5 Most Dangerous Auto Races in History

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Most car racing connoisseurs judge the level of risk according to amount of carnage, gore, and the overall death count. Did the driver fly out of the car? Did anyone in the audience die? Was there an explosion? People the world over love to watch racing because of the inherent danger in the sport, and these races don’t fail to deliver. With each disaster, it was a fire, flying debris or a freak accident that killed drivers and often spectators.

5 2001 Daytona 500

One of the most beloved drivers in NASCAR history, Dale Earnhardt died instantaneously when he put his car in the wall in the last lap of the Daytona 500. Tragically, he was not wearing a HANS device (head and neck restraint system), so when he hit the wall, his body stayed still and his head flew forward, with nothing but skin holding him together. Michael Waltrip won the race, but NASCAR fans will always remember 2001 as being the year that a hero died.

4 1994 San Marino Grand Prix

In one of the most brutal racing accidents in Formula 1 history, Ayrton Senna got biffed at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix when an A-frame pierced him through his helmet visor. The Brazilian, three time F1 World Champion, raced through the high-speed Tamburello corner during lap seven when his Williams car veered off the track at 135 mph and slammed into the concrete retaining wall.

3 1973 Indy 500

Although he didn’t die, Salt Walther sparked a fiery, 12-car accident that caused his car to vault into the air and over a fence, spraying burning fuel on fans. Walther’s car landed upside-down, trapping the racer inside and causing him to suffer from third degree burns on over 40 percent of his body. In the 1970s, Indy cars were light and overpowered, and the drivers were dangerously exposed to the smoke, heat and elements of the racetrack. The cars ran on methanol, which was easily extinguishable with water but that was invisible when burning. As a result, the damage from the fuel—both to fans and to Walther—was much greater than it would have been if the fuel had been visible.

2 1982 Belgian Grand Prix

During a tragic 1982 Belgian Grand Prix, Canadian Gilles Villeneuve died during the qualifying round when his seat detached from his car, taking the young driver with it. Bent on taking back the qualifying title from estranged teammate Didier Pironi, Villeneuve drove “flat out” during the round, refusing to put on the brakes even as he neared the pit stop. He began passing Jochen Mass and too late realized that Mass had not anticipated the move. Already committed to the pass, Villeneuve’s Ferrari catapulted into the air, rolling over and then plummeting nose-first into the earth. The car disintegrated on impact.

1 1955 Le Mans

In 1955, a racing car in Le Mans driven by Pierre Levegh went out of control and careened into the stands, killing the driver and more than 80 spectators. The Le Mans race, organized by France’s Automobile Club de L’Ouest, was first held in May 1923 and has since been held nearly every June. In the 1950s, the drivers raced open wheel Mercedes and BMWs, which translates into tires with metal spokes instead of solid wheels. The spokes allow for a greater risk of damage from debris and fire. Because of the lack of fenders, even a small clip from another car, which is what happened in the case of this particular race, can lead to tragedy. The Le Mans track was also infamous for its treacherous, narrow lanes, which made it almost impossible to pass another car while close to the pit or turn.

Elizabeth Jamison is a published writer, composition teacher and PhD candidate specializing in rhetoric/composition. She holds a master's degree in English education from Georgia State University. With more than 15 years experience, she has been published in magazines and journals.

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