15 Scary Indy 500 Crashes That Shook Race Fans

Although the oldest race in the Triple Crown of Motorsport, the Indianapolis 500, keeps up many of its time-honored traditions, it has also evolved a great deal since its origin in 1911. It's always contested as a 200-lap, 500-mile race. The 33 drivers line up in 11 rows of three, and so on. Yet of course the cars themselves have advanced with the times, so much so that Hélio Castroneves's 2021 record time of 2:37:19 (190.7mph average speed) is more than four hours and 100mph on average faster than the original 1911 winning time of 6:42:08 (via Indianapolis Motor Speedway). 

However, on the whole, the racers' speeds increased, but the number of driver fatalities from crashes has plummeted. The last one to date occurred in 1996 when a tire blowout on pole-winner Scott Brayton's practice run car caused it to clash with the outer wall. As per the Daily News, the car spun and skidded out of control more than 1000 total feet before and after the collision, which killed Brayton with massive head injuries. 

Horrible crashes, some of them listed here, often catalyzed new racing safety rules, such as requiring screening tests for rookie drivers in 1935 or the installation of the SAFER Barrier at the Speedway in 2002. Racers were required to wear seat belts in 1954, but Indy 500 driver Barney Oldfield first ordered an experimental safety harness from a parachute company in 1922, setting an example for racers to be ahead of the curve.

Note: The following embedded videos show violent Indy 500 crashes, some of which resulted in the loss of human life. They may be disturbing to certain viewers, so please watch at your own discretion. 

1911 - mechanic Sam Dickson dies in the first Indy 500

In its historic first race, the Indianapolis 500 unfortunately also recorded its first fatality. However, the unlucky soul was not a driver, but rather Arthur Greiner's riding mechanic Sam Dickson. For the Indy 500's first 12 races (and again from 1930-1937) most drivers rode in tandem with a "mechanician," or riding mechanic, who tried to maintain and repair the car throughout the race. Quite a few of these sidekicks were mortally wounded in Indy 500 history, particularly in the 1930s, when cars traveled faster.

During the 13th mile of the inaugural Indy 500 race, a front wheel flew off of Greiner's car, which threw it out of control. Both Greiner and Dickson were violently ejected, but Greiner pulled through with a broken arm after being knocked unconscious. Unfortunately for Dickson, he went down in the record books after flying 20 feet into a fence and dying instantly, according to a contemporary report in the New York Times. While no one else perished that day, there were several more accidents in the race, which the Times said kept the crowd of 80,000 people "in a state of fearful expectancy."

But apparently, crowd control was a mysterious concept in 1911. The Times article describes a hectic melee after Greiner's and Dickson's crash. Throngs of people surrounded the two men to take a closer look at the disaster, and the hundreds of "special policemen" on hand had to club a path for medical personnel to reach the wounded.

1933 - two fatal crashes in one day

Two crashes and three gruesome fatalities marred the 1933 Indy 500. The first occurred when Mark Billman hit the outside wall during his 79th lap and was pinned between the wall and his car's front left wheel. The crash broke both his legs and ripped his left arm entirely off, in addition to internal injuries. Blood transfusions did not save him; he died about an hour later. Billman's riding mechanic Elmer Lombard sustained lacerations and burns, but survived the ordeal.

Soon after the first accident, while making a turn, Malcolm Fox unexpectedly swung out to the right, catching the passing Lester Spangler on the left rear end of his car. The contact caused Spangler's car to flip and spin several times before coming to rest against the inner wall. Spangler and his riding mechanic G.L. "Monk" Jordan were both killed. According to a contemporary report in Automotive Business Magazine, they were so disfigured that friends had trouble telling them apart.

This, however, was only the death toll on racing day. During qualifying, driver Bill Denver and his riding mechanic Bob Hurst also died in an accident, setting the tone for a particularly morbid event at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

1939 - Floyd Roberts

In 1938, Floyd Roberts won the Indy 500, setting a record for the fastest time to complete the full 200 laps. Unfortunately for Roberts, he would not have a chance to defend his title.

During the 1939 race, Bob Swanson skidded coming out of turn two on lap 109, and Roberts smashed into him, flipping Swanson's car, which caught fire. Swanson spilled onto the track as cars raced past him, and he was carried off by several people in view of an audience of 145,000 people, according to event coverage in the New York Times. Swanson survived, but Roberts crashed through the outer wall and into a tree, killing the 39-year-old champion immediately from brain injuries. A third driver, Chet Miller, swerved to try to avoid the fracas, but his car flipped and collided with the inner wall.

The huge crowd was reportedly the largest to witness a non-weekend race. (The Indy 500 took place on a Tuesday that year.) But not even spectators were free from danger, as two of them were hurt by flying wreckage from the accident.

1955 - Bill Vukovich

Bill Vukovich was the best driver of the 1950s, according to Boston.com, winning the Indy 500 in both 1953 and 1954. The end of his racing career and life at age 36 came from being caught up in a chain reaction of an accident after leading through 57 laps of the 1955 race. Then, an axle broke on Rodger Ward's car. After breaking to avoid a collision, Al Keller collided with Johnny Boyd. Coming up from behind and about to lap the cars ahead of him, Vukovich swerved right to avoid trouble, but could not help crashing into them. In a harrowing sequence, his car cartwheeled several times beyond the outside wall into the vicinity of onlookers, colliding with a jeep, a truck, and a passenger car, per Sports Illustrated, which blamed the tragedy on racing's culture of "suicidal nerve."

Vukovich had breathed his last, officially expiring due to a skull fracture. Ward, Boyd, and two fans were also injured. Vukovich missed his chance to win an unprecedented three consecutive Indy 500 races, but he did establish a record of leading the most laps in the Indy 500 for three straight years, which has stood the test of time, according to Autoweek.

1958 - 15-car pile-up

Spectacular trouble plagued the 1958 Indy 500 on the very first lap. According to the Indianapolis Star, Ed Elisian and Dick Rathmann got tied up speeding into the third turn and collided with the outside wall. A chain reaction ensued that involved 15 cars and exited eight of them from the race entirely. During the chaos, Pat O'Connor's car flipped over Jimmy Reece's and landed flush to the track on its top side, likely killing him instantly. It was the largest Indianapolis 500 accident to date.

The 1958 race also featured the Indy 500 debut of A.J. Foyt, the eventual four-time Indy 500 champion, which to this day is still tied for the most wins by a driver. Foyt witnessed the 15-car jam-up from behind, and intentionally spun his car to avoid it.

This giant accident lead to a regulation requiring IndyCars to be outfitted with roll bars. However, that safety measure did not prevent disaster from striking again the very next year.

1959 - Jerry Unser Jr.

Part of racing's royal family, Jerry Unser Jr. was the first Unser to compete in the Indy 500. His brother Al Unser is tied for the most event wins in history with four. Jerry's brother Bobby and nephew Al Unser Jr. have also won the prestigious race, while Jerry's son Johnny and nephew Robby were Indy 500 competitors as well. In 1958, Jerry Jr. entered his first Indy 500 and was part of the notorious 15-car pileup, where his car hurtled over the outside wall, and he walked away with a dislocated shoulder.

As fate would have it, Jerry did not even get the chance to compete in the 1959 race. During a practice run weeks before the event, he was coming out of the northwest turn at about 133mph when his car started to wiggle and then smacked the inside wall, caught fire, and spun into the outside wall. Unser was still conscious and speaking when the rescue crew reached him, according to the Spokane Spokesman-Review, but couldn't be removed until the fire was put out. He had a broken neck, but ESPN reports that he died at 26 years old from his burns two weeks later. The incident led to new regulations requiring fire-resistant racing suits.

1964 — Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald

Two drivers perished in one of the grisliest accidents in all of Indy 500 history during just the second lap of the race. Dave MacDonald spun out of the northwest turn and collided with the inside wall, causing an immediate fire. Just behind MacDonald, Eddie Sachs ran into MacDonald's car and also crashed, dying instantly. Combined, the two crashes billowed enormous plumes of black smoke into the air, engulfing portions of the stands. Several fans sustained minor injuries from flames and blasted debris, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Three additional racers were also involved in the wreckage, which the Herald-Tribune called "a grinding holocaust."

MacDonald passed away hours later, but the other three drivers involved were not seriously hurt. According to Autoweek, MacDonald's wife Sherry would never watch the Indy 500 again, but she represented her deceased husband at racing events over the years and was invited to his induction into the Corvette Hall of Fame 50 years later in 2014.

1973 - Swede Savage and Armando Teran

David Earle "Swede" Savage Jr. led for 12 of the first 54 laps of the race, when in the 59th lap—just before regaining the lead—his car suddenly wavered and then careened hard left, crashing devastatingly into the inner wall. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reports that the car had been fully loaded with fuel, and the resulting explosion vaulted debris high into the air, while what was left of the flaming car slid back toward the outside wall with the 26-year-old Savage still inside.

As service workers converged around the accident, fans began screaming as they witnessed a fire truck run into crew member Armando Teran, throwing him about 50 feet and killing him with fractures to the ribs and skull. After the accident, the sanctioning body USAC ruled that safety trucks could no longer drive in the opposite direction of the IndyCars, according to the book The Indy 500 by Ron Dorson.

Several weeks later in the hospital, Savage would succumb to complications from his injuries. The Bangor Daily News reported at the time that Savage had worn a safety suit equipped with fire-resistant foam that would have prevented many of his burn injuries, but he was unable to activate it after the crash.

1981 - Danny Ongais

Affectionately known as the Flyin' Hawaiian, Danny Ongais was leading the 1981 Indy 500 after 137 miles when his vehicle hit the outer wall of the third turn at 210mph according to the New York Times. The recently fueled car burst into flames and scattered pieces. In a macabre scene, as the ripped-open husk of a car slid to a stop, Ongais's mangled body slumped over motionless for all to see. However, against the odds, Ongais escaped with his life and several compound fractures. Surgeons needed to repair the broken bones, nerve damage in one leg, and a six-inch tear in the diaphragm.

A modern IndyCar with a protective safety cell would never have exposed Ongais to the open air in the same way, according to Jalopnik. However, not only would Ongais recover, but he would also return to competition in 1982, participating in the Indy 500 for the next six years in a row.

1982 - Gordon Smiley

During the second lap of a qualifying run, the back end of Gordon Smiley's IndyCar slid slightly to the right coming out of the third turn and going into the fourth turn. The 33-year-old driver tried to correct the error, but in overcorrecting the steering, the car turned sharply right and smashed headlong into the outer wall at around 200mph, causing a fiery explosion and a veritable disintegration of his car, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Smily died instantly—officially from massive head trauma. As detritus splayed across the track, the wreck broke into three major sections that tumbled hundreds of feet down the track with Smiley's lifeless body exposed to the qualifier's spectators.

Car owner Bob Fletcher told the Herald-Tribune that his crew saw nothing while examining the wreckage to suggest that something broken within the car caused the crash. To this day, Smiley's is the final driver fatality during an Indy 500 qualifying round.

1987 - spectator Lyle Kurtenbach killed by a tire

For the first time since 1938, a spectator was killed due to a crash at the Indianapolis 500 when 41-year-old Lyle Kurtenbach was hit in the head with a 25-pound tire. The tire initially fell off of Tony Bettenhausen's car during the 130th lap, and then went sailing over the fence and into the crowd when second-place finisher Roberto Guerrero unintentionally ran into it, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Medical staff took Kurtenbach to the onsite medical center, but soon after he was airlifted to a hospital, where he died less than half and hour later.

Kurtenbach's widow, Karen Kurtenbach Bentz, had attended the 1987 race with her husband. She filed a $9 million wrongful death lawsuit against the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, sanctioning body United States Auto Club (USAC), March Engineering, BBS of America, Bettenhausen, and the Bettenhausen Racing Team, according to the Associated Press. In 1990 the suit was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

1991 - Mark Dismore

During the 1991 practices, when coming out of the fourth turn, the back of Mark Dismore's IndyCar hit the outside barrier at 215mph, sending the car sliding into the pit lane attenuator. The car caught fire and shattered into countless pieces, while tumbling through the pits close to crew members and fuel tanks, according to Sports Illustrated.

The Beaver County Times reports surgeons needed six hours to work on Dismore's broken neck and multiple injuries to his feet, right knee, and right wrist, stabilizing him in good condition. Despite this terrifying setback, Dismore recovered and returned to racing. He competed in another eight Indy 500 races and stayed active behind the wheel until 2002, collecting six total race wins after this horrific accident, according to DriverDatabase.

1995 - Stan Fox

Stan Fox lost control on the very first turn of the race. As he slammed into the outside wall, debris showered the track, and smoke shrouded the raceway as two entwined vehicles scraped the outer wall. Six total cars were involved in the accident. Photo and video documentation show Fox's legs and head frightfully exposed as his mangled car flew through the air without its nose cone. Fox's feet scraped the pavement, and his legs smashed into the wall before he finally came to a stop. But it was severe head trauma that did the serious damage and put Fox into a coma for five days, per the LA Times. After 10 weeks of rehab, Fox returned home but never raced again.

About five years later, Fox was in New Zealand doing some work with head-injury support units and visiting friends. It was there where 48-year-old Fox, driving on a segment of highway known as "The Desert Road," perished in a head-on collision.

2010 - Mike Conway

British driver Mike Conway survived a harrowing airborne crash on the penultimate lap of the race. He and Ryan Hunter-Reay had been jockeying for position between turns three and four. But Hunter-Reay's car was running on fumes and began to falter. Approaching from the inside, Conway's left wheels had begun to touch the ground outside the track, but Conway could not avoid contact with the other racer. His right front wheel ran into the left front end of Hunter-Reay's car, sending Conway's IndyCar spinning airborne into the outer fence. It bounced off the fence, stripping off basically every part of the chassis where Conway remained.

Fortunately for Conway, while his car pirouetted in the air, the nose twisted just enough to avoid a head-on collision with the fence, and he escaped with his life and fractures to his back and left leg, according to The Guardian. Conway was able to return to racing in a matter of months, but he vowed not to race again on oval tracks.

2017 - Scott Dixon & Jay Howard

Around a quarter through the 2017 race, Jay Howard mismanaged the handling of turn one, and the right side of his car connected with the outer wall, damaging the right front tire and sending the car back into the center of the track. A second later, Scott Dixon, that year's pole winner who had started to veer left to try to avoid a collision, slammed into Howard's car, sending his own car and debris flying into the air. The vehicle landed almost squarely on the top of the inner wall, tearing away large chunks of the car's body as a fire ignited. What remained of Dixon's car spun several times and flipped once, finally skidding to a halt on the track. Meanwhile, Howard's wreck spun benignly to a stop far down the track.

As a testament to either incredible luck, the progress of safety engineering in racing, or probably some of both, Howard and Dixon walked away from the catastrophe under their own power, being released from the medical center after evaluation. According to The Guardian, Dixon sustained only a minor injury to an ankle.