This weekend saw the loss of another young driver in a race. This time it was Dan Wheldon, an Indy car driver who was invovled in a 15 car firey pile up and did not survive his injuries. He is survived by his wife and two small children.
Wheldon died doing what he loved, he was driving at the age of 16. You don’t do that if you are only in it for the money. Out of 128 starts, he won 16 races. He was not only passionate about racing, he was good. He knew the risks as would anyone who plies his or her trade driving at over 200 miles an hour. He is not the first to die during racing and he probably won’t be the last either.
Often when an accident occurs, the sport involved improves and changes their safety systems. In 2001 Dale Earnhardt went into the wall at the Daytona 500 in a crash that appeared to be relative normal. After his death, the industry made it mandatory for all drivers to use the HANS device to stop their heads snapping forward in the event of a crash. The HANS device is not featured in nearly all race series.
In 1955, Pierre Levegh was racing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans at the famous Circuit de la Sarthe in France. He ran into the back of a competitors car and he was thrown from his car and died. Parts of his wrecked car, on fire, flew into the large crowd watching, killing 83 spectators. 120 more spectators were injured at what is still the worst race accident ever.
On the 11th of September, 1978, Formula 1 was holding the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. During the first lap, Ronnie Peterson collieded with the car of Riccardo Patrese and started a crash that involved another eight drivers. Peterson went into the barriers and the car caught fire. Three of his fellow racers rescued him from his burning car with apparently serious leg injuries. By the next morning Peterson had passed away from a fat embolism. After this race, the actions of the track officels fell under scrutiney as they had stopped anyone reaching the crash, including the Surgical Advisor to Formula 1. His widow committed suicide 3 months later.
Other notable drivers include Jim Clark who died in 1968, Greg Moore in 1999, Gilles Villeneuve in 1982 and Ayrton Senna in 1994.
Not all crashes are fatal though. Nikki Lauda, a Formula 1 driver who had tried to boycott the 1976 German Grand Prix being held at Nurburgring, crash during the second lap and his car burst into flames. Again fellow drivers stopped to help pull the helpless driver out of the fire but not before he had suffered horrific burns to his head as well as breathing in the hot gases into his lungs. While suffering extensive burns all over his head, the only surgery he opted for was to have his eyelids reconstructed to enable them to work properly. His right ear was mostly gone yet only six weeks later he returned to the race track and eventually only lost the world championship by 1 point.
Alex Zanardi, an Italian race driver who had already raced in Formula 1, was racing at the EuroSpeedway Lausitz, in Germany, in the CART series in 2001 when he was invovled in a horrific crash that servered the front of Zanardi’s car. While the doctors saved his life, they were unable to save his legs. Since the accident, Zanardi has been back racing and testing race cars in the CART series, European Touring Car Championship, and Formula 1.
The five most ‘dangerous’ race courses, or at least those with the most fatalities are Indianpolis Motor Speedway with 56, Nurburgrin with 48, Monza with 30, and Daytona Internationl Speedway and Le Mans tied at 24. This doesn’t take into accout the number of races held at these tracks.
Auto racing, in all shapes and forms, is wildly popular around the world. From Indy car to Stock car, from Formula 1 to Grand Touring, if you enter a race, you must acknowledge that you may not be climbing out of your car at the end of your race. Race drivers are usually referred to as a different breed. Fearless, brave, confident, almost machine-like in their driving, each and every driver gets to the pinicle of racing by going through the ranks, often starting in go-karts. It is safe to say that no one ever just walks into the seat of a race car. It takes years and work and a lot of dedication, you don’t become a driver unless you are totally committed to racing. Fatalities will continue to happen and fans will continue to watch, we can only hope that the fatalities will become less and less.