1955 Le Mans disaster
The 1955 Le Mans disaster occurred during the 24 Hours of Le Mans motor race at Circuit de la Sarthe in Le Mans, France on 11 June 1955. A major crash caused large fragments of debris to fly into the crowd, killing 83 spectators and French driver Pierre Bouillin (who raced under the name Pierre Levegh) and injuring nearly 180 more. It was the most catastrophic crash in motorsport history, and it prompted Mercedes-Benz to retire from motor racing until 1989.
The crash started when Jaguar driver Mike Hawthorn pulled to the right side of the track in front of Austin-Healey driver Lance Macklin and started braking for his pit stop.
Macklin swerved out from behind the slowing Jaguar into the path of Levegh, who was passing on the left in his much faster Elektron magnesium-alloy bodied Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR.
Levegh rear-ended Macklin at high speed, overriding Macklin's car and launching his own car through the air.
Levegh's car skipped over a protective earthen berm at 200 km/h (125 mph) and made at least two impacts within the spectator area, the last of which caused it to disintegrate, throwing him onto the track where he was instantly killed, and sending large pieces of debris into the packed spectator area in front of the grandstand, including the engine block, front suspension, and hood. The rear of Levegh's car landed on the berm and exploded into flames.
Pierre Eugène Alfred Bouillin was a French sportsman and racing driver. He took the racing name Pierre Levegh in memory of his uncle.
(Video shows the crash)
The Le mans organizers did not stop the race
in order to not cause people from the stands too overflow the walking areas/roads, in order to allow ambulances to have an easier access.
Accounts put the death toll at 80 to 84 (spectators plus Levegh), either by flying debris or from the fire, with a further 120 to 178 injured. Other observers estimated the toll to be much higher. It has remained the most catastrophic crash in motorsport history. A special mass was held in the morning in the Le Mans Cathedral for the first funerals of the victims.
The death toll led to an immediate temporary ban on motorsports in France, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, and other nations, until the racetracks could be brought to a higher safety standard. In the United States, the American Automobile Association (AAA) dissolved their Contest Board that had been the primary sanctioning body for motorsport in the U.S. (including the Indianapolis 500) since 1904. It decided that auto racing detracted from its primary goals, and the United States Automobile Club was formed to take over the race sanctioning and officiating.