Life is inherently dangerous. Step into an intersection while checking your Twitter feed, dangerous. Ride that bike race with thousands of other amateurs and a 15 percent grade downhill, dangerous. Hit the boxing ring with a semi-pro, dangerous. But some people aren’t simply prone to running into inadvertent danger; they seek it out. They want the thrill that goes hand in hand with danger, and often those seeking this risky thrill are drawn to motorsports.
At the speeds many racing competitions run, there’s injury and death lurking at every corner. Enter a turn too fast, lose control of the vehicle at high speed, get fatigued at the wheel, have a mechanical failure, or just get taken out by another driver, and things turn tragic quickly. And, over the years, many drivers have fallen, including greats like Ayrton Senna, Antonio Ascari, Dale Earnhardt, Bruce McLaren and Jo Siffert. And just because racing technology and safety have come a long way doesn’t mean the risk has been diminished. The following races have, over time, proved to be most dangerous of all, and not just because of speed. Each is fraught with its own cocktail of risk, but racers continue to seek them out, for the thrill of victory, despite the tragic consequences of defeat.
If you thought your cross-country road trip in a rickety station wagon was risky, then the nearly 6,000-mile Dakar Rally over dirt, sand and rocks is like a one-way ticket to the pearly gates. The Dakar Rally (formerly the Paris-Dakar Rally, which began in 1978) has not only killed 49 race participants, but also numerous spectators, members of the media and emergency response crews.
Specially outfitted SUVs, motorcycles and trucks attempt to scale the difficult terrain, and since there’s no actual track, the unknown dangers are myriad. Non-race vehicles get hit, as do livestock and bystanders; a high proportion of deaths are in the motorcycle category, where single riders crash and either die immediately or days later even after medical care.
Memorable Tragedy: In 2005, Febrizio Meoni of Italy crashed his KTM motorcycle during the 11th stage of the rally and broke his neck. His heart failed while waiting for medical attention, and the team was unable to revive him.
Audience participation is taken to new levels in the California Baja 1000, but it’s not necessarily a good thing. Saboteurs often jerry-rig the track not just to frustrate drivers, but to cause accidents. The rocky race, full of blind turns and brutal roads, hosts all kinds of speciality off-road vehicles including cars, trucks, motorcycles, ATVs and dune buggies — none of which are immune to the course’s dangers.
Memorable Tragedy: In the 2013 race, off-road racer Kurt Caselli, who had previously won two Dakar Rally stages, died in a crash of his KTM motorcycle while he was leading near the end of the race. Initially, it was thought that the accident was caused by a race saboteur’s booby trap, but it was later discovered that Caselli had most likely collided with an animal on the course.
If speed is related to danger, then the the Indy 500 rightfully earns its reputation as risky with track speeds approaching 240 mph. The 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway is essentially two long straightaways with big sweepers at each end — giving these open-wheel race car drivers opportunities to go extremely fast, putting their lives in danger on every one of the 200 laps required to meet that magic 500-mile number. It’s the epicenter of American motorsports, and to race on it is a risky privilege. Ever since the first race in 1911, 40 drivers have met their fate on the big oval track, most of them wrecking in one of the four low banking turns.
Memorable Tragedy: Way back in the 1933 Indy 500, Billman was driving his Duesenberg Kemp-Manix Special and lost control of the car in a turn and slammed into the outside wall. He was pinned so badly between one of the front wheels and the wall that it took 20 minutes to extricate him. The crash not only caused internal injuries and broke both of his legs, but tore off his left arm. Due to massive blood loss and in spite of transfusions, he died an hour after the accident.
Isle of Man TT
If ever there was one location crafted by the car gods solely for racing, it’s the 220-square-mile Isle of Man, located smack in the middle of the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. Though cars race on this storied island, the TT is a motorcycle race that’s been going on for over a century — and the time-trial style race doesn’t use a track, but rather normal driving roads on the 37.7-mile Snaefell Mountain Course, which means there are no safety measures whatsoever.
The TT nets speeds of over 120 mph, as high as an insane 205 mph. To date, 248 riders have been killed on the course since 1907, including one in this year’s race. It’s an astronomical number that’s caused by racers flying off jagged cliffs, hitting light poles, walls and fences and also hitting some of the thousands of enthusiastic spectators who continue to gather in spite of the danger. The TT is easily the world’s most dangerous race.
Memorable tragedy: In the 1970 TT, Spanish rider Santiago Herrero hit a patch of melted tar at the the 13th milestone (Westwood Corner) and lost control of his 250cc OSSA in the Lightweight category. Two days later, Herrero succumbed to both his injuries and the effects of irreversible shock. He was one of six riders to die in the 1970 race, giving rise to calls to end the TT forever.
The German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring Nordschleife
The Nürburgring North Loop (or Nordschleife) is known as the world’s most difficult and dangerous automotive race track, and rightfully so. Premier manufacturers test the fastest production cars in the world here, and the German Grand Prix was held every year on the 14.2-mile course until the race finally moved to a safer F1-specific track in 1984.
Speeds of over 200 mph on the Nürburgring make it not only challenging, but also insanely fast. Five deaths in F1 racing occurred over the span of 15 years, causing F1 drivers to boycott the track in 1977, pooling their voice and influence to make changes to safety measures.
Memorable tragedy: In the 1958 German GP, Peter Collins was vying for the lead when he lost control of his Ferrari 246 at the Pflanzgarten section of the circuit. His car went wide, hit a ditch and flipped over, throwing Collins into a grove of trees, where he sustained critical head injuries, causing him to die in the hospital only hours later.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans
Perhaps the most legendary motorsports endurance race in history, the 24 Hours of Le Mans runs from the morning through the night and into the next day, with race cars hurtling down the Circuit de la Sarthe. Speeds of over 250 mph have been reached, and all types of cars (in different racing categories) all run simultaneously, adding more danger to the treacherous race. Thanks to the help of modern safety equipment, racing deaths have diminished greatly, but the total death count is a harrowing 22, which doesn’t include the deaths of spectators. More than half the deaths have occurred on the very fast Mulsanne Straight, where the cars reach their fastest speeds.
Memorable tragedy: The 24 Hours of Le Mans has the dubious honor of being the site of the deadliest car crash in the history of automotive racing. In 1955, Pierre Levegh, driving his Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR, swerved to avoid Mike Hawthorne’s Jaguar D-Type, which was in the lead. Hawthorne had suddenly stopped to pit and had more powerful disc brakes, causing Lance Macklin in an Austin-Healey 1000 to brake hard and put up a dust cloud in front of Levegh. Levegh then swerved and made contact with Macklin’s car at 150 mph, sending the 300 SLR into the air. The engine flew into the crowd along with other loose car parts, killing a total of 83 spectators as well as Levegh. Another 120 spectators or more were injured in the melee.