Professional race car driving is a deadly sport. Anybody who engages in the sport of auto racing knows that they are taking their life into their own hands. And it doesn’t matter how experienced or talented a driver may be, even some of the best wheelmen of all time have been killed on the track. Often times, it only takes a slight collision or malfunction for disaster to ensue. Fans and media who are passionate about the sport of auto racing know this for a fact, and they have had to endure some terrible accidents and deaths over the years. Here is a list of the 10 most tragic auto racing deaths of all time.
10. Dan Wheldon
He was Indy car royalty, but that didn’t prevent racing phenomenon Dan Wheldon from dying tragically in 2011 at a Las Vegas Indy 300 series race. Dead at age 33, the British-born Dan Wheldon was, at the time he was killed, one of Indy’s top drivers, having won the Indianapolis 500 race two times. Equally important, he was one of the best liked guys on the circuit, and a loving father and husband. Tragically, Dan Wheldon was killed at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on October 16, 2011, when his vehicle was involved in a 15 car pile-up on the eleventh lap of a race. Wheldon’s car flew approximately 325 feet into the catch fence, with the cockpit hitting first and Wheldon’s head hitting a pole lining the track. The carnage and ensuing debris led race officials to throw a red flag to stop the race. Today, people are left to wonder what might have been had Dan Wheldon lived longer.
9. Scott Kalitta
Scott Kalitta was one of the very best American drag racers. He was a two-time champion of the National Hot Rod Association’s Full Throttle Drag Racing Series, winning back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995, and was the first driver to win events in both full throttle divisions—Funny Car and Top Fuel. Yet despite his success, Scott Kalitta was killed on June 21, 2008, during a qualifying run at Oldbridge Township Raceway in Englishtown, New Jersey. Near the end of the qualifying run, on the very last lap, his engine exploded and his parachute failed to deploy, sending the fiery car crashing into a concrete wall and killing Scott Kalitta instantly. It was a devastating loss to the world of drag racing—one that still feel fresh to fans of the sport.
8. Joe Weatherly
For NASCAR fans of a certain age, Joe Weatherly is an all-time champion of the sport and one of its greatest characters. A larger than life personality, Joe Weatherly was one of NASCAR’s premier racers during the 1960s. He had a reputation for partying all night and then heading to the track with no sleep for a race. He famously once took some practice laps on a NASCAR course dressed in a Peter Pan costume. Despite his antics, Joe Weatherly was a supreme racer and was the reigning two-time NASCAR champion in 1962 and 1963. Yet sadly, Joe Weatherly died on January 19, 1964, at the height of his racing abilities and popularity. During a race at the Riverside International Raceway, Joe Weatherly’s head went outside his race car and struck a retaining wall, killing him instantly. Weatherly was not wearing a shoulder harness, and did not have a window net installed on his vehicle because he feared being trapped in a burning car. Joe Weatherly was 41 years old when he was killed. To date, he is the only defending points champion to die in a NASCAR race.
7. Eddie Sachs
American auto racer Eddie Sachs was another character. Nicknamed the “Clown Prince of Auto Racing” by the media, Eddie Sachs famously coined the phrase: “If you can’t win, be spectacular.” Eddie Sachs was a practical joker through and through. He drove every race with a lemon on a string tied around his neck, and would never explain to anyone why he did this. Thoroughly entertaining throughout his career, Eddie Sachs never won a championship but was a fixture at the Indianapolis 500 throughout the 1950s. Sadly, Eddie Sachs died in a horrific, fiery car crash at the Indianapolis 500 on May 30, 1964. At the time, many race teams still used gasoline for fuel (which was heavy, but long-lasting), while others had switched to methanol or ethanol (which is lighter, but burns faster). Eddie Sachs’ car was filled with gasoline and exploded on impact in a crash. In response to his death, Indy officials mandated that, in the future, all cars must make at least two pit stops during the course of a race. This removed the only advantage racers had when using the more combustible gasoline in their cars.
6. Adam Petty
Killed at age 19, NASCAR driver Adam Petty had scarcely established himself on the race car circuit when he tragically died during a practice run on May 12, 2000. Yet Adam Petty’s death is all the more tragic given that he is a member of the legendary Petty family, who are the royal family of NASCAR. Adam Petty’s grandfather was seven-time Daytona 500 champion Richard Petty, and his father Kyle Petty was also a successful NASCAR racer and commentator of the sport. In fact, Adam Petty was a fourth generation NASCAR racer and considered the future of the sport when he was tragically killed before his 20th birthday. The 19-year-old racer was killed instantly when he lost control of his car and crashed into the wall at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway as he finished a practice run.
5. Mark Donohue
Nicknamed “Captain Nice,” American race car driver Mark Donohue was one of those racers who could do it all. A true jack of all trades on the track, Mark Donohue raced in NASCAR, won the 1972 Indianapolis 500, and, in his spare time, raced in Formula One for Penske. He was also a skilled mechanic and built many of the race cars he drove. A true sportsman on and off the track, Mark Donohue was beloved and respected by everyone in the auto racing world. It was extremely tragic when he was killed on August 19, 1975, from injuries he suffered in a crash during a training run for the Austrian Grand Prix. During a practice session for the race, Mark Donohue lost control of his car after a tire failed, sending him crashing into the catch fencing at the fastest corner on the track. Mark Donohue was just 38 years old.
4. Gilles Villeneuve
For Canadians, former Formula One racer Gilles Villeneuve is a legend and one of the best athletes the country has ever produced. And, Gilles Villeneuve was one of the most popular drivers in Formula One during his brief but impressive career. Though he never captured a points championship, Gilles Villeneuve finished in second place in 1979 and won six Grand Prix races while driving for the McLaren and Ferrari teams. Yet sadly, the racing star died on May 8, 1982, while attempting to qualify for the Belgian Grand Prix. His car crashed while he was trying to make a pit stop. In 1997, Gilles’ son, Jacques Villeneuve, accomplished what his father wasn’t able to do in his shortened career: He became the first Canadian to win the Formula One World Championship. Jacques Villeneuve dedicated the win to his father and his legacy.
3. Pierre Levegh
French race car driver Pierre Levegh (pronounced Le-Veck) is not the best-known driver on this list. However, he was involved in one of the most devastating crashes in auto racing history—one that left scores of spectators dead. On June 11, 1955, Pierre Levegh crashed his car during the 24 Hours of Le Mans race. His car flew up into the stands at the race, killing 83 spectators and Pierre Levegh in the process. The incident remains the worst tragedy in auto racing history, and it nearly killed the sport entirely because car manufacturers pulled sponsorship money from events and governments around the world placed moratoriums on races for several years after the accident occurred. The deaths caused by the Pierre Levegh crash resulted in numerous safety changes to race tracks and their spectator areas.
2. Ayrton Senna
Three-time Formula One race champion Ayrton Senna is considered by many people to be one of the greatest race car drivers of all time. The Brazilian racer was a living legend in the sport when he died at age 34 on May 1, 1994. Ayrton Senna was killed during the San Marino Grand Prix as he was leading the race. Things looked good for the Brazilian when his car unexpectedly left the track at 135 miles per hour and crashed into a retaining wall, killing him instantly. Adding to the tragedy, rescue workers found an Austrian flag inside Ayrton Senna’s car, which he planned to raise at the end of the race in honor of Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger, who was killed the previous day on a training run ahead of the San Marino Grand Prix.
1. Dale Earnhardt
Many Americans consider Dale Earnhardt the finest NASCAR racer of all time. And his death still reverberates in the NASCAR community. Known by the nickname “The Intimidator,” the death of Dale Earnhardt ranks as one of the most infamous and tragic auto racing fatalities in recent auto racing history. Dale Earnhardt won a total of 76 NASCAR races during his legendary carer, including the Daytona 500 in 1998. He also won seven points championships during his run. After Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt was perhaps the most accomplished race car driver in NASCAR history. Sadly, Dale Earnhardt died on February 18, 2001, during the very last lap of the Daytona 500. Since his untimely death at age 49, no one has raced with Dale Earnhardt’s #3—a tribute to the man and his impact on NASCAR.