About the Project

This is the result of six months of research and reporting by Tribune Auto Race Writer Ed Hinton, with help from staffers at other Tribune papers, among them Darin Esper of the Los Angeles Times. It sheds new light on the decline of traditional fatalism among race drivers and the need for more research and action to prevent the violent deaths the sport has come to accept. In this two-part series, Hinton explores new head-securing apparatus, softer walls and the wide divergence of opinion on some of these safety issues among the leading racing groups: CART, IRL, Formula One and NASCAR.


When Adam Petty’s race car slammed into a concrete wall last May at 150 mph, his body was tightly secured by a safety harness and seat belt. What doomed the 19-year-old grandson of legendary stock car driver Richard Petty was that his head was inadequately restrained.

As the car came to its horrifically sudden stop, laws of physics kept young Petty’s head hurtling in the direction of impact--laterally to the right, and slightly forward. The only tethers holding his head to his body were his neck muscles and spinal column, which came under enormous stress.

His head hyper-extended so violently that he suffered what trauma specialists call basal skull fracture--actually a set of injuries during which the fragile bottom of the rear of the skull cracks from stress, often cutting arteries and causing rapid blood loss, and destroying nerve cells that control such life functions as breathing and heart rate.

Then and there, continuation of NASCAR’s most famous driving dynasty “just evaporated,” says Richard Petty.


The terrible details of Adam Petty’s death open an even deeper tragedy found during a sixth-month investigation into racing safety: Basal skull fracture and similar injuries caused by violent head movement have been the most common cause of death among race drivers over the last 10 years--the same time span during which a device, scientifically proven to prevent just such injuries, has been available.

Adam Petty should be alive today. So should Kenny Irwin, another rising NASCAR star who died of nearly identical injuries only eight weeks later. So should five of the six other NASCAR drivers killed in the last decade. And so--all told--should at least 12 of the last 15 drivers killed in major auto racing worldwide since 1991, if only . . .

If only auto racing had moved faster to develop and refine the head-restraint device that was invented nearly 20 years ago, as well as other safety innovations stuck on the drawing board because of inadequate funding for research and development. This, in a sport through which billions of dollars flow annually.

Indeed, if only two of the long-overdue breakthroughs--the head-restraint device and so-called “soft wall” technology, which would greatly lessen the impact energy of cars hitting concrete, had been in place, the last decade might have brought an end to the dying that has been the dark delineator of auto racing from other sports since the first driver fatality in 1898.

“We’d be much further ahead if we had been concerting high-quality research, with consistent funding, over the last 30 years,” said John Melvin, a Detroit biomechanical engineer and one of the world’s leading authorities on racing injuries.

“Look at all the money being spent on winning alone,” added Melvin, who believes that “even a tiny fraction of that” could finance great leaps in safety.

Is financial profit--which would be reduced, but not by much, by safety innovations--more important to the moguls of racing than driver safety?

“Always,” Indy car driver Michael Andretti says. “Always.”

Other sad findings:

* A poor record by track owners, racing teams and organizations of supporting the development of safety measures that could have saved the lives of young Petty and others.

Only now is the HANS--head and neck support system--being put to use. And energy-dissipating soft walls have undergone only minimal testing under race conditions.

* Most major racing organizations have heeded the grim message delivered by fatalities in their series, and have taken steps to improve safety conditions for their drivers. But American racing’s wealthiest and most popular organization, NASCAR, has become the international focal point of continuing tragedy.

Three drivers died in NASCAR stock car racing accidents in 2000--Petty in the Busch series, Irwin in Winston Cup and Tony Roper in Craftsman Trucks--but there were no fatalities last year in the two major categories of open-cockpit racing historically considered the most dangerous: Formula One or Grand Prix cars, and Indianapolis-type cars of the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) series and the Indy Racing League (IRL).

* More NASCAR drivers, eight, have died of racing crashes in the last 10 years than in Formula One and Indy car racing combined.

* A macho acceptance of death as an occupational hazard.

“I know the risk. I take all the responsibility,” Richard Petty often told his wife during his 35-year racing career. “If I get killed, and you ever sue anybody over it, I will haunt you.”

Today, the man called “The King” of NASCAR resigns himself to his grandson’s death as “meant to be.”

Deadly History

That has been the mind-set of racing drivers worldwide, since the first fatality among them, the Marquis de Montaignac at Course de Perigueux in France in 1898.

Hundreds followed in the bloodiest lineage in all of sports.

Attempts to intervene, to save racers from themselves, began as early as 1903, when, upon the death of star driver Marcel Renault and others in the Paris-Madrid road race, the French government stopped the event short, shutting it down at Bordeaux.

From there, Western civilization polarized on the subject of motor racing. There were masses revolted by it, and masses drawn to the mystique of the sport that killed almost banally.

Ernest Hemingway, the 20th century guru of machismo, is said to have opined, “There are only three sports: bull fighting, mountain climbing and automobile racing. All the rest are games.”

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway alone, in the first half of the century, became a notorious arena of death. From 1929-40, the only fatality-free year was 1936. The Indy 500s of 1933, ’35 and ’37 killed four men each.

Then came the hideously historic year of 1955. Six drivers--among them star Bill Vukovich, who died while going for his third consecutive Indy 500 victory--were killed that season in racing for Indianapolis-type cars sanctioned by the American Automobile Assn.

Worse, when Pierre Levegh crashed into the grandstands early in the 1955 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France, 81 spectators died with him immediately, and the final death toll eventually surpassed 100.

From the U.S. Congress to the French parliament in the mid-1950s, politicians called for an international ban on auto racing. The AAA withdrew its sanctioning from the sport.

Under enormous public pressure, racing began moving toward safety. By 1959, seat belts and roll bars were mandatory in Indy cars. But the most nightmarish cause of death, fire, remained.

Memorial Day weekend of 1964 changed that.

Grim Humor

In arguably the most hideous crash ever at Indy, dashing young driver Dave MacDonald and clowning crowd-pleaser Eddie Sachs perished together in a fire that produced a huge, roiling cloud of black smoke.

In NASCAR, on the same day at Charlotte Motor Speedway, a similar cloud engulfed the car of Southern folk hero Glenn Roberts, ironically long known by the nickname “Fireball.” He died five weeks later.

In the wake of the ’64 catastrophes came fire-retardant uniforms for the drivers and fuel cells for the cars, rubber fuel-tank bladders that were highly resistant to rupturing in crashes.

A young Mario Andretti arrived in Indy car racing that year. Because of his fearless driving style, he began receiving Christmas cards in July. It was black-humored admiration from fans, the message being that they didn’t expect him to live until Christmas.

“We accepted it as part of doing business,” Andretti, Michael’s father, says of death. “When one of us got it, we said, ‘Well, it was just his turn. I hope it’s not mine next time.’

“It was like going to war. Each time you strapped into a race car, you never knew if you were coming back.”

For the first 19 years of Andretti’s career--he won in all of racing’s three top forms, Indy cars, NASCAR and Formula One--the dying went on, even among the biggest names in the sport:

* “The Flying Scot,” Jim Clark, the best Formula One driver of his day and the Indy 500 winner in 1965, was killed at Hockenheim, Germany, in 1968.

* In 1970, Austrian Jochen Rindt became the only F1 driver to win the world driving championship posthumously, having clinched it before he died in a race at Monza, Italy.

* In 1971, Pedro Rodriguez of Mexico died in Germany and Jo Siffert of Switzerland died at Brands Hatch, England.

* Two global ladies’ men died in ’74--Revlon cosmetics heir Peter Revson at Kyalami, South Africa, and Francois Cevert of France at Watkins Glen, N.Y.

* And feared old Indy maintained its reputation as a killer: Chuck Rodee in ’66, visiting British F1 driver Mike Spence in ’68, Jim Malloy in ’72.

In ’73 came the Brickyard’s still-notorious “Year of Fire and Rain,” when rain delays spread the carnage over weeks. Art Pollard died during practice. Swede Savage died five weeks after suffering grave injuries in a race that was so chaotic, crew member Armando Teran was killed by a fire truck speeding to the site of Savage’s crash the wrong way on the pit road.

Legendary Times columnist Jim Murray took a singular stand on Indy:

“Gentlemen, start your coffins,” he wrote in 1973.

Then in 1975: “If the Kentucky Derby is the Run for the Roses, then [Indy] is the Run for the Lilies.”

Yet Murray differentiated between the open-wheel forms of racing and NASCAR’s big, bulky, heavy stock cars.

“NASCAR is safe,” Murray said privately at Indy in ’75. “Not at all like this stuff.”

Thus would NASCAR’s image continue, for decades to come, while open-wheel racing remained notorious.

In the 1978 Italian Grand Prix, in which Mario Andretti clinched his Formula One world driving championship, his Lotus teammate, Ronnie Peterson of Sweden, was injured. Peterson died the next day of complications.

Another horrendous season came in 1982:

* In Formula One, Canada’s definitive daredevil, Gilles Villeneuve--father of current F1 star Jacques Villeneuve--and Italian rookie Ricardo Paleti were killed.

* In Indy cars, Gordon Smiley was killed during qualifying at Indianapolis, and Jim Hickman died in a race at Milwaukee only a week after the Indy 500.

Then, little by little, “We got smarter,” Mario Andretti said.

Indy car and Formula One drivers demanded safer cars. Engineers delivered, with bodywork that crushed and fragmented to absorb energy, lessening the shock on drivers’ bodies.

From 1982-94, a great lull in the dying came to Formula One and CART, the top Indy car series.

But that lull only set the stage for the storm that opened the revolution against death in auto racing.

‘Someone’s Drowned’

If there ever was a driver who simply could not die in a race car, it was Brazilian Ayrton Senna.

He was too precise, too near-superhuman with his lightning reflexes, too laser-like in his focus. Quite simply, he was the best driver in the history of Grand Prix racing and, arguably, the best in any form of motor sports.

When young Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger was killed during practice for the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, Italy, it was a shock to the new generation of Formula One drivers, none of whom had experienced the death of a colleague.

But mitigating their dismay was rookie Ratzenberger’s inexperience. They told themselves it probably wouldn’t have happened to a more experienced driver, and they raced on.

Then came race day, May 1, 1994. Rising German star Michael Schumacher was following closely behind his idol and mentor, Senna, as they entered a corner called Tamburello early in the race.

Schumacher said Senna’s car, a state-of-the-art Williams FW16, appeared “nervous” as it entered the corner.

Then it was gone.

It shot off the course, slamming into a high concrete retaining wall at more than 180 mph. When it bounced off the wall, Senna already was dead in the cockpit.

Williams team officials were prosecuted for culpable homicide by the Italian government, but were acquitted. The theory that Senna’s steering mechanism had broken because of an improper weld could not be proved.

More likely, experts believe, the car somehow “bottomed out,” so that the front tires were lifted off the pavement just enough that they had no traction, leaving Senna unable to steer.

In any case, for all his brilliance, Ayrton Senna, at 32 the Mozart of his profession, was a helpless passenger on the split-second ride to his end.

The cause of death was announced as penetration of Senna’s brain by shrapnel that pierced his helmet. But experts believe he would have died anyway of basal skull fracture, caused by the violent whipping motion of his head and neck.

Senna’s death was the highest-profile single fatality in the history of automobile racing.

Formula One, like soccer, had become enormously popular virtually everywhere in the world except in the United States, where NASCAR and Indy cars were dominant.

The world had changed in the 12 years Formula One had gone without a fatality. Civilization had gone into a sea change against unnecessary death--from quitting smoking to exercising to insisting on passenger-car safety. And F1 fans had become accustomed to all sport, no gore.

Now Formula One had experienced two fatalities in rapid succession. And the nightmare wasn’t over. Twelve days later, in the first practice for the next race, the Grand Prix of Monaco, Karl Wendlinger crashed and went into a coma.

“Formule 1: la Serie Noire,” read the somber front-page headline of the French national newspaper Le Figaro the next morning. Translation: Formula One: the Black Series.

Less than a fortnight of death and grave injury was more than enough for the new generation of Grand Prix drivers.

At Monaco, they reactivated the drivers’ association that had been dormant since the days of Emerson Fittipaldi in the 1970s, and brought in

retired driver Niki Lauda--himself permanently disfigured in a fiery F1 crash in 1976--as their spokesman.

By race morning at Monaco, Bernie Ecclestone, the czar of Grand Prix racing, sat in the paddock, humbled by those developments, admitting, “We thought we walked on water . . . and now someone’s drowned.”

Ecclestone sighed, and measured his words.

“It is necessary to give out the message to the world that we’re not people who don’t care,” he said.

The revolution was on.

Immediate and complete redesign of Formula One cars was ordered by the governing Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA). The “tubs,” the survival cells built into the chassis, would be drastically heightened to contain the violent whipping of drivers’ heads. Horsepower was reduced. Crash tests were mandated to ensure that cars crumbled and/or disintegrated on impact for dissipation of energy away from drivers’ bodies.

Formula One, which in the days of Mario Andretti and Fittipaldi had been the most dangerous motor sport in the world, was on its way to becoming the safest. The stigma of la serie noire began to fade.

Wendlinger would survive and largely recover. But FIA wasn’t satisfied.

Beginning in 1994 and continuing through this day, FIA has carried on safety research and development at test facilities in Britain.

There hasn’t been a driver fatality in Formula One since Senna.

Tire Wars

NASCAR also had two driver fatalities in 1994, both in its elite Winston Cup series and both at its showcase track, Daytona International Speedway.

During practice for NASCAR’s biggest race, the Daytona 500, fun-loving veteran Neil Bonnett and rookie Rodney Orr died.

But there were easy rationales with which NASCAR drivers could write off the tragedies.

Bonnett had suffered brain-stem injuries in a crash in 1990 and had been out of action, except for two races, in ’93. After he died, there were whispers that he shouldn’t have been back in a race car, that he’d suffered cumulative effects of his head injuries and that his reflexes might have been dulled.

And Orr was a not-ready-for-prime-time rookie; the Daytona 500 was too much, too soon.

Bonnett’s rustiness and Orr’s inexperience also fit well into another, larger rationale. There was a “tire war” in NASCAR between dominant Goodyear and upstart Hoosier, a racing specialty company based in Indiana. In a dangerous game of one-upmanship, the war escalated, each tire maker trying to design and manufacture faster tires than the other.

This contest had raged off and on since 1988 and involved considerable experimentation by both companies. Drivers were frightened about racing on unproven tires.

Bonnett himself had once stood in a garage area, glancing about at his peers walking past--some limping from injuries in crashes caused by tire failures--and said, “I’m afraid it’s going to take somebody getting killed to end this thing. You just wonder which one of us it’s going to be.”

Bonnett and Orr were on Hoosiers at Daytona in ’94. Hoosier had introduced a tire with a narrower “footprint"--the part of the tire that actually touches the track--than the Goodyears. The advantage of the Hoosier was less friction down the straightaways, but that also meant more precarious steering through the turns.

Veteran drivers who had tried the Hoosiers said they were fine, for the most part. But if there was trouble, such as slight fishtailing, a rusty or inexperienced driver might not react quickly enough.

Indeed, NASCAR announced the day Bonnett died that it suspected “driver error.”

Later that year, rising NASCAR star Ernie Irvan nearly died at Michigan Speedway, suffering massive head and chest injuries in a crash caused by yet another tire failure, this time a Goodyear.

Irvan’s team owner, Robert Yates, began calling for safer cars with less horsepower. Yates also said the sides of Winston Cup cars were too rigid and needed to be more flexible to dissipate crash energy. He pleaded for a cut from the then-peak horsepower of 730 down to a maximum of 600.

But Yates was a solo voice in the macho world of NASCAR, where drivers still believed that things were “meant to be,” and still said, “It was just his time.”

Drivers clung to that. And NASCAR rolled on.

Meanwhile, CART began requiring electronic crash data recorders on its cars in 1994, a milestone advance in the science of racing safety.

Since its inception in 1979, CART, a league founded largely by former drivers, had been more aggressive about safety than any other racing body.

CART had its own medical and rescue staff, headed by a neurosurgeon, Steve Olvey of the University of Miami. CART also had one of the world’s top orthopedic surgeons for racing injuries, Terry Trammell of Indianapolis, as a major consultant.

Olvey and Trammell worked regularly with racing engineers, studying data from crashes, redesigning cars, advancing safety features.

The 1996 death of little-known CART driver Jeff Krosnoff was something of a freak accident. His car went airborne off a temporary street course in Toronto and his head hit a tree. Still, it was a shock to CART.

“We’d gone 14 years without a driver fatality,” Olvey recalled.

Scott Brayton, the Indy 500 pole sitter, was killed in a crash May 17, 1996. He suffered basal skull fracture as his car hit the wall during a practice run for the 500.

Three more years passed without a driver death. But then came the fall of 1999.

On Sept. 11, in a practice session at Laguna Seca Raceway near Monterey, rookie Gonzalo Rodriguez apparently lost control of his Penske-Mercedes, which shot straight off a turn and slammed nose-first into a barrier.

The first layer of the barrier was made of tires bound together. Behind them was a concrete retaining wall. The car hit so hard it drove through the cushion, came to a sudden stop against the immovable wall, then vaulted, rear-over-front, over the wall.

Rodriguez, who suffered an instantaneous basal skull fracture, “bled out before he hit the ground,” said Olvey, who was an attending physician at the scene. “Most of his blood volume was on the sign and the wall [over which the car vaulted].”

But where NASCAR had learned little from the fatal crashes of Bonnett and Orr and the near-fatal one of Irvan in ’94, CART’s recorders gathered enormous information for improvement after Rodriguez’s death.

Rodriguez had died of classic basal skull fracture. CART for two years had been studying a device meant to prevent precisely that injury, by restricting the whipping motion of drivers’ heads.

It was called the HANS--for head and neck support--and had been around since 1991, developed by Robert Hubbard, a specialist in biomechanical engineering.

At first, it was too bulky for drivers to wear in the tight confines of open-cockpit Indy and Formula One cars. But by 1996, as part of Formula One’s all-out war on driver fatalities, Mercedes-Benz engineer Hubert Gramling had seen enormous potential in Hubbard’s device. With Hubbard as a consultant, Gramling began testing the device at Mercedes laboratories near Stuttgart, Germany. Together, they refined the HANS until it was small enough to be practical in open-cockpit cars.

Because Mercedes-Benz was involved in Formula One and CART, the technology was shared.

After Rodriguez’s death, CART experts created a computer model to be analyzed by Ford engineers. They had the data from Rodriguez’s crash recorder. They had the specifications on the HANS. Melding all that information in the computer, they found that “mathematically, the HANS would have saved Gonzalo’s life,” Trammell said.

Just as they were pondering implementation of the HANS came the tragedy at California Speedway in Fontana that turned CART’s steady study of anti-fatality measures into an all-out rush.

Rodriguez was a rookie. Greg Moore was something else entirely--one of the elite fraternity, a proven veteran at 24. He was a budding star, popular with U.S. fans and a major celebrity in his native Canada. And Moore, a paddock prankster and the instigator of virtually every party, was beloved by his peers.

“When Greg got killed, I’ve never seen drivers that upset, in all the years that I’ve been doing this,” said Olvey, who has been CART’s medical director since its inception.

“We’ve got a highly intelligent group of drivers. They don’t accept guys getting killed anymore--especially when it’s something that could have been prevented.”

Intelligence, unfamiliarity with death and what experts call “small sample” or “cluster” statistics added up to heartsick outrage among CART drivers.

Moore’s death on Oct. 31, 1999, was CART’s version of F1’s nightmare.

“That’s the nature of these rare events,” said Melvin, the Detroit biomechanical engineer. “You can go for years without them, and then they seem to appear suddenly. The single occurrence, every so often, can sort of fail to get people’s attention. But two, close together, can really get everybody’s attention.”

Olvey said CART’s drivers wanted answers, and CART was able to give them.

Moore suffered several sets of lethal injuries, among them a broken neck, but he also suffered basal skull fracture. CART began moving with all deliberate speed to make the HANS practical, and to mandate it.

Moore’s crash was horribly violent. His car lost traction in the turbulent air roiling off other cars and skated into the infield grass. Had that infield area been paved, experts believe, he might have regained control, or at least slid safely to a stop.

But on slick tires on the slippery grass, Moore’s car skated out of control, sideways. Then it tripped on a rough spot, lifted into the air and began barrel-rolling. Still, Moore might have survived--except that the car then slammed almost directly cockpit-first into a concrete retaining wall in the infield.

The car bounced off the wall and began an even more violent series of rolls.

Moore was dead in the car.

In the off-season, CART moved, rapidly and decisively.

Studies of the HANS intensified, and two CART drivers, Michael Andretti and teammate Christian Fittipaldi, Emerson’s nephew, volunteered to wear the device.

On July 26, 2000, the HANS probably saved Christian Fittipaldi’s life in a hard crash on the Chicago Motor Speedway oval. Within hours, CART’s board of directors voted to make the HANS collar mandatory for all its oval-track races in 2001.

But on July 27, 2000, former driver Bobby Rahal, then CEO of CART, said in an interview that “irrespective of what we do to make cars safer, we can only do so much.”

Attention must now turn, Rahal said, to energy-dissipating walls.

“A concrete wall is good at one thing--restraining cars from going into crowds,” he said. “But it is prehistoric in terms of its technology.”

CART, in full-fledged anti-fatality revolution, had done everything it could to correct the deadly factors in the Moore and Rodriguez tragedies. But CART had little control over replacing the concrete wall Moore had hit at California Speedway.

That track had been acquired by International Speedway Corp., which now owns or controls 13 major speedways in the United States. And ISC is controlled by the France family of Daytona Beach, Fla.--the family that also owns NASCAR.

ISC did order immediate paving of the infield area off the second turn, site of Moore’s crash, but legal denial of responsibility for death and injury had for 50 years been a NASCAR trademark. And in 2000, its image as the safest motor sport shattered.

Fatalities in each of NASCAR’s top series--Adam Petty in Busch Grand National on May 12, Irwin in Winston Cup on July 7, and Roper in Craftsman Trucks on Oct. 15--left NASCAR standing alone while the open-wheel forms, under pressure, had reduced their fatalities to zero in 2000. And then in September, Moore’s family filed suit against International Speedway Corp., charging wrongful death.

Petty, though, was the towering surname that forced the issue this time. In one way, Adam Petty’s death was not as profound as Senna’s. In another way, it was even more profound. Unlike Senna, Adam Petty had won no championships, or even a major race. But unlike Senna, Adam Petty, at 19, was all bright hope, all enormous potential, the one anointed to take up the mantle of his grandfather, folk hero Richard Petty, NASCAR’s winningest driver with 200 victories.

Adam was to be the next great Petty.

What Adam Petty might have accomplished, the heights to which he could have taken NASCAR popularity, never will be known. But like Senna in F1 and Moore with CART, Petty’s death may serve as an impetus for a safety push in NASCAR.


Monday: NASCAR’s apparent resistance.