Tragedy Prevailed During the ’94 Season


As they are in most years, the champions--Dale Earnhardt, Al Unser Jr., Michael Schumacher, Steve Kinser, John Force and others--were worthy winners, some even record setters, but 1994 will be forever remembered in motor racing for its downside.

The deaths of Neil Bonnett, one of stock car racing’s most beloved personalities, and rookie driver Rodney Orr on the first weekend of qualifying for the Daytona 500 last February set the tone for a long season in which Formula One drivers Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger and sprint car champion Robbie Stanley died in racing accidents. And that’s not to mention the possibly career-ending head injuries suffered by Ernie Irvan and Page Jones.

Senna’s death, the result of a single-car crash on May 1 during the San Marino Grand Prix in Italy, ended the career of one of racing’s greatest drivers, certainly the finest road racer of his era. The brilliant Brazilian had won three world championships and was expected to win many more before his car shot off the track at 190 m.p.h. and smashed head-on into a guard rail. He was 34.


Formula One never recovered from the shocking loss of its biggest attraction, its most tragic event since Jimmy Clark’s death in 1968.

The Formula One season was almost as confusing as it was tragic.

For years, NASCAR has been accused of keeping Winston Cup races competitive by “throwing a NASCAR yellow flag” at some opportune moment under the guise of “debris on the track” or “track inspection.” The gimmick was to bunch up the cars, bring the leader back to the pack and restore the image of competition.

Formula One took that a step further. Instead of bunching up cars in a single race, FIA tried to artificially establish a season points race between Schumacher and Damon Hill by disqualifying Schumacher in one race, banning him from two more and then disqualifying him after he had won yet another.

And what had Schumacher done? In the first instance, he passed Hill, the pole-sitter, on the pace lap , even though the cars would then come to a dead stop before the race started. For that he drew a black flag--ordering him in for consultation--which he temporarily ignored, which led to the two-race ban. In the second instance, the German driver’s Benetton had a wooden skid block--like a bed slat--beneath the car that was a fraction of an inch too thick.

After all of this, the season that had seemed over because Schumacher had won seven of the first nine races came down to a shootout between him and Hill at the final race in Australia. When they crashed together and neither finished, Schumacher won his first championship by a single point, a fitting end to a bizarre season.

Earnhardt, voted American driver of the year, and Unser were runaway winners of this country’s two most prestigious series, Winston Cup and Indy cars. Earnhardt, whose seventh championship brought him even with the legendary Richard Petty, dedicated his season to Bonnett, his closest friend and hunting partner. Earnhardt collected $3.4 million for the year.


A high point was the running of the Brickyard 400, the first non-Indy car race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. More than 300,000 fans watched as the stock car drivers waged one of the most exciting finishes in the speedway’s storied history before youthful Jeff Gordon, an Indiana product, beat Irvan to the checkered flag.

Unser put a victory in the Indy 500 together with seven other triumphs in winning the PPG Cup driver’s championship as Roger Penske-owned cars finished 1-2-3 in five races and the series championship standings. Nigel Mansell, the 1993 champion, did not win a race and at season’s end announced he was returning to his native England and Formula One, whose title he won in 1992.

Kinser, in World of Outlaws sprint cars, and Force, in a drag racing funny car, kept doing what they do best--winning. Kinser claimed his 14th championship by winning 29 main events and, after stunning the racing world with an upset in the International Race of Champions, announced he was leaving sprint cars to race Winston Cup stock cars in 1995.

Force won his fourth National Hot Rod Assn. championship with 10 event victories that pushed him past Don (Snake) Prudhomme as funny car racing’s winningest driver. He also ran 303.95 m.p.h. at Pomona for a funny car record. Prudhomme spiced the year by winning three races plus the Winston Invitational on his retirement tour.

Other champions of note included Scott Pruett in Trans-Am, Steve Millen in the Exxon GTS series, Millen’s brother Rod in Mickey Thompson Grand National trucks, Steve Robertson in Indy Lights, Paul Choiniere in SCCA Pro Rally, David Empringham in Formula Atlantic, Tony Stewart in USAC midgets, Mike Chase in Winston West stock cars and Scott Kalitta and Dale Alderman in drag racing’s top fuel and pro stock classes.