The Indianapolis 500 is one of the biggest events in auto racing each year. More than 257,000 people can fill the seats outside of the 2.5-mile oval, while another 130,000 can pack into the infield, making for a potential capacity of roughly 400,000. That is why this event is labeled The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
One of the biggest reasons racing is so popular is that it’s dangerous. Crashes can occur each year drivers take to the track. When you have 33 Indy Cars averaging speeds of 150-plus miles per hour, there is a lot that can go wrong. I’m going to cover some of the accidents that have happened in this race throughout the years. Safety wasn’t as big of an issue 50-100 years ago as it is today, which you’ll be able to tell by some of the facts that I post.
Our list only includes drivers who passed away as the result of a wreck during the actual race. Several more incidents have occurred during practice sessions for the Indy 500 and at other events at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
There have been 14 drivers that have died while racing in the Indy 500 dating back to 1919. Fortunately, it hasn’t happened since 1973 when Swede Savage ran over a patch of oil that caused him to hit the inside wall in turn four, which shot him back to the outside wall where he crashed once again.
Swede left the track conscious, but he would die 33 days later in the hospital. Adding insult to injury is the fact that Swede’s crew member, Armando Teran, was killed when a fire truck racing to save Savage hit him. Also, Salt Walther crashed in the front straightaway early in the race and was severely burned.
The final three deaths proceeding Savage’s were in 1958 with Pat O’Connor and 1964 with both Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald. Coming out of turn four, MacDonald spun and crashed into the inside wall. The car was knocked back onto the track and into the path of oncoming traffic. Sachs hit MacDonald’s car head-on, and he was killed instantly. MacDonald was pronounced dead shortly afterward.
One of the most heart-wrenching accidents in history happened in 1955 when Bill Vukovich entered that year’s edition of the Indy 500 as the two-time reigning champion. Vukovich was leading the race when Rodger Ward spun his car coming out of turn two. His car wound up hitting and going over the outer wall, sending it into a high-speed cartwheel outside the track. He would die of a basilar skull fracture before help could reach him.
Floyd Roberts was the next driver at the Indy 500 to die in 1939, followed by Shorty Cantlon in 1947. In 1953, Carl Scarborough became the first driver to be killed from heat exhaustion. Some believe that Scarborough may have inhaled CO2 while crews were putting out flames from the car with a fire extinguisher, which could have been the actual cause of death.
In 1935, Clay Weatherly was driving the same car that Johnny Hannon had fatally crashed in ten days earlier during testing. Weatherly went flying into and over the wall in turn four and was already pronounced dead when rescue crews arrived.
The next death occurred in 1929 when Bill Spence turned over in turn two on lap ten, throwing him from the car. He died en route to the hospital from a fractured skull. Four years later, both Mark Billman and Lester Sprangler died in 1933.
The 1919 Indy 500 claimed two lives. The first was Arthur Thurman, whose car turned over on lap forty-four, which killed him instantly. Then Louis LeCocq was turned over on lap ninety-six, which caused the fuel tank to rupture and burst into flames.
A total of 23 drivers have been killed during practice or qualifying runs at the Indy 500. Most recently, driver Scott Brayton, who had won the pole position, died due to a skull fracture sustained during a practice run while testing a back-up car in 1996.
There have been 21 non-driver deaths linked to the Indy 500 (13 at the race, 8 during practice or qualifying runs). Nine of these untimely fatalities were spectators at the race, however, it is important to note that the majority of these accidents occurred prior to 1961, just two spectators have been killed since 1960, and none since 1987. Indy has taken extraordinary precautions to keep bystanders safe since those horrific accidents.
The majority (11 of 21) of non-driver fatalities have occurred with a mechanic/team member who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The one remaining death associated with the Indy 500 was John Masariu, a firefighter who fell from his rescue vehicle and was hit and killed instantly by another truck.