What is still the most famous and deadly car crash in motor car racing is the 1955 Le Mans disaster. The crash happened during the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans motor race which was the 23rd Gran Prix of Endurance. The driver, a Frenchman named Pierre Levegh was killed, as were 83 spectators.
The crash was so spectacular in part because, at the time, cars were built with very dense material. So when Levegh’s car hit the wall the car broke into many huge pieces. Levegh was killed instantly, but much of the car jettisoned into the crowd. Flying chunks of race car killed 83 people and injured over 100 spectators as well. In terms of loss of human life and injury it’s the most catastrophic accident in motor-sports history.
This accident, led to great changes in the measures taken to ensure the safety of drivers and spectators. What was left in the aftermath of this horrendous event was a fear based response that led to many car manufacturers pulling out of racing their cars in motor-sports. The country of Switzerland even banned motor car races where there was more than one car on the track at a time. This ban stayed in place for decades. It wasn’t until June of 2007 that the ban was lifted.
Other racing crashes that have changed motor-sport and vehicle safety and design involve a number of highly successful race car drivers. This prompted NASCAR to require use of the HANS device, or head restraint, in all cars to prevent head and neck injuries. Given that several other drivers in NASCAR alone had perished due to similar injuries suffered by Earnhardt, it was a common-sense measure that has likely saved numerous lives in the past 10 years.
At nearly 200 mph, a race car can become an airplane very easily and far too quickly. If air gets underneath a car and lifts it up into the air, the aerodynamic forces are at work. The faster a car goes the more likely the chance of an air stream flowing underneath and lifting and flipping the car over. Unfortunately, there have been many racing crashes that involved a race car becoming separated from the pavement. At which point, the car would be sent into a barrel roll that it would come out of eventually but at a relatively gradual rate.
The solution was roof flaps, which were introduced in the 1994 racing season. The flaps sit along the back edge of a race car’s roof and open automatically when the car is turned around. The air is captured within the flaps providing wind drag that slows the car down more quickly. The force of the air lift under the car becomes diffused and the car stays on the track. These flaps have prevented many racing crashes.
One of the best improvements in race safety that has, to some extent been brought to commercial vehicles, is the safety cage that surrounds the driver. The cage remains intact during an impact while the rest of the car is designed to fall away as it is hit. A flipping and flying car is quite simply lethal. So, keeping the cars on the ground when they spin has been a critical concern for motor-sport associations.