10 Crashes That Changed Motor Sports Forever

Herb Tillman crashed his Chevrolet into the pit wall at the 1960 Daytona 500, the race at which the largest crash in NASCAR history took place. RacingOne/ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images

Motor sports are thrilling – there's just no getting around it. We may watch car, motorcycle and other motor sports races because it's exciting to see man and machine pushed to their limits. But when you push limits, you add danger to the equation. While that danger makes motor sports more sensational, it can lead to crashes and tragic results.

If there's a silver lining to the tragedy of a crash in motor sports, though, it's that the sport can learn from it. Any motor-sports enthusiast will tell you that motor sports are as much about learning from the past as they are about speed and skill. Just like competitors learn how to engineer better, more efficient cars from past record-breaking constructions, they can also learn how to engineer better crash-prevention and protection features from crashes. In fact, without crashes, many of today's motor-sport safety innovations wouldn't have been developed. Here are ten crashes that changed motor sports forever.

10
Ayrton Senna's Crash at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix
People gather around Ayrton Senna’s crashed car. AFP/AFP/GettyImages

Ayrton Senna was widely considered one of the best Formula One (F1) drivers in the world, which is why his fatal crash at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix shocked the racing world. Happening during a race weekend where other drivers had also died, Senna's crash could have had drastic and dark consequences for Formula One racing.

Senna's car left the track traveling at an estimated 191 mph (307 kph), hitting a concrete wall and sending pieces of his car's steering and suspension into the cockpit [source: Johnson]. In the aftermath of the crash, Formula One made several changes to the rules to improve driver safety. Engine size (and thus power) was limited, the sides of cockpits were raised to offer drivers more protection, suspensions were altered to prevent the wheels from disconnecting and the front wing and diffuser were downsized, which slowed the F1 cars down. The Grand Prix Drivers' Association reformed to advocate driver safety. The Senna crash also changed how F1 tracks are designed, with more space between the track and the walls to allow cars time to slow before a collision [source: Johnson].

9
1960 Daytona 500
Sonny Palmer and Jimmy Mairs’ cars, pictured here, were damaged after the first-lap crash at the 1960 Daytona 500. Although 37 cars were involved in the crash, the race continued. RacingOne/ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images

While Aryton Senna's crash changed Formula One racing, a crash involving a whopping 37 drivers at the 1960 Daytona 500 changed NASCAR [source: Joslin]. Considered the largest crash in NASCAR history, the accident happened in part because Daytona is a much bigger and faster track than many NASCAR drivers were used to racing on up to that point. Any time you have increased speed, you have an increased crash risk, as the drivers found out first-hand in this collision.

NASCAR had evolved from bootleggers racing souped-up cars on backroads and dirt tracks, but the crash at the 1960 Daytona 500 showed that if the sport was going to be popular with a broad audience, they'd need to improve safety. Although, as this crash shows, safety can sometimes owe an awful lot to luck. Of the 37 drivers involved in the crash, none were fatally hurt. In fact, most injuries were minor [source: Joslin]. Not all drivers are so lucky.

8
Richard Petty at Darlington in 1970
Richard Petty drove this Plymouth Road Runner after crashing his Superbird in practice, only to wreck the Road Runner, too. RacingOne/ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images

Most race cars don't have glass windows — they add weight, and you don't want shattered glass everywhere after a collision. (If this article is proving anything, it should be that collisions are going to happen). Prior to 1970 stock cars were windowless, with an opening where the glass would be in a road car. In NASCAR cars today, those openings are covered with safety nets. Drivers can thank Richard Petty for that.

At the 1970 Rebel 400 in Darlington, South Carolina, Petty drove a Plymouth Road Runner, although he usually drove a Plymouth Superbird (the Superbird, alas, had been wrecked in practice). His steering failed in lap 176 of the race, sending the car into the outside wall then back toward the pit wall. The car then rolled five times before stopping. Petty's arm and shoulder ended up outside the car and were terribly injured [source: Pearce]. While Petty survived and raced for many more years, this crash led to the addition of safety netting, which has saved other drivers from similar injuries or worse.

7
Rusty Wallace at Talladega and Daytona in 1993
Rusty Wallace finished the race on his car’s nose, but he still placed sixth. RacingOne/ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images

Sometimes you only need to make a mistake once to learn a lesson. But Rusty Wallace needed to go airborne twice in the 1993 racing season for NASCAR to learn a lesson. First, some background: The faster a car goes, the more lift it generates and the less contact with the ground its tires have. When you have less contact with the ground and are traveling at high speeds, the lift can be enough for the car to lose control and become airborne. That's why spoilers are so important — they push the car back down to the ground.

At 200 mph (321 kph), however, you'd need a gosh darned big spoiler, and Rusty Wallace didn't have one. His car rolled at the Daytona 500 (possibly after bumping another car) and again at the Talladega Superspeedway. Here's the thing about airborne cars, though: They aren't that unsafe for the driver, so long as the car's safety cage holds. However, airborne cars are very unsafe for spectators who aren't in steel cages. (Fortunately none were hurt in these crashes.) After Wallace's air adventures, NASCAR cars were outfitted with special spoilers that open when the car gets turned around, keeping the vehicle firmly on the ground.

6
Bobby Allison at the 1987 Winston 500
Bobby Allison’s crash at Talladega in 1987 alerted NASCAR to the need for better safety measures. RacingOne/ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images

It's ironic that in a sport that's all about speed, sometimes the rules require that speed be limited. Since faster speeds allow drivers less time to prevent crashes and enable more severe and deadly crashes, limiting speed to keep the sport viable makes sense.

At the 1987 Winston 500 in Talladega, Alabama, Bobby Allison was going 211 mph (340 kph) during qualifying laps and averaging 208 mph (335 kph) during the race [source: Owens]. It was all going great until his tire blew. That sent his car into the air and the safety fence before it returned to the track and was hit by other cars.

While there were no fatalities, NASCAR quickly realized that when cars are going that fast, fans need more than fences to protect them. At those speeds, the risk of the cars heading skyward is just too high. So regulations were changed and carburetor restrictor plates, which reduce engine power and speed, were made mandatory for all NASCAR cars [source: Owens].

5
Jules Bianchi at the Japanese Grand Prix
Jules Bianchi drives in the rain at the 2014 Japanese Formula One Grand Prix. Mark Thompson/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

The death of Jules Bianchi in 2015 was the first Formula One Grand Prix fatality since the death of Ayrton Senna in 1994. Nine months after Bianchi crashed in the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix, he succumbed to his injuries in a hospital in France [source: Smith-Spark].

The 2014 Japanese Grand Prix took place in the pouring rain. During lap 42 of the race, driver Adrian Sutil crashed. In lap 43, Bianchi lost control and struck a vehicle responding to the earlier crash [source: FIA]. The Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), Formula One's governing body, determined that no single factor led to Bianchi's crash. Rather, it said that factors including the wet track, Bianchi's speed and a mechanical error in his car led to the crash. Still, the organization acted to prevent similar crashes in the future. As a result of the crash, Formula One changed race start times so that no race would be run in the dark. It also changed drainage regulations for tracks and how emergency vehicles would respond to crashes.

4
Funny Car's Scott Kalitta
Scott Kalitta’s Funny Car burst into flames when the engine exploded. Kalitta’s fatal crash catalyzed the National Hot Rod Association to make major changes to the sport. © 2008 sdowden/"Scott Kalitta"/CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

In June 2008, Scott Kalitta drove in the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) SuperNationals at Old Bridge Township Raceway in Englishtown, New Jersey. The event was a series of drag races, and Kalitta was behind the wheel of his Funny Car. A Funny Car is a type of dragster that looks similar to a regular car, but its body lifts off the car's chassis like an alligator opening its mouth. Unlike most other dragsters, Funny Car engines sit in front of the driver.

At 46, Kalitta was no Funny Car rookie — he had already won the series championship in 1994 and 1995. At a qualifying run for this race, however, the engine of Kalitta's car exploded while he was going about 300 mph (483 kph) [source: Hardigree]. The car hit a sand trap and crashed, fatally injuring Kalitta.

After investigating the crash, the NHRA limited speed, decreased the length of tracks and increased the size of sandpit and runoff areas to allow cars a chance to slow down before they collide with barriers [source: Courchesne].

3
Dale Earnhardt at the 2001 Daytona 500
Dale Earnhardt drives during practice for the 2001 Daytona 500, a race that would prove fatal for the accomplished driver. The Sporting News/Sporting News/Getty Images

You don't have to be a racing fan to know about NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash, which happened on live TV. With just a half mile to go before the finish of the 2001 Daytona 500, a record crowd watched in shock as the third place driver, Dale Earnhardt, crashed. Traveling at 180 mph (290 kph), Earnhardt touched the car of competitor Sterling Marlin and spun out of control, sliding down the track and hitting Ken Schrader's car. Earnhardt's car then slammed head on into the retaining wall, killing him. Allegedly, at the time of the initial collision, Earnhardt was trying to protect the lead of his teammates, including his son, and ensure them the win [source: Huff].

While Earnhardt's death is a tragedy, it's also widely regarded as the crash that saved NASCAR [source: Hinton]. Because of it, NASCAR opened a safety research center, required that drivers wear high-tech head and neck protectors and changed the point system to discourage unsafe driving. In the years since Earnhardt's death, there have been no driver fatalities in NASCAR's three national series [source: Hill].

2
The Death of Group B Rally Cars
Henri Toivonen and Sergio Crestos were driving a Lancia Delta S4 like the one pictured when they crashed at the 1986 Tour de Corse. © 2011 Donna Rutherford/CC BY-ND 2.0

If you've ever been to a rally race, you know they're exciting. Run on real roads (closed to non-race traffic, of course) with few barriers between the cars and the fans, rally racing makes for some of the most exciting motor sports you can watch. It was even more exciting from 1982 to 1986, with its inclusion of the incredibly fast and agile Group B rally cars — which were perhaps too fast, as it turns out.

At the 1986 Tour de Corse rally race, Finnish driver Henri Toivonen and his co-driver Sergio Crestos were killed in their Lancia Delta S4. What makes the accident puzzling is that no one really knows what happened. Due to the nature of rally racing, no fans or race marshals were in the area. Eventually the blame landed on the Group B cars. Toivonen's car had over 500 brake horsepower and could shoot from 0 to 60 mph (97 kph) in two seconds [source: Top Gear]. Other Group B cars had similar capabilities. Because it was impossible to race these cars safely, after just four years, the entire Group B class was banned.

1
Pierre Levegh's 'Worst Crash in Motor Sports'
The 24-hour race at Le Mans in 1955 ended in tragedy when dozens of people died because of Pierre Levegh’s wreck. Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

As we've gone through the nine previous crashes, we've talked about some pretty sad and harrowing events. Heads up: None compare in impact to Pierra Levegh's crash in Le Mans, France in 1955. They don't call it "the worst crash in motor sports" for nothing.

During the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans race, driver Mike Hawthorne cut quickly into the pit area, causing Lance Macklin, who was directly behind him, to swerve. Levegh was behind Macklin and the two collided. Macklin's car went into a wall, and Levegh's Mercedes was launched into the air and landed in the crowd.

This crash is so bad that the exact number of people killed isn't known – estimates range from 70 to 130 [sources: Orlove]. Only a few bales of hay protected the crowd, and pieces of Levegh's car scattered, taking out spectators. Explosions and fires followed.

The aftermath of the crash led to the ban of car racing in France until improvements were made to the cars and the tracks. Car racing is still banned in Switzerland as a result of the crash [source: Orlove]. The biggest takeaway, however, was that motor sports realized if it were going to survive, safety and speed must coexist.

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Author's Note: "10 Crashes That Changed Motor Sports Forever"

We all know that driving fast isn't the safest thing a person can do, yet it's what we yearn for when we watch car racing. We want to see the limits pushed and new records set. Still, it's important to remember that as safe as motor sports are today, a lot of people literally had to give their lives for the safety innovations that protect drivers, pit crews and fans today. And despite the massive leaps forward in safety that motor sports have taken in recent years, racing is based on cars going fast — and there's always risk in that.

Related Articles

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