On This Day

le mans disaster, le mans accident, lance macklin
Associated Press
Lance Macklin’s
#26 Austin Healey, into which French driver Pierre Levegh crashed, lies in a mangled heap on the side of the track at Le Mans.

On This Day: 83 Killed in Le Mans Racing Disaster

June 11, 2011 06:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On June 11, 1955, driver Pierre Levegh and 82 spectators were killed in an accident at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race.

Crash at 150 MPH

The crash occurred in the third hour of the 24-hour race on the pit straight. Mike Hawthorn led a pack of cars, with Lance Macklin behind him and Pierre Levegh to the back left of Macklin.

Hawthorn decided to pit and braked quickly to the right. Macklin swerved to the left to avoid him; Levegh hit Macklin and his car was lifted onto an embankment on the left. It flipped multiple times along the embankment and flew into the crowd of spectators.

“The car was shattered by the impact: its flat motor hood ripped loose and scythed through spectators like a guillotine knife,” wrote Time. “The heavy engine followed, spewing parts. The first row of the crowd was cleanly decapitated. Twenty yards away, the chassis cut another swath. Gasoline took fire; then the Mercedes' magnesium-alloy body went up in a searing white flame. Levegh's headless corpse was burned to a crisp. A 400-sq. yd. stretch of gay and cheering people became a black, hysterical horror.”

Eighty-two spectators were killed and 76 were badly injured. Authorities decided to continue the race so that spectators in other areas—who had not heard about the accident—would not leave and clog up the roadways needed for ambulances.

“Hawthorn, though unnerved, went on to win and set a new record,” wrote Life. “But few spectators had the enthusiasm to cheer.”

Who Was to Blame for the Crash?

After the race, many blamed Hawthorn for starting the chain of events that led to the crash by braking too quickly. An official investigation by the organizers of the race, Automobile Club de l'Ouest, found Hawthorn not guilty of wrongdoing and declared the crash a racing accident.

Paul Frere, a one-time Le Mans champion, defended Hawthorn in a scene-by-scene analysis of the accident. “It is completely clear from the photographs that Hawthorn did not make a sudden-brake-and-pull-sharp-right manoeuvre only a short distance from the pits, thereby endangering the cars near him,” Frere wrote in an article originally published in Jaguar World in 1993 and reproduced on the Mike Hawthorn Tribute Site.

Frere, like the official investigation, concluded that there was no single person to blame for the crash. The Frere article is preceded by an introduction and followed by a gallery of 90 images from the crash.

Before the race began, Levegh had expressed concern about the speed of the cars in the narrow pit straight. “We have to get some sort of signal system working,” he said. “Our cars go too fast.”

Though Levegh was unable to save himself, he may have saved the life of driver Juan Fangio behind him. Before crashing into the embankment, Levegh waved his arm in the air and Fangio was able to brake in time to avoid him. Fangio credited Levegh with saving his life.

Reactions: Safety Improvements and Racing Ban

In the wake of the disaster, France and other European countries instituted bans on auto racing until stricter safety standards were implemented. According to Time, more than $600,000 was invested in improving the track and stands, and the 1956 race was allowed to go on. Other safety measures, such as limits on engine size and the amount of time a driver can drive, were also introduced.

France, Spain, Italy and Switzerland all instituted bans on auto racing, most of which were soon reversed after new safety measures were implemented. Switzerland has yet to reinstitute auto racing, though Swiss Parliament did vote to lift the ban in June 2007.

Background: 24 Hours of Le Mans

24 Hours of Le Mans is an endurance race held every June in Le Mans, France. Under the current format, there are 55 entered cars with 3 drivers each. The race, run over a combination of racetrack and closed public roads, demands speed, endurance, reliability and fuel efficiency. After 24 hours of racing, the car that covered the most ground is declared the winner.

The official Web site of 24 Hours of Le Mans, organized by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, explains the history of the race, provides a list of winners and entrants, and sells tickets for the 2010 race.

Key Player: Pierre Levegh

Pierre Levegh was a French sportsman who also excelled at tennis and ice hockey. 1955 was the fifth time he competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans race. In 1952, he raced driving solo and had a four-lap lead in the last hour; however, his car experienced engine failure, “probably caused by a missed gear change due to driver fatigue,” according to the Web site 24 Heures du Mans.

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