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1955 Le Mans DisasterSome prefer to point to the deaths of famous race car drivers as "the worst" in history. They're wrong. In 1955, the worst disaster in automotive racing history occurred. What happened? At Le Mans, Jaguar driver Mike Hawthorn belatedly noticed his pit crew's signal to stop for gas and slammed on his brakes. The Austin-Healey behind him, driven by Lance Macklin, lost control and veered straight across the track directly in front of Pierre Levegh driving a Mercedes-Benz 300SLR. Levegh collided into the ramp, shaved the back of the Austin-Healey at approximately 150mph, and was sent airborne. Pierre was thrown from his Mercedes and killed instantly. His Mercedes slammed into a dirt embankment, and flipped over, launching the front axle, the engine, and the hood of the Mercedes into the crowd. The axle careened through the grand stand, leaving a trail of of bodies. The hood spun through the spectators like a guillotine, decapitating full groups of people at a time. The engine itself killed many as well. The Mercedes-Benz 300SLR, made largely out of magnesium (which was common at the time to reduce weight), burst into flames, and then exploded when the fire marshals sprayed water on it. In the end, 83 spectators were dead and another 120 injured. As the only driver unable to defend himself, Levegh was largely blamed. As more footage has been acquired over the past several decades, though, it is now obvious that Hawthorne and Mackliin were at fault. The first clip within the included video was likely taken by a spectator right before he or she was killed.
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Roger Williamson's Fatal CrashFor me, this is the hardest crash to watch. In Roger Williamson's second Formula One race, a tire failure likely caused his car to flip over and burst into flames. Williamson avoided serious injury, but was now trapped in his car. The inept safety marshals did not know what to do, nor were they equipped with fire proof clothing.
Driver David Purley abandoned his car and sprinted across the track to save Williamson. Purley could hear Williamson shouting for him to help. Purley desperately tried to put out the fire and flip Williamson's car back over, begging the marshals to help him. While the marshals did nothing, Purley did his best, but ultimately failed as the other drivers simply drove past. By the time the fire truck arrived, eight minutes later, Williamson had already died from asphyxiation. The whole scene was broadcast on live television.
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Tom Pryce's Fatal CrashJust a warning, this video is especially gruesome. At the 1977 South African Grand Prix, Renzo Zorzi had a problem with his car and pulled off the track. Zorzi's car quickly caught fire, and Zorzi safely jumped out. This is where the carnage began.
Two race marshals decided to sprint across the track with fire extinguishers. The first marshal barely made it, but the second one, a 19-year-old named Frederick Jansen Van Buren, was struck by Tom Pryce who was driving at 170mph. Van Buren was cleaved in half, and his body so horribly dismembered that his boss was only able to identify him by summoning all of the other race marshals and seeing who was missing. But it didn't stop there.
The 40-pound fire extinguisher Van Buren had been carrying struck Pryce in the head with such force that Pryce's helmet strap partially decapitated him. The fire extinguisher landed in the parking lot outside of the track, having flown over the grandstand. Pryce was killed instantly. Pryce's car continued to hurtle down the track at almost 170mph, ultimately crashing into the car of driver Jacques Laffite.
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Dan Wheldon's Fatal CrashDuring the 11th lap of the 2011 IZOD IndyCar World Championship, two cars clipped each other, sending one airborne and the other into the wall. This resulted in a 15-car pile up, including Wheldon's. Since he was traveling at race speed when the accident occurred, his car was launched and barrel-rolled into the catch fence before landing head down. His injuries were so bad that he was unable to remove himself from the vehicle. He was airlifted to the hospital, where he died from his injuries. The crash resulted in a red-flag and the race was ended and not replayed. Wheldon was put at the top of the listings in his honor.
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Gilles Villeneuve's Fatal CrashFew things are as chilling as seeing a race car driver ejected from his car during a crash. Whereas decades ago, drivers hoped to be "thrown clear" of a crash, modern race cars are built to provide of a protective shell around the driver. Gilles Villeneuve was considered another of Formula One's greatest drivers. In this clip you can actually see his body catapulted across the track and into a safety fence. He died that night after being put on life support.
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Greg Moore's Fatal CrashGreg Moore was a young, well liked driver in CART. In 1999, Moore lost control of his car while going over 200mph. The top, exposed portion of Moore's car collided with a concrete wall. Moore was critically injured and died shortly thereafter.
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Alex Zanardi loses his LegsIn 2001, on the EuroSpeedway Lausitz, driver Alex Zanardi had the worst crash of his career (so far). Attempting to merge back onto the track after a pit stop, Zanardi spun out and was ultimately broadsided by the car driven by Alex Tagliani. The front of half of Zanardi's car was sheered off, taking Zanardi's legs with it. Zanardi would lose three quarters of his blood, but the medical crew was able to save his life. Zanardi still races today with prosthetic legs.
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Eddie Sachs & Dave MacDonald's Fatal CrashThe Indy 500, 1964. Dave MacDonald, driving what many regarded as a horribly built race car, lost control. Hitting the inside wall, MacDonald's car exploded then veered back across the track where it was broadsided by the car of Eddie Sachs, creating a second explosion. Johnny Rutherford, driving the car behind Sachs, was left with no choice but to hit the throttle and power through the carnage. With his car now on fire, Rutherford was then broadsided by Bobby Unser. The car behind Rutherford, driven by Ronnie Duman, was then rear ended by Bobby Unser, who now had no steering, causing Duman's car to also explode. MacDonald died two hours later in the hospital. Eddie Sachs died in his car. Fellow drivers reported seeing him trying to get out. This was the first time in history that the Indy 500 was stopped because of an accident.