While there might be more statistically treacherous sports, auto racing, particularly the less mainstream brands of rallying and motocross, still remains the most prominent—and often deadly—daredevil sport in the world. Drivers often reach speeds of over 250 mph, and that kind of pace, while exciting, has often been a recipe for disaster. Even with today’s more sophisticated safety equipment, not a year goes by that the sport doesn’t claim the lives of several competitors. With the new year about to mark the start of what has been called “the deadliest sporting event in the world,” the following is a list of the most dangerous auto races in history.
10. The Paris-Madrid Race of 1903
As soon as there were cars, there were car races, and 1903’s Paris to Madrid endurance race stands as one of the most ill conceived of these early attempts. 275 vehicles, 59 of them motorcycles, began the race in Versailles, and it was not long before the mayhem began. Spectators, not yet aware of the real dangers involved in motor sport, crowded the sides of the course, and the contestants had not made it 45 miles out of Paris before a woman was struck and killed by one of the cars. Competitor Charles Jarrott would later write that the spectators were “insane and reckless, holding themselves in front of the bullet to be ploughed and cut and maimed to extinction.” But this was only the beginning. A dangerous combination of inexperienced drivers and unreliable cars combined to produce numerous collisions and crashes. Several drivers were killed when their cars struck trees, while others died after their vehicles flipped and caught fire. The extreme rate of attrition caused the race to be abandoned before it passed into Spain, and the French government, fearful of even more deaths, ordered that the cars be towed back to Paris by horse. At least eight people were killed in the contest (though the number is probably much higher), and the papers would later dub it “the race to death.”
A Deadly Accident:
There were a number of tragic driver and spectator deaths in the Paris-Madrid race, but the most famous is probably that of French racing pioneer Marcel Renault, co-founder of the Renault car company, who died in an accident after leading the race for several miles.
Motordrome refers to a type of racing that was popular in the United States in the 1930s. A precursor to the oval-style races later popularized by NASCAR, the contests were held on small wood plank courses with as much as 60 degrees of banking. This allowed the cars, among them early Ballots and Duesenbergs, to reach breathtaking speeds, but it also led to a number of tragic accidents. Breakneck speeds of over 120 mph meant that collisions were common, and out of control cars often spun over the track’s outside walls and into the stands, killing spectators. Newspapers eventually began reporting on the sport’s extreme mortality rate—several competitors would often die over the course of a single race—and started calling the circuits “murderdromes.” This, along with the extreme amount of upkeep needed to keep the tracks intact, eventually led to the sport being abandoned, but not before it claimed the lives of many drivers.
A Deadly Accident:
One of the most famous examples of the dangers of board track racing occurred during a motorcycle race in Atlantic City, NJ. Rider Eddie Hasha was competing for the lead when he lost control of his bike and crashed into the wall. Four boys who were watching by the fence were killed, and several other bystanders were injured. Hasha died after he was thrown from his bike into the grandstands.
8. The Mille Miglia
After the debacle that was the Paris-Madrid race, open-road endurance races were abandoned for several years. The Mille Miglia, a thousand-mile long race through Italy first held in 1927, marked their return. The race featured high-powered touring cars—among them some of the first racing vehicles designed by Porsche, Alpha Romeo, and Ferrari—tearing along public roads from the city of Brescia to Rome. In addition to becoming known for featuring some of the world’s fastest cars and top drivers, the Mille Miglia was also notorious for terrifying crashes. Benito Mussolini briefly banned the race in 1938 after a tragic accident took the lives of several spectators, but it was restarted in a different format in the years following WWII, where it continued to be famous for the all-around reckless behavior of its competitors. In one famous example, German driver Hans Herrmann and his navigator were approaching train tracks with the barrier gate lowered. To the astonishment of spectators, Herrmann floored it and the duo ducked their heads under the gate and crossed the track just as a high-speed train came flying by.
A Deadly Accident:
The Mille Miglia Came to a tragic end in 1957, when it was banned after a horrific crash took the lives of 12 people. Ferrari driver Alfonso de Portago was running in third place when his car blew a tire around a high speed corner, sending it flying into a crowd of spectators standing nearby. The race disappeared for nearly 25 years, before it was revived in 1982 as a safer event devoted to racing vintage cars made between 1927 and 1957—the span of years in which the original race was held.
7. The Baja 1000
One of the most famous rally races in the world, the Baja 1000 is an off-road race that takes place each year on the arid Baja peninsula south of California. Racers drive everything from trucks and rally cars to dirt bikes and ATVs, with the singular goal of being the first one to go from start to finish across the rocky and barren course. In addition to the usual rallying threats of near-inaccessible roads, blind turns, and equipment failure, the Baja 1000 also features more creative hazards in the form of course sabotage. Since the race is open to the public, it has become common for spectators to place booby-traps around the course. These might include buried jumps, deadfalls, and other dangerous attempts at illegal track alteration. This sabotage has led to many unfortunate accidents when drivers and riders, unaware that they are about to encounter an obstacle, approach the traps at dangerously high speeds.
Crime More Dangerous than the Race:
The Baja 1000 race has had its share of spectacular wrecks, but these days the most dangerous aspect of the race might just be the high level of crime that happens in and around the course. One of the strangest incidents occurred during the 2007 race, when a helicopter crashed near the circuit, killing several people. One of the deceased was revealed to be a high-level member of a Mexican drug cartel, and in a bizarre turn of events, a group of unknown gunmen later raided the local morgue and stole the bodies of the crash victims, killing two police officers in the process.
6. The Macau GP
China’s Macau GP is a massive series of auto races held every November that features everything from motorcycles and touring cars to high-powered Formula 3 machines. The races take place on a specially designed course that is set up on the city streets, and because of its insanely tight corners and long straights (cars often reach speeds of 160 mph), it has become known as one of the most challenging and deadly circuits in the world. The street setup means Macau is unusually narrow, and steel walls stand where there would normally be tire barriers. It only took one year for the Macau track to record a fatality, when a motorcycle rider crashed in the 1967 race, and since then the track has become notorious for dishing out some of the worst accidents in motor sports. As a result, drivers and motorcycle racers have come to regard Macau as one of the most bare-knuckle and potentially deadly courses in the world.
Macau has seen a number of tragic crashes over the years, but one of the most unusual incidents happened off the track. In 1993, Andely Chan, a member of the infamous Triad crime organization, was competing in one of the car races at the circuit. After his car was disqualified for having illegal parts, Chan and his mechanic returned to their hotel, where a rival gang gunned them down in a hit.
5. The German Grand Prix (Nurburgring)
The world’s most famous racing series, Formula One features the most talented drivers negotiating the most technically difficult courses, often at speeds of over 200 mph. It’s a sport that’s become notorious for its high fatality rate, thanks to treacherous courses like Spa-Francorchamps and Italy’s Monza circuit. But perhaps no track has proven to be as dangerous as Germany’s famed Nurburgring, which once claimed the lives of 5 F1 drivers in a fifteen-year span. The track was first built in 1927, but it has been redesigned several times over the years, as its fast speeds, elevation changes, and tight corners have time and again proven to be too dangerous. In 1969, the track was even boycotted by Formula One drivers who, wary of deaths at the Nurburgring and other tracks like it, refused to race unless changes were made to the course. Since then, no fatalities have occurred at the track in Formula One competition, but the course has continued to be one of the world’s most deadly places to hold an auto race: since 1970, as many as 25 drivers have been killed during other races at the track, and famed F1 driver Jackie Stewart has since declared it “the most dangerous circuit in the world.”
Most Famous Incident:
One of the most famous accidents at the Nurburgring occurred in 1958, when F1 driver Peter Collins became the last competitor to be killed during the actual running of the German Grand Prix. Collins was racing for the lead when he lost control of his Ferrari and spun over one of the course’s banked turns. In the ensuing crash, he was thrown from the car into a grove of trees, and sustained a deadly head injury.
4. The Indy 500
The Indy 500, held every May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, is arguably the most famous auto race in the world. It’s list of winners—among them Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Al Unser, and Juan Pablo Montoya—reads like its own racing hall of fame. But along with being the track at which every driver wants to win, Indianapolis also has the dubious honor of being one of the most high-tension, dangerous, and downright deadly courses in the world. Over 40 drivers have been killed in competition or practice since the race first began in 1911, along with several crewmembers, track personnel, and spectators. In the race’s early days, just being near the track was deadly, and in one bizarre incident in 1931, a young boy playing in his yard across the street from Indy was killed when a wheel from a race accident flew over the fence and struck him. The track itself consists of two long straights with flat, sweeping turns at each end. But it’s the simplicity of the Indianapolis course that makes it so dangerous: drivers enter the corners at extremely high rates of speed, and the low degree of banking makes for what has been described as one of the most dicey turns in motor sports.
Most Famous Incident:
One of the most famous crashes at Indy remains the 1973 incident where driver Swede Savage, running in second place, lost control of his car in turn four and hit the inside retaining wall head on. His car exploded in spectacular fashion, and he was thrown from the vehicle only to land against the outside wall in a puddle of burning race fuel. Amazingly, Savage survived the accident and was taken to the hospital. Doctors expected him to survive, but he died 33 days later, supposedly due to complications from a transfusion of contaminated plasma.
3. The Isle of Man TT
The Isle of Man Tourist Trophy, or TT, is a famous series of motorcycle races that takes place every year on the blustery Isle of Man, a small island located off the coast of England. At more than a hundred years old, the TT is one of the most storied competitions in all of racing. It’s held over several days and is scored on a time trial format, with racers averaging over 120 mph around the perilous Snaefell Mountain Course. Because the races take place on public roads, the circuit is lacking in safety, and the TT has often been the subject of controversy because of the extreme dangers it presents to riders. The roads are severely narrow, and where traditional courses would have safety barriers, the TT often just has stone walls, fences, and cliffs. 227 participants have been killed at the race since 1907, an average of more than two a year, and with the speeds and cornering abilities of the bikes only improving with each season, it seems there is little hope to ever truly minimize the level of danger at the track.
The Isle of Man TT was once one of the highlights of the Grand Prix Motorcycle Championship, but concerns about track safety eventually caused it to be stripped of its championship status. Since the late eighties, it has operated as an independent festival. The biggest catalyst for the change was the death of Gilberto Parlotti, an Italian racer who was killed when his bike crashed during a race held in heavy rain. His death led many riders to begin boycotting the TT, and after a few years it was eliminated from the competition calendar altogether.
2. The 24 Hours of Le Mans
One of the most unique and prestigious events in all of motor sports, the 24 Hours of Le Mans is a nearly 90-year-old endurance race held every June in France. Unlike most car races, which prize speed above all else, the 24 Hours not only tests car reliability and performance, but also the stamina and awareness of the drivers. These challenges have made Le Mans a crown jewel of the racing calendar, but they’ve always ensured it to be one of the most dangerous auto races in the world. The modern supercars that race at the track today are capable of blistering speeds of over 250 mph, and with competitors in all classes on the same track simultaneously, cars often close in on one another at an astonishing pace. Up until the 1960s, Le Mans also featured what many would now consider to be a downright psychotic starting procedure: drivers would line up several feet from their cars, and at the start would sprint to their vehicles on foot and speed off from a dead stop, often without properly fastening any kind of safety harness. This lead to a number of tragic accidents at the race, which has seen as many as 24 drivers die since its inception.
The Deadliest Sporting Accident Ever:
In addition to being the home of the most storied race in the world, Le Mans also has the sad distinction of being the site of the worst accident in racing history. In 1955, driver Pierre Levegh crashed after he made contact with the back of another car. The accident made his car ramp over the retaining wall and into a dirt mound, which sent it somersaulting into the nearby crowd of spectators. Levegh and 84 spectators were killed in the crash, and as many as 100 people were injured. The accident had far-reaching effects in the world of racing. Most competitions for the year were abruptly canceled, and France, Spain, Switzerland, and Germany briefly banned car races altogether. Though tragic, the accident did signal a change in auto safety. When the 24 Hours of Le Mans and other competitions were reinstated, they were better equipped to deal with the inherent dangers of high-speed racing.
1. The Dakar Rally
For sheer danger, excitement, and outright insanity, no race compares to the Dakar Rally, a yearly off-road extravaganza that traditionally begins in Paris, travels across Europe and the deserts of Africa, and ends in the Senegalese city of Dakar. The race, which includes drivers in classes ranging from SUVs to motorcycles, has been called “the most dangerous sporting event in world” for its scale and degree of difficulty. Because the race course is so expansive, drivers can easily become separated from the pack or veer off course, and in the event of an accident, it can be hours before proper medical care is available. These dangers, along with the environmental impact of the race, have seen the Dakar Rally become perhaps the most controversial competition in all of motor sports. Drivers have been known to tear up the countryside, accidentally hitting livestock and other vehicles, and on at least one occasion the race was blamed for starting a wildfire that killed three people. Meanwhile, the toll on the drivers has proven to be equally tragic. Since its inception in 1978, the race has claimed the lives of 49 people, nearly two a year, but this figure is thought to be extremely low, as many claim the rally to be responsible for the deaths of countless pedestrians. In recent years, political turmoil in Africa has forced the race to be relocated to South America. As such, the 2010 race, which kicks off January 1, will be held in Argentina and Chile.
Most Famous Incident:
In 1982, Mark Thatcher, son of the English Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was competing in the Dakar Rally in a Peugeot 504. While traveling through the Sahara Desert, Thatcher, a mechanic, and his co-driver, Anne-Charlotte Verney, had to stop and make repairs to a damaged fuel arm. But by the time the problem was fixed, the trio found the other drivers had left them behind, and they soon became lost in the desert. They were missing for six days before they were spotted some 30 miles off course by a search plane. Luckily, the three all escaped their ordeal without injury.