10 Crashes That Changed Motor Sports Forever

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].