The Indy 500 is well known for being one of the Triple Crown races that truly separates the men from the boys. However, the great brutality associated with the spectacle occasionally oversteps the mark. Human life has been endangered, and even lost, at this grand event, and no driver – no matter how skilled – can ever consider themselves completely immune from harm.
With engineering skills increasing many-fold over the post-war years, accidents have become increasingly lethal. While evolved safety measures do their bit to help, there are still some terrible accidents.
1950s - 1960s: Tragedy befalls three
Back in 1955, the first notable driver fatality occurred when Bill Vukovich was the victim of a freak incident. Roger Ward’s axle was broken, and what should have been a routine win for Vukovich was turned into tragedy, with Ward inadvertently forcing two other drivers to collide. Eventually, the cars hit Vukovich, whose car was sent flying over the wall and onto its roof. Vukovich died instantly.
Nine years later (to the very day) in 1964, the most tragic edition of the Indy 500 would unfold before horrified eyes. The incident started when Dave MacDonald was unable to stop his car spinning on the second lap, and he hit the inside wall at full speed. The car exploded and incinerated MacDonald, but the horror was far from over. The ruins of MacDonald’s car fell into the oncoming Eddie Sachs’ path, and there was no avoiding the head-on collision, which saw Sachs car also explode into flames, with the Pennsylvania native also sustaining fatal injuries. Smoke billowed, and tears flowed, precipitating the first major evolution of safety rules.
In 1966, viewers of the Indy 500 could have been forgiven for having flashbacks of 1964, when Billy Foster hit the outside wall. The subsequent crash marked the end of the race for eleven drivers, all of whom suffered major damage to their chassis – but not their bodies. However, the sight of a serious accident was far from gone.
1970s - 1980s: Safeguarding sometimes futile
The 1970s began quietly on the accidents front, but 1973 was to go down as a return to the bad old days – with a vengeance. First to fall was Art Pollard, who was killed during the qualifying round, and then Salt Walther crashed into the catch fence, suffering major burns. Swede Savage then died after crashing into the side wall after a botched sharp turn.
With the Indy 500 attracting serious criticism after the catastrophic 1973 event, more efforts than ever were being made to safeguard the Indy 500 against tragedy. However, the 1980s began with a series of notable incidents, starting off with Danny Ongais’ crash in 1981. Shortly after pitting, he lost control of his car at turn three, and crashed almost headlong into the inner wall. On that occasion, he escaped relatively unharmed, from an incident that may well have spelled a fiery end in previous years.
For one driver, however, 1984 proved to be the final straw. Patrick Bedard also lost control of his car at turn three, and like Ongais three years previously, met the wall at considerable velocity. The car was smashed to pieces, as was his jaw, but by some miracle, he escaped only with concussion alongside the broken jaw. Although he denied having any recollection of the accident, he eschewed the Indy 500 for the rest of his career – understandably so, given its rich history of tragedy.
Between 1989 and 1995, there were further incidents of note. First came Kevin Cogan’s crash in 1989, with Cogan losing control at turn four and hitting the inside wall. His car – but not his body – was perfectly cleft in twain, and he was relatively unhurt, though medical attention was required nonetheless.
1990s: Further notable incidents
The 1990s began where its preceding decade left off, and in 1992, there was a notable incident involving Jeff Andretti. On this occasion, Andretti lost his right rear wheel, and found himself smashing head-on into the wall just after turn two, sustaining a concussion. The following year, he would again crash out of the event.
In 1995, Stan Fox lost control of his car in the first turn, and smashed headlong into the wall. Like Cogan, his car was cleaved in two, but he never raced again. 1996 marked the final race for another driver, namely Scott Brayton. In his case, it was also the end of his time on earth. He was killed during practice, where his right rear tyre drastically failed. The tyre burst caused him to collide violently with the outside wall, and though there were hopes that Brayton could survive, he died soon after from his grievous injuries.
2000s - present: Indy 500 remains unforgiving
Following Brayton’s death, turbochargers would be outlawed the following year, prompting another wider revision of the rulebook. 21st century editions of the Indy 500 have not been without incident, and to date, there have been no less than 58 deaths associated with the event. While Brayton’s death is the last to take place at the Indy 500 – and Savage’s is the last to involve a driver during the race itself – the track remains as cruel and unforgiving as ever.