Top 10 Best Race Car Drivers That Tragically Died on the Track

Tags: #AyrtonSenna ,   #DaleEarnhardt ,   #FatalCrash ,   #RacingAccidents ,   #GillesVilleneuve

Michael Wendom

Michael Wendom

Last updated:  2021-07-01 14:38:06

As humans, we are attracted to speed, and racing series like NASCAR, Formula 1 or Indycar, are enjoying enormous popularity. Unfortunately, thousands of people have died on the race trackswhich often included spectators or marshalls. While these fatal incidents are less prevalent in the last couple of decades, they're still happening, as it's impossible to make racing completely safe. This time we're remembering and honoring the best drivers who lost their lives while competing. 

10. Henri Toivonen (1956-1986)

Revisiting the corner where Toivonen lost his life

If we were doing this ranking based only on the number of wins and titles, Henri Pauli Toivonen wouldn't make it into the top 20. However, this Finnish rally driver was a fantastic talent and is often considered among the best racers in history. Toivonen showed his championship potential in 1980 when he won his first world rally. By doing so, he became the youngest winner ever, keeping that record until 2008. He won three races and was sixth in the 1985 championship, despite participating in only four out of 12 rallies! 

In 1986, Toivonen had a terrific start with a win in Monte Carlo and was the top favorite for the title. Even though ill, he insisted on competing in the dangerous Tour de Corse rally. Driving superbly, he managed to create a massive lead, so it was doubtful that anyone would catch him. Still, he complained that his car is simply too powerful, saying that he'll be finished in case of any trouble. These were some of his last words, as on Friday, May 2nd, he went off the track and plunged down a ravine. The unprotected fuel tank then exploded, so both Toivonen and his co-driver couldn't escape a horrible death. We should add that Toivonen showed tremendous potential when doing the Formula 1 test at Silverstone and was even favorably compared to Ayrton Senna.

9. Joe Weatherly (1922-1964)

Weatherly didn't want the window net because he thought it blocked his way in case of fire

We need more characters like Joe Weatherly was. This man from Norfolk, Virginia, enjoyed doing outrageous things, only to become the talk of the day. A unique display of his stamina was his habit of staying up all night partying before successfully competing the next day! This was pure madness, especially as racing was incredibly dangerous in the 50s and the 60s.

Nicknamed the "Clown Prince of Racing," Weatherly entered the NASCAR series pretty late, aged 34. Despite this, his performances continued to improve as he won consecutive titles in 1962 and 1963. He also was a strong contender at the beginning of the 1964 season, before the fatal accident at Riverside International Raceway. Unfortunately, during that race, his head went outside the vehicle, colliding with the wall. Weatherly wasn't fully protected, as he was against installing the window net and didn't wear a shoulder harness. To this day, he's the only NASCAR champion dying on the track while defending his title. 

8. Gilles Villeneuve (1950-1982)

A heartbreaking report of Gilles Villeneuve death

The Canadian Gilles Villeneuve was already 27 when he was finally offered a Formula 1 seat. After a few races for McLaren in 1977, the Canadian went to Ferrari as the best team at the moment. Many believed that he would eventually win the championship, which almost happened in 1979. That year he finished second, closely behind Jody Scheckter, the last Ferrari champion before Michael Schumacher in 2000.

Unfortunately, on May 8th, 1982, Villeneuve lost his life during the Belgian Grand Prix qualifying session. Trying one last time to improve his position, he hit the back of Jochen Mass's car and was sent flying for 330 ft. After nosediving into the ground and losing his helmet, Villeneuve was launched from his car for another 160 ft. He finally ended up in the catch fencing, still having a pulse when the doctor arrived. Diagnosed with a neck fracture, he soon died in a hospital. After the investigation, the safety inspector concluded that Villeneuve caused the incident, and Mass didn't suffer any consequences. Today, the Canadian Grand Prix venue in Montreal bears his name, keeping his legacy alive.

7. Dan Wheldon (1978-2011)

Dan Wheldon's fatal crash was a massive shock

While most British drivers dream about making it into Formula 1, Dan Wheldon found his happiness in the United States. At only 21, he had a fantastic debut, finishing second in the 2000 Toyota Atlantic Championship. Moving to more competitive Indy Lights, he won three races and also finished second overall. This was more than enough for him to transfer to IndyCar Series, where he stayed until the end. In his second full season, Wheldon finished second, but in 2005, he earned his only title, winning six Grand Prix. He continued strong, finishing three more times in the top five overall.

However, despite winning the Indy 500 for the second time, he planned to skip the rest of 2011. Still, for the last race of the season in Las Vegas, Wheldon was offered to share $5 million with a random fan if he could win the race from the back of the grid. Deciding to give it a go, he was involved in a colossal pileup crash on lap 11. Having no way to avoid it, he hit the tire on Charlie Kimball's car at 165 mph and launched for more than 300 ft before colliding with the catch fence. The deformed cockpit caused two massive impacts to his head, and soon after, he was pronounced dead. Later investigation proved that his demise was caused by the perfect storm of several factors. 

6. Ronnie Peterson (1944-1978)

One of the worst race starts in Formula One history made Ronnie Peterson pay the ultimate price

No one else on our list had such passion for racing as Ronnie Peterson, and that's easy to prove. From 1970 until his tragic end in 1978, he competed in up to four racing series every year! What's more impressive is that he did it during his very successful Formula 1 career! For example, in 1971, he finished second in the championship while also winning the European Formula Two. Two years later, he participated in Formula 1, World Sportscar Championship, European Formula Two, and British Formula Two.

In 1978, Peterson transferred to Team Lotus and had a string of fantastic results, once again competing for the title against Mario Andretti. Unfortunately, in the first lap of the Italian Grand Prix in Monza, Peterson got involved in a massive crash, ending up in the barriers. As his car bounced back, it caught fire, but he was pulled out on time. Despite broken legs, he was conscious, and no one thought that his life was on the line. Unfortunately, during the night in the hospital, his condition dramatically worsened before kidney failure in the morning left him dead. His wife Barbro Peterson was so devasted that she committed suicide nine years later.

5. Jochen Rindt (1942-1970)

It was too late to save Jochen Rindt after his Monza incident

While hugely successful in Formula Two and Formula Junior, Jochen Rindt's transition to Formula One was all but easy. While he finished the 1966 championship third, it took him six years to finally take his maiden win. However, from that point, he was unstoppable. Despite being without points after the first two races, Rindt improved tremendously, and starting with Monaco Grand Prix, he won five out of six times. As he had a massive lead in the championship, he could drive more conservatively.

However, this Austrian still pushed the limits and risked it all at the famous and dangerous Monza track. Opting to run a wingless car, Rindt wanted maximum speed while the stability suffered. Yet, during one of the practice sessions, he lost control in the Parabolica corner. On his insistence, he wasn't fully secured in the vehicle, so upon contact with the barrier, the safety belts slit his throat. Later investigation attributed his death to the broken inboard brake shaft and unsafe crash barriers. Despite not participating in the last four races of the season, he still won the title and is the only Formula One driver to achieve this.  

4. Alberto Ascari (1918-1955)

Ascari's car was in a horrible shape after the accident, suggesting the severity of it

Despite his father dying on the race track when he was only seven, Alberto Ascari wanted to be just like him. The young Italian took every chance he could, even competing on two wheels before moving to Grand Prix racing. Naturally, he joined Formula One in its first season in 1950, but his Ferrari was slow and unreliable. However, from the middle of 1951 to the end of the 1953 season, Ascari domination was maybe the biggest in Formula One history.

In that period, he won 13 of his 15 races, becoming the first double world champion. Sadly, his dream marriage with Ferrari ended, so he hadn't finished any of his next seven races! Taking a break from Formula One, he went to Monza, where he tested Ferrari for the endurance race. After a few laps, the car started skidding uncontrollably, finally ending on the nose and somersaulting twice. Due to multiple injuries, Ascari died after only a couple of minutes. To this day, no one knows what exactly happened. What's eerie is that, like his father, he died aged 36 with 13 Grand Prix victories. Ascari is still one of the best racers ever, and a part of the Monza track where he died is named Variante Ascari. 

3. Jim Clark (1936-1968)

No one saw what happened to Jim Clark

Jim Clark was a double world champion in Formula One and maybe even the most talented racing driver overall! In his professional career that lasted less than a decade, he also won the Indy 500 and was even a rookie of the year in the 1963 USAC Championship Car. Keep in mind that he participated in only three races that season! Clark was also terrific in Formula Two, hill climb, road rally, and pretty much everything he tried. His driving style was also unique, as he knew how to be gentle on the car while still being the fastest. That's the reason why he had so relatively few retirements.

In 1968, Clark had an excellent start, winning the first race of the Formula One season. However, as the next one was four months later, he decided to compete in Formula Two. But, during the opening laps at the Hockenheimring, his car went off the track, straight into the trees. With a broken neck and a skull fracture, Clark died before the medics could help him. To this day, no one knows what exactly happened. It's believed that Clark didn't make a mistake but that his right rear tire exploded. No one doubts that Clark's racing legacy could have been the greatest ever if he had lived. 

2. Dale Earnhardt (1951-2001)

They celebrated the victory, not knowing that Dale Earnhardt is no longer with us

While Richard Petty and Jimmie Johnson also won seven NASCAR Cups, Dale Earnhardt is the best racer the series has ever had. Although his Winston Cup Series debut was in 1975, his first full season came only in 1979. That year he proved his enormous talent by winning his first race while finishing the seventh total. Just a year later, he won his first series crown. From that moment to the end of his career, he constantly fought for the title. No other 40+ athlete was as dominant as Dale!

Despite 49, Earnhardt finished second in the 2000 championship, so 2001 was another chance to win his eighth crown. However, at the second race of the season, at Daytona, he died in the last lap after colliding with two more cars. Tragically, his vehicle slid into the outside wall as he hit his head on it. The attempts to revive him proved fruitless, as he was officially pronounced dead hours later in the hospital. His death had such a massive impact that NASCAR tremendously improved safety. Luckily, for more than two decades, no other driver lost a life in the series.

1. Ayrton Senna (1960-1994)

Ayrton Senna's car broke at the worst possible moment

Probably no other racer had such a passionate following as the Brazilian Ayrton Senna. Enormously talented, he won three consecutive junior championships before joining Formula 1 in 1984. Despite driving for the below-average Toleman, he scored impressive three podiums in his rookie season. As he continued improving, by 1991, he already had three championship titles. However, his most incredible seasons came in 1992 and 1993, as despite being awfully underpowered compared to Williams, he won eight races for his McLaren.

Yet, Senna knew by that point that he would never become a champion again unless he joined Williams, which he finally did in 1994. In spite of his best efforts, he had a terrible start of the season, unable to finish the first two races, with Michael Schumacher winning both. Feeling massive pressure, Senna finally did well, qualifying first for the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola. However, his performance was overshadowed by the death of Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger during this session. Nevertheless, the racing weekend continued, with Senna leading the Grand Prix after an excellent start. But, at lap number seven, he lost control at the fast Tamburello corner at almost 200 mph, hitting the concrete wall. Due to numerous head injuries, Senna died on impact, despite the efforts to revive him in the hospital. After the investigation, the accident was blamed on the poorly designed steering column. The shock was so huge that the whole season is considered the worst in Formula One history.

Unfortunately, many other honorable mentions include the oldest Formula 1 race winner Luigi Fagioli or Indy 500 champion Bill Vukovich. We also can't forget about multiple Grand Prix winners such as Michele Alboreto, Justin Wilson, Greg Moore, Bruce McLaren, Pedro Rodríguez, or Wolfgang von Trips. Some like Jules Bianchi, Stefan Bellof, or Anthoine Hubert were just beginning to show their true potential. While we may not like all the safety procedures, we should all know that the alternative is much worse. What we owe to all these past champions is not only to honor their racing legacy but to learn how to continue improving.

Who is your favorite racer that unfortunately lost his life on the track? Which racing series do you think is currently the most dangerous?  

Photo: MichelAelbrecht/Pixabay


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