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.
Rudd walked away from the accident with a concussion and both eyes swollen shut. And then raced in Daytona 500.
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.
The accident left Petty with a broken neck and various other injuries. Though he eventually got back into the race car, many believe that he was never the same after that wreck. But then, who would be?
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.
The car basically dissolved. It broke into three large chunks and a ton of smaller ones. There was debris scattered far and wide. And yet somehow, Waltrip had survived, basically unscathed.
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.
In 2002, on the same track, during a practice run, Harmon hit the same exact gate that Waltrip had a dozen years earlier. The results were pretty similar too. The gate buckled in and sent Harmon straight into a concrete barrier. Just as Waltrip's car had, Harmon's car split open like a tin can. Though another driver, Johnny Sauter, clipped half of the split-in-two car, it was luckily not the half Harmon was sitting in and he walked away from the amazing wreck unharmed.
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.”
To say the least.
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.
Not surprisingly, Park was seriously injured. Among his numerous injuries, he sustained a broken clavicle, broken scapula, two broken front teeth, and a broken femur which required surgery.
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.
It was a dramatic sight to be sure, and the mangled remains of his car look like something that had been hit with a missile. But thanks to his safety cage, Wallace didn't sustain any major injuries and lived to drive another day.
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.
It was a routine pit stop during a race and pit crews were hustling and bustling like normal. Out of the blue though, Ricky Rudd's car spun out of control and slammed into Bill Elliott's car. The tragedy was that Elliott's crew man was busy putting a new tire on the right rear of the car when Rudd's car struck. The impact killed him almost instantly.
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.
It was after that year – a year filled with a number of huge, multi-car wrecks, that NASCAR saw the problem as being too many cars creating too much traffic. The field was trimmed from 68 to its current 43 cars per race.
16 Ryan Newman – Daytona (2003)
As the reigning NASCAR Rookie of the Year, Newman entered the 2003 season on a high note. But that high note quickly soured as in the first race of the season, the Daytona 500, Newman was involved in a terrible and terrifying crash. Just 56 laps into the race, Newman's car was carried into the wall by Ken Schrader. Both cars hit the wall and then slid down to the infield where Newman's ride went airborne before getting sideways and flipping several times before settling on its roof. Debris – including the car's rear axle – went flying and the car was utterly destroyed. Miraculously, Newman walked away without any major injuries.
15 Kyle Larson – Daytona (2013)
Larson was maneuvering for position at high speeds during the final laps at Daytona in 2013. He was bumped from behind and it sent his car into the catch fence around the track. The impact made his car disintegrate, and sent his engine block sailing into the grandstands. Luckily for everybody, that engine block missed everybody, but the other assorted and scattering debris injured 30 spectators. Larson's car was torn to pieces and in flames by the time it stopped moving.
14 Michael McDowell – Texas (2008)
The rookie driver was running his qualifying lap in preparation for the Samsung 500 at the Texas Motor Speedway. Coming out of a turn at nearly 200 mph, his car got loose and sent him straight into the wall. The impact was brutal and flipped the car over where it slid on its roof for a few seconds before it began flipping over and over and over. It finally came to a rest on what was left of its wheels. Amazingly, McDowell was able to walk away from the wreck more or less unscathed.
13 Richard Petty – Daytona (1988)
In the 1988 running of the Daytona 500, The King, Richard Petty, had one of the more violent and dangerous wrecks you'll ever see. Coming out of a turn on lap 106, Petty was bumped from behind. It was enough to send him sliding sideways down the track where his car got air underneath it, causing it to stand up on its nose. The car, still on its nose, slid into the fence where it began rolling along the track, scattering debris everywhere. When Petty's car finally landed on what was left of its chassis, he was struck by another driver which sent the car spinning wildly again. The g-forces from all of the spinning caused temporary blindness in Petty, but his sight returned and he was otherwise, somehow unharmed.
12 Geoff Bodine – Daytona (2000)
During the running of NASCAR's inaugural Craftsman Truck Series race at Daytona, Bodine was involved in a wreck that left drivers and fans alike suffering from numerous injuries. On the 57th lap of the 100 lap race, Bodine was bumped from behind. The impact sent it slamming into the wall near the start/finish line. Bodine's truck was turned sideways and was struck by several other trucks. The multiple collisions destroyed the vehicle and caused it to burst into flames. The impact of the accident was so severe, it dislodged the engine block of Bodine's truck, sending it sailing down the track where it landed on the infield. When the smoke cleared, Bodine was left with a number of serious injuries, as well as hurt 11 other drivers, and 9 spectators who were hit by the flying debris.
11 Elliott Sadler – Talladega (2003)
Talladega has been the site of some of racing's most spectacular crashes. And Elliott Sadler's 2003 wreck certainly qualifies as one of them. On lap 181, Kurt Busch bumped Sadler from behind. The contact sent Sadler's car airborne where it flipped over and slid across the grass on its roof. When his ride made contact with the pavement again, it began a vicious series of flips before it came to rest on the edge of the grass. Sadler was pretty dazed getting out of the wreck, but was otherwise unhurt.
10 Johnny Sauter – Talladega (2002)
Usually, the “Big One” – the wreck everybody knows is coming and waits for – at a superspeedway happens later in a race, closer to the end when drivers are jockeying for position, but this one happeneded early on lap 14. But in 2002 during a NASCAR Nationwide series race, Johnny Sauter touched off one of the biggest wrecks in NASCAR history when he lost control of his car, flipping and rolling. Unfortunately for the field, Sauter's rolling wreck collected a massive amount of other drivers. All told, Sauter's wreck resulted in a 33 car pile up that destroyed the field for the balance of the race.
9 Clint Bowyer – Daytona 2014
The battle for positioning is tough enough during the actual race. But with NASCAR's knockout format for qualifying, the battle for position can be just as intense. As Clint Bowyer found out firsthand at Daytona last year. With cars running for the checkered flad, Jimmie Johnson found himself out of gas which touched off a massive pile up. He was hit from behind while Michael Waltrip found himself slammed into a wall. Martin Truex was wrecked out and had his car burst into flames, and the most amazing sight of all, was Bowyer's car going airborne, flipping several times, and completing a stunning 360 mid-air before coming back to earth wheels down. All of the drivers involved in the wreck were unhurt, but were forced to use alternate cars for the actual race.
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.
Somehow, he survived the wreck without major injury. In response to the crash, NASCAR mandated that safety nets would be strung up across the windows to prevent any body parts from falling out and flopping around during a crash.
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.
The clip turned him backward and the air beneath the back end of his car lifted him airborne. He tumbled end over end down the track making for one of the most dramatic spectacles of the day. By the time the car had settled back down, about all that was left was the roll cage. Just like he did at Daytona, Wallace walked away more or less unscathed.
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.
It was this accident that led NASCAR to study and then implement the use of the restrictor-plates that many drivers grouse about today.
5 Carl Edwards – Talladega (2009)
Coming down the final straightaway of the Talledega Superspeedway, it looked as it Carl Edwards was going to eke out a win. Unfortunately for him, he tried blocking Brad Keslowski who got into the back end of his car. The slight bump – at nearly 200 mph – was enough to turn Edwards sideways and send him airborne. His car struck Ryan Newman's car and rebounded – still airborne – into the protective fencing in front of the bleachers. A big portion of the car disintegrated as it settled back down to earth – and then burst into flames. Edwards though, got out of his wrecked car and jogged across the finish line because he wanted to finish the race. We're pretty sure that didn't count though.
4 Steve Park – Darlington (2001)
Steve Park was no stranger to wrecking out. Over the course of his 15 year career, Park was involved in a number of horrifying wrecks, and sustained a number of injuries because of them. Some of them serious. However, at Darlington in 2001, Park suffered one of the stranger and more serious accidents of his career when he lost control of his car. Coming out of a caution, Park pulled on his steering wheel as part of a ritual. Unfortunately, the wheel wasn't secured properly and came off in his hands and he lost control of his car. It was then that he was hit by somebody racing up from the inside line. Park says he remembers nothing else until he woke up in the infield care center. He suffered severe trauma to his ribs, as well as to his brain, and many say he was never the same after the wreck.
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.
By the time they pulled him out of the wreck, Roberts had sustained severe burns over 80% of his body. He spent six weeks fighting for his life and seemed to have been winning the battle. Unlikely as it seemed, he looked like he was about to recover. But then he contracted pneumonia, slipped into a coma, and died on July 2nd.
2 Carlos Pardo - NASCAR Corona Series (2009)
Carlos Pardo was a veteran member of the NASCAR Mexico Series. He was a nine-time winner on the circuit – well, technically a 10 time winner. Unfortunately for Pardo, he did not get to celebrate that 10th win. With just three laps remaining during a race at Puebla, Pardo's car was bumped from behind. It was just a little tap, but traveling well in excess of 120 mph, it was enough. Pardo's car was sent spinning and hit the wall at the entrance to pit road still traveling at a high rate of speed. Upon impact with the wall, Pardo's car disintegrated. He was transported to the nearest hospital by helicopter but wound up dying 45 minutes later. He was declared the post-mortem winner of the race.
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.