Exhilarating but Dangerous
Auto racing is by far one of the most exhilarating sports in the world. While most other sports demonstrate the abilities of the human body pushed its limit, auto racing represents a combination of state-of-the-art engineering merged with the drivers’ unique skills and unparalleled reflexes. But there are times when racers simply cannot cope with the high speeds and stress of the races and lose control of their cars.
24 Hours of Le Mans
The dangerous nature of auto racing nearly cost the sport its future when on June 11, 1955, Pierre Levegh lost control of his car during the 24 Hours of Le Mans and crashed into the stands killing 83 spectators in a gruesome accident (with over a hundred more admitted to hospitals with serious injuries). After this tragic event, all types of auto racing faced opposition both from the public and governments worldwide, with several major car manufacturers discontinuing their financial support of most races due to negative media coverage.
Much has been done since then to increase the safety of auto racing, especially to the spectators, and prevent such tragedies from occurring again, but the risk to the drivers has never been fully eliminated, and the history of auto racing has known many more tragic accidents since.
Formula One, considered by some to be a harbinger of technological breakthroughs in auto racing, has lost 43 of its drivers to tragic accidents during races, qualifiers, and even driving tests. Relief can be found in the fact that ever since the 1950s, the death toll of Formula Once races has been steadily decreasing, decade by decade, and not a single driver has been lost to fatal accidents for the last 18 years.
44 drivers have lost their lives on the various tracks of NASCAR, which, until the tragic death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001, had not imposed mandatory use of HANS (Head and Neck Support) device for drivers, and softer walls had not yet replaced the concrete ones around NASCAR tracks. Had these precautionary measures been introduced sooner, Earnhardt’s crash would not have been fatal, but at least it served as a trigger for NASCAR to become safer for drivers to come.
A similar situation has occurred in rally, where numerous accidents had eventually forced officials to place spectators only in the safest areas around the tracks, where the risk of accidents is reduced to an absolute minimum. Yet, as the history of auto racing clearly shows, no one is ever safe when speeding vehicles are concerned. Despite all the precautions, there have been more fatal cases of rally cars crashing into a large group of spectators, supposedly located at a safe distance from the track, killing 4 and injuring over sixty people in two accidents. There have also been over twenty fatal driver and co-driver accidents during World Rally Championships, including the two most recent ones in 2005 and 2006.
Despite all these tragic deaths, it should be noted that the safety of auto racers and other drivers has been improved considerably since the world’s first major races, and much of the progress can be attributed to the engineers and constructors behind the fastest and most efficient racing cars of their age. None of that would ever be possible without the brave drivers testing and racing these incredible sports cars for their teams, victory, and the thrill of the moment.