The 10 Most Lethal Racetracks in America
Some of North America's most popular racing venues have fatality counts in the dozens.
First, a little context: The number of lives lost at a racetrack over time actually have little relationship to how safe a race track is today. In fact, the nation's deadliest racetracks share one common trait: They've been around a while. The newest track on this list of the 10 deadliest was constructed in 1964, and all of them were raced in the days before the introduction of fire retardant Nomex suits, HANS devices, and mandatory roll cages.
Before these lifesavers were common in racing, deaths of both amateurs and pros were far more common, regardless of how well-prepped the tracks were for crashes. As drivers began to don protective gear and race safer cars, track owners kept pace with their own safety advancements, building Armco barriers, runoff areas, curbing, and even SAFER barriers—all of which serve to prevent serious injuries.
So how do we rank the most dangerous tracks in America? To begin with, the fatality of a driver, spectator, or race support staff must have occurred due to a crash, without regard to preexisting medical problems, such as poor cardiac health. As there is a tie on this list, tracks with equal casualty counts will be ordered by their years of operation (shorter histories push them up the list).
10. ISM Raceway, Arizona (6 Fatalities)
ISM Raceway is the modern name for a speedway some know as Phoenix International Raceway. Now a 1.022-mile, tricornered superspeedway, ISM once featured a 2.5-mile road course sewn into its layout that was reduced in 1991 to a 1.51-mile waltz through the infield. Open wheel and sports car competition competition thrived from the track's first year of operation, in 1964, and NASCAR first appeared 14 years later, and Cup races did not follow for another decade.
Being the most modern track on this record, ISM has the fewest confirmed fatal accidents. Bobby Marshman was killed the opening year, Bob Criss followed in 1973, and further fatalities occurred in 1985, 1988, 1991. Its most recent casualty was in 1996. No credible source reports any deaths since.
9. Darlington Raceway, South Carolina (7 Fatalities)
Darlington was first known as "Harold's Folly," after its sponsor Harold Brasington, who tried to recreate the Indianapolis 500 in a field where peanuts and cotton were once grown. Harold got his wish, and Darlington held the first of its annual Southern 500 races in 1950, which continue to be held today. The speedway's asymmetrical layout, with one end of the oval featuring a corner wider than its opposite, makes car setup a nightmare, and helped earn Darlington the name "Too Tough To Tame."
Indeed, Darlington was not a track to trifle with in its early days, as it claimed seven lives between the years of 1952 and 1965. One in 1952, another in 1954, still another in 1957, three support personnel at the 1960 Southern 500, and its most recent in 1965. Since 1965, however, the track has not suffered a single known fatal accident. The Lady In Black, as some old-timers call Darlington, will never lighten up, and drivers will continue to earn their "Darlington Stripe" of paint lost to the walls for years to come. The lives of future racers of Darlington, I hope, will remain with them.
8. The Milwaukee Mile, Wisconsin (9 Fatalities)
The Milwaukee Mile is the oldest circuit on this list and the second oldest speedway in the world. A dirt track at its 1903 opening until it was paved in 1954, the 1.0-mile speedway encloses a 1.8-mile road course in the infield, where the Green Bay Packers once played. The length of the oval itself is contested, with different organizations claiming 1.0-mile, 1.015-mile, and 1.032-mile lengths.
What is undisputed is that the Milwaukee Mile's future looks grim. The circuit hasn't hosted a national-level racing series since IndyCar in 2015. Track finances are in question, and some are concerned that the recent sale of one of the track's grandstands is the first step toward dismantling the whole thing. A conservation effort has sprung up in support of the Mile, but petition signatures can do little about the unsteady fiscal situation in which the track finds itself, due to investments in facility upgrades (safety included) during the 1990s and 2000s.
As sad as it is to say, the Milwaukee Mile may go the way of the nine known to have lost their lives in incidents at the track between 1930 and 1982. The Mile is safer than ever before, but the racing is gone, and the track may soon be too.
7. Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah (10 Fatalities)
Unlike circuit or drag racing, land speed record chasers adapt their sport to the environment, rather than adapt their environment to the sport. Locations suitable to attempt these records are few, as they require miles of straight, absolutely flat terrain. The Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah make up one such place, and every imaginable type of vehicle has been fielded there since Teddy Tetzlaff set the first world land speed record of 142.8 MPH in 1914.
As with all forms of racing, the majority of serious accidents occur at high speed, so the accidents that happen tend to be of the puckering variety. Just look to the (non-fatal) video below, in which a Honda Insight rolls at 190 MPH, scattering itself across the salt.
Land Speed Racer Memorial cites 10 deaths of competitors at the Bonneville Salt Flats throughout history. Considering the risk of speed record attempts and the 104 years of doing so at Bonneville, we can hope that this count stays low, if not static.
6. Riverside International Raceway, California (10 Fatalities)
Riverside International Raceway is the sole dedicated road course to make this register. Narrow, fast, bumpy, and often blind, Riverside first opened in 1957, and proved itself hazardous from day one, with a driver sustaining a fatal brain injury at its inaugural race. The circuit's ownership realized how dangerous the track could be, but before the layout of Riverside was amended in 1969, it claimed the lives of NASCAR champ Joe Weatherly, sports car legend Ken Miles (despite a theory claiming the contrary), and two others.
Riverside did not cease to take lives, however. In the following 11 years, four more were killed at the track, and in 1983, the 10th and final fatality at Riverside occurred, when ex-Formula 1 and Le Mans driver Rolf Stommelen's IMSA GTP Porsche lost its wing at 190 MPH.
In 1989, the circuit closed, replaced by a mall and a suburb. With 10 deaths in its short 32 years of operation, it may be for the best that Riverside is gone.
5. Charlotte Motor Speedway, North Carolina (16 Fatalities)
Charlotte Motor Speedway got off to an explosive start, hosting the NASCAR World 600 (now the Coca-Cola 600) in 1960, its opening year. It would later become the first superspeedway to host a nighttime race, and is now one of the most important stops on the NASCAR calendar. Within the 1.5-mile oval's confines, a newly-revised 2.28-mile road course, a quarter-mile short oval, and a 0.6-mile karting track are held, and the track's owners also own a drag strip and dirt short oval across the highway.
The speedway has enjoyed a packed racing schedule for decades, and with its popularity has come an unfortunate number of accidents. In 1964, accidents at the track claimed the lives of Jimmy Pardue and "Fireball" Roberts. The following year, another driver was killed.
In the 1970s, three more racers died. Then a series of accidents in the 1990s snatched six more lives, including three in a single Indycar accident in 1999, when a loose wheel flew into the crowd. Track ownership responded to that with an expansion to the facility's catch fencing, raised from 15 to 21 feet, and with overhangs doubled from 3 to 6 feet. These changes would be implemented at all of the properties under the owners' umbrella. Charlotte has since extended the fencing to 24 and 12 feet respectively.
Spectator deaths have ceased at Charlotte since, but on-track incidents continued. Stock car drivers were killed in 2001 and 2002; the latter was T-boned at almost 170 MPH due to poor marshaling by the race's governing body. Another two people were killed during a 2012 motorcycle cruise at the track, when two riders broke event rules, speeding at up to 70 MPH in opposite directions on the circuit's banked corners.
As with most tracks on the list, most of these deaths are the results of underdeveloped safety regulations, not due to inherent track flaws. Keep this in mind as totals continue to rise further down the list.
4. El Mirage Dry Lake, California (20 Fatalities)
Like Bonneville, the speeds built into El Mirage and land speed record racing means monumentally dangerous crashes. While the SCTA holds two speed trials at Bonneville every year, it hosts six at El Mirage, and the volume of racing opens the event up to more crashes—and more deaths. Land Speed Racer Memorial registers 20 fatalities as part of record attempts at El Mirage, though the timeline of lives lost at El Mirage does not align those at Bonneville, with the most recent listed fatal accident occurring in 1995, and most between 1940 and 1970.
3. Langhorne Speedway, Pennsylvania (27 Fatalities)
Langhorne Speedway is no more; its paddock closed for good in 1971, after 45 years. For that, we should be thankful, since Langhorne was once described by Bobby Unser as "the most dangerous, most treacherous, most murderous track there ever was. Nobody liked it, and the ones who said they did were lying."
Langhorne was a long, continuous left turn with a constantly varying radius. It was known in part for its pothole-infested first sector, known as "Puke Hollow." Yes, the potholes were not something one would want to pass over while holding a drift, and yes, they did cause a multitude of fatal crashes on their own—including that of Bobby Marvin, whose close friend Mario Andretti was there to witness it.
In time, drivers lost their patience with Langhorne. Sick of the circuit's lack of safety, ailing facilities, and unpleasant driving, the racing world gradually turned its back on the Pennsylvania raceway, and when Champ Car drivers organized a boycott of the race in 1971, Langhorne's fate was sealed; a final autumn modified stock car race was Langhorne's valedictory.
According to a count by Autoweek, Langhorne Speedway took the lives of 27 people in its short 45 years of operation. Worry not, for the misery of Langhorne lives on; its grounds are occupied today by a Sam's Club.
2. Daytona International Speedway, Florida (38 Fatalities)
Daytona opened in 1959, and within the steep, 2.5-mile tri-oval, which reaches 31 degree banking in some spots, a 3.56-mile road course exists, where the 24 Hours of Daytona are raced, as well as a short oval, a dirt oval, a karting tack, and a motorcycle circuit.
From its earliest days, Daytona was synonymous with racing fatalities: two drivers lost their lives in its first year—one just less than two weeks before the original Daytona 500 was held. Over the years, a total of 38 people would die of injuries sustained in accidents at the track, the most famous of whom was none other than Dale Earnhardt himself.
Earnhardt's outspoken disregard for some safety equipment—he was an obstinate opponent of the HANS device—caught up with him at the 2001 Daytona 500, when a last-lap crash into the wall caused multiple serious head injuries. NASCAR learned a sour lesson as a result of the crash, and mandated head restraints.
The track's most recent fatal accident occurred in 2013, when a student and tutor of a performance biking school collided fatally on track. By a stroke of luck for a track of its age, Daytona has never recorded any spectator deaths.
1. Indianapolis Motor Speedway (72 Fatalities)
Calling the Brickyard "the Graveyard" would be in poor taste, considering what has been reiterated so many times throughout this count: Unless it's Langhorne, the track is almost never at fault for the lives lost on its premises.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway was constructed in 1909, and originally paved with 32 million pounds of bricks, hence the name "Brickyard." Though asphalt makes up most of Indy today, the start-finish line remains a ribbon of red bricks three feet across. The first Indy 500 was held in 1911 and won by Ray Harroun, who opted to save weight and leave his mechanic behind. Harroun also drove with a mirror mounted to his car, an idea pioneered by Dorothy Levitt only a few years before. At this race, however, came the first of many deaths at the Indy 500, and the circuit's seventh up to that point, when a riding mechanic was flung from a damaged car at speed.
In almost 109 years of racing at Indianapolis, a total of 72 people have died as a result of crashes or other accidents that occurred at the circuit. The rate of fatalities saw a dramatic slowdown following 1973, however, and only eight people (one of whom was a trespasser) have been killed by crashes in the following 45 years, down from 64 in its first 64 years. Only two have died since 2000, and none since 2010.
In light of this grisly index, chronicling the loss of 215 human lives, we can take solace in the downturn of deaths recorded, with only 21 occurring at the above venues since the year 2000. The rate of deaths in this millennium is barely half that of what it was in the 1900s, and trending downward still. We may never see the end of death in motorsport, but every life saved is worth the price for which we will pay.