10 Racing Crashes that Changed Car Safety for the Better

The recent passing of Dan Wheldon was a tragic blow to the racing community. A two-time Indianapolis 500 champion, the 33-year-old was in the midst of a distinguished career, and more importantly, fatherhood — his first son was born in February 2009 and his second was born last March. The devastating event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway illustrates the importance of safety testing and innovation, which are necessary to save lives in one of the world's most dangerous sports. The following unfortunate racing crashes caused the powers that be to take action and change the sport for the better, implementing new procedures to reduce the chances of another tragedy occurring.

  1. Dale Earnhardt, Daytona 500, HANS device (2001)

    When Earnhardt crashed into the wall at Daytona Motor Speedway, nobody at the race or at home thought it was a critical situation. Earlier in the day, Tony Stewart was involved in a much more serious-looking wreck that totaled his car, and he came away mostly unscathed. Because Earnhardt was traveling at 160 mph, however, he suffered severe injuries, including a fatal basilar skull fracture. This prompted NASCAR to require use of the HANS device, or head restraint, in all cars to prevent head and neck injuries. Given that several other drivers in NASCAR alone had perished due to similar injuries suffered by Earnhardt, it was a common-sense measure that has likely saved numerous lives in the past 10 years.

  2. Martin Donnelly, Jerez Circuit, improved impact protection (1990)

    A fledgling Formula One career was prematurely ended with one of the most horrific crashes ever seen, in which his car collided with the barrier at 140 mph and exploded into pieces. Donnelly was thrown from the car on impact — still strapped to his seat — and caused quite a panic among the medical team. Incredibly, his helmet was cracked, and he suffered bruising on the brain and lungs, but he didn't die. He was kept in a coma for weeks, enduring a long recovery that included numerous obstacles. The near tragedy inspired Formula One to implement better impact protection, using various methods, so that cars can absorb such violent impacts.

  3. Roger Williamson, British Grand Prix, timely accident response (1973)

    Proper preventative measures are only part of the equation when it comes to saving lives on the track, as highly trained and skilled track marshals who act quickly and decisively are invaluable. Williamson, trapped under his car after it flipped due to tire failure during the British Grand Prix, didn't receive assistance that could've saved his life. The track marshals refused to flip over his car, and he died from asphyxiation as his car caught fire. Fellow driver Davis Purley, who pleaded with the marshals to flip the car, did more to try to save Williamson's life than anyone else, a telling fact that prompted changes in qualifications for marshals and how they respond.

  4. Ronnie Peterson, Italian Grand Prix, timely accident response (1978)

    Ronnie Peterson, twice a runner-up in the FIA Formula One World Drivers' Championship, sadly suffered a similar fate as Williamson during the Italian Grand Prix. A large melee involving several cars caused his Lotus to crash into a barrier, bounce into the middle of the track, and catch fire. Fellow drivers James Hunt, Patrick Depailler, and Clay Regazzoni, each sideline after the crash, removed Peterson from the car and moved him to the middle of the track. With severe leg injuries, he waited for medical attention, but the crew was focused on another driver who had suffered a head injury. Peterson died the following day in the hospital from a fat embolism, which could've been prevented immediately after the wreck.

  5. Adam Petty, Busch 200 NASCAR Nationwide Series practice, kill switch (2000)

    While practicing prior to a Busch 200 NASCAR Nationwide Series race, Petty, son of racing legend Richard Petty, lost control during turn three and collided head-on with the wall, dying immediately due to a basilar skull fracture, the same injury Earnhardt would suffer a year later. NASCAR acted quickly, requiring use of the kill switch, a button that switches off the engine during mechanical failure. The Whelen Modified Tour restrictor plate, a device that reduces engine power, was also temporarily adopted.

  6. Kenny Irwin Jr., New England 300 practice, kill switch (2000)

    Two months later, at the same track, Kenny Irwin Jr. died during practice at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in a similar accident, suffering the same injury as Petty and Earnhardt. As with Petty's accident, a stuck throttle was the cause. In addition to NASCAR implementing a kill switch, Roush Racing worked on sensor-based systems that automatically shut down the engine when a certain amount of pressure is applied to the brakes and intake manifold.

  7. Ayrton Senna, San Marino Grand Prix, redesigned tracks and improved crash barriers (1994)

    The death of Senna, one of the most prolific drivers ever, stunned the racing community. As he was leading the San Marino Grand Prix, his car bottomed out and broke traction twice, causing him to hit a concrete barrier at 135 mph — after braking. The right front wheel and nose cone tore off, and Senna suffered severe head trauma. He couldn't be saved. Of course, such a high profile death demanded major changes. Tracks, crash and tire barriers, and crash safety standards were quickly improved, each of which enhanced overall safety significantly.

  8. Eddie Sachs and Dave McDonald, Indianapolis 500, restricted amount of fuel used (1964)

    A newly designed car driven by McDonald resulted in an abnormal amount of chaos at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He spun out on the fourth turn, hitting the wall and erupting in flames. He then rolled back onto the track, causing more cars to enter the ruckus. Eddie Sachs received the worst of it, as it created a second explosion. Sachs died instantly, and McDonald died just a couple of hours later. Because the massive fire was the result of an excess of fuel and a poorly placed fuel tank, the United States Auto Club subsequently placed limitations on the amount of fuel used by cars and temporarily used methanol in place of gasoline.

  9. Stefan Bellof, 1000 km of Spa World Sportscar Championship, improved driver's compartments (1985)

    Contact between Bellof and Jacky Ickx resulted in both drivers spinning into the barriers — Bellof hit the secondary wall and his Porsche caught fire. Ickx, who came away relatively uninjured, attempted to assist in the removal of Bellof from his vehicle. Bellof died before he reached the hospital. Afterward, more attention was given to how driver's compartments were constructed.

  10. Pierre Levegh and 83 spectators, 24 Hours of Le Mans, modified grandstand and pit (1955)

    Never has there been a bigger disaster at a motorsports event. It all began when Mike Hawthorn hit the brakes as he nearly bypassed his pit crew, causing Lance Macklin to swerve in front of Pierre Levegh, who hit Macklin at 150 mph. Pierre was tossed from his car and killed instantly, and his Mercedes hit an embankment next to the track and broke up over the crowd. The ensuing carnage ended with 83 deaths and almost as many injuries. A day in which everyone involved will never forget, John Fitch, Levegh's co-driver, became a major advocate for safer racing circuits and road cars. Le Mans rebuilt the pit area and grandstand, which Levegh complained were too narrow prior to the race.

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