)
14 Michael McDowell – Texas (2008)
13 Richard Petty – Daytona (1988)
12 Geoff Bodine – Daytona (2000)
11 Elliott Sadler – Talladega (2003)
10 Johnny Sauter – Talladega (2002)
9 Clint Bowyer – Daytona 2014
8 Richard Petty – Darlington (1970)
People watching the race were absolutely positive that one of NASCAR's most popular drivers, Richard “The King” Petty, died that day out on the Darlington track in 1970. The crash was so violent, spectators didn't believe there was any way he was coming out of it alive.
Petty's car, traveling incredibly fast, slammed the inside retaining wall and rolled multiple times along the front straightaway almost lifelessly. Spectators saw Petty's arms flapping around outside the driver's side window. The car eventually settled on its roof and people thought it was over, that Petty was a goner.
7 Rusty Wallace – Talladega (1993)
His wreck at Daytona earlier in the year was a 10 on the drama-meter. Wallace's wreck at Talladega far exceeded it. Coming through a turn and down a stretch wide open as they raced for the checkered flag, Wallace got clipped from behind.
6 Bobby Allison – Talladega (1987)
Allison's epic crash at Talladega is still spoken about to this very day – nearly 30 years after the accident.
The wreck occurred before NASCAR recognized the inherent danger in letting cars go as fast as they possibly could, and instituting restrictor plates on the super speedways, which regulate the speed of the vehicles.
On lap 22, Allison – traveling in excess of 200 mph – blew its right rear tire. The blown tire caused Allison to spin, and he was traveling backwards down the track – still going nearly 200 mph. Air got underneath the back end of the car which lifted it straight up into the air and hurled it against the protective fence that kept the cars away from the fans.
Thankfully, the car didn't go through the catch-fence, but when it came back down on the track, it was hit by several other cars, sending debris everywhere. Allison was miraculously unhurt in the wreck, but several fans sustained injuries because of it.
5 Carl Edwards – Talladega (2009)
4 Steve Park – Darlington (2001)
3 Glenn “Fireball” Roberts – Charlotte (1964)
Given how things turned out, it is probably the single most unfortunate nickname in sports. Ever. Back in the 50s, Fireball was very successful, and was one of NASCAR's most popular drivers – even being voted most popular in 1957.
At the World 600 in 1964, Fireball was running mid-pack during the seventh lap when disaster struck. Trying to avoid a wreck in front of him, Roberts spun hard and ended up slamming into the retaining wall backwards. His car rolled over and burst into flames. Fuel leaking from his tank fed the fire causing it to be one of the most intense infernos anybody can recall.
2 Carlos Pardo - NASCAR Corona Series (2009)
1 Dale Earnhardt – Daytona (2001)
He was arguably the most popular driver in NASCAR history. He was without a doubt, one of the most divisive. His aggressive, take no sh*t style of driving earned him a loyal legion of fans and supporters that continues to this very day. On the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, as he was attempting to block the rest of the field from catching his son – who was battling for the win – Sterling Marlin bumped Earnhardt on the driver's side rear bumper. It was enough to send Earnhardt up the track and head first into the wall. It didn't look any more serious than some of the other wrecks on this list, but it was unfortunately bad enough that it claimed Earnhardt's life.
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