Tragedy on the Tracks – Auto Racing Deaths

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    Dan Wheldon’s tragic death yesterday in Las Vegas was far from the first time a tragedy like this has happened, in Indy racing or any other branch of Auto racing, from Formula One to Nascar. Some accidents and victims come easily to mind , like Dale Earnhardt, but many others are forgotten through the years.

    We wrote about five, shall we say, more infamous deaths and crashed. For the full list, go here.

    Ayrton Senna, Formula One

    A three time Formula One World Champion, Ayrton Senna was one of the greatest ever and maybe the most popular and loved of all F1 drivers, 17 years after his death at the San Marion Grand Prix. A tragic weekend which began with Rubens Barrichello involved in an accident during the qualifying stage, breaking his nose and arm. The next day, Austrian Roland Ratzenberger was killed in qualifying, crashing violently into a concrete wall.

    Despite everything, the race went as planned on Sunday. The race began ominously, with a huge accident on the start line, resulting in a wheel flying into the stands, injuring 8 spectators. After the restart, Senna entered a turn in high-speed, resulting in the car leaving the track, crashing into the concrete retaining wall at 135 MPH. He suffered a fatal blow to the head during that crash, and was declared dead at a Bologna hospital.

    He is the last racer to die at the wheel of a Formula one race car.

    Riccardo Paletti, Formula One

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    Two days before his 24th birthday, on June 13, 1982 at the Canadian Grand Prix, 23 year old Italian Riccardo Paletti was about to make his first successful start in a full line-up. A stalled car on the track was in the way of Paletti’s Osellla, and Paletti drove into the Ferrari at 110 MPH. Paletti sustained heavy wounds to the chest and as he was treated the car was enveloped in flames. After the fire was put out, Paletti’s was without a pulse, and it took more than 20 minutes to cut him out of the car, in fear of reigniting the fire.

    Gilles Villeneuve, Formula One

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    Five weeks prior to Paletti’s death, Canadian driver Gilles Villeneuve (Ferrari), crashed in the qualifying Belgian Gran Prix. During his final qualifying session, which at hindsight, wouldn’t have meant anything, Villeneuve came over the rise after the first chicane, as a much slower travelling Jochen Mass was in front of him. Mass saw Villeneuve coming and moved to the right, trying to allow the Canadian to go past him. Villeneuve also moved to the right, crashing into Mass, launching the Ferrari into the air. Villeneuve’s car nosedived and was torn apart while Gilles was thrown out of it, without a helmet, into the fence.

    He suffered fatal neck wounds and died later that evening, after being kept by life support, at the hospital.

    Dale Earnhardt, NASCAR

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    Two months before his 50th birthday, Dale Earnhardt, The Intimidator, a record 7 time Series champion (tied with Richard Petty), Dale Earnhardt died on the Daytona International Speedway, competing for the Daytona 500. He was, along with his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., chasing Michael Waltrip with 3 laps to go.

    Earnhardt’s car made slight contact with the car to his left and then collided with another car, Ken Schrader’s Pontiac. Schrader’s car hit Earnhardt in the passenger door, causing the car to snap, changing the angle of his car toward the wall. Earnhardt hit the wall nose first at nearly 160 miles per hour as Schrader’s car kept pushing the car along the wall.

    Schrader climbed out of his car, peered into Earnhardt’s car and signaled the EMTs to hurry there. He was pronounced dead at a hospital hours later, dying from a severe skull fracture.

    Earnhardt’s death, despite the massive change to safety and overall procedures in NASCAR, unfortunately, wasn’t the last in Stock Car racing. Marcelo Nunez and Carlos Prado died in events in Mexico. Tom Baldwin and John Bletwett III both died on the same circuit, Thompson International Speedway in Connecticut, three years apart.

    1955 Le Mans Disaster

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    Pierre Levegh crashed into Lance Macklin in the pit straight, resulting in his Merecedes-Benz 300 SLR to become airborne, soaring towards the left side of the track, landing on the embankment separating the spectators from the track.

    Due to the speed of the impact, some parts of the car flew into the crowd while Levegh himself was thrown out of the car, fracturing his skull, fatally. The fuel tank ruptured, sending flames on to the track and into the crowd. The death count was 84 and more than 120 injured.