The disaster at the 1955 Le Mans endurance race – “Eighty-three spectators and driver Pierre Levegh died at the scene, whilst 120 more were injured in the most catastrophic accident in motorsport history.”
The 1955 Le Mans disaster occurred during the 24 Hours of Le Mans motor race, when Pierre Levegh’s state of the art Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR ran into Lance Macklin’s Austin-Healey 100 and crashed into the audience, causing large fragments of racing car debris to fly into the crowd. Eighty-three spectators and driver Pierre Levegh perished at the scene with 120 more injured in the most catastrophic accident in motorsport history.
(Levegh’s car had a special magnesium alloy body that burned incredibly hot when it ignited and water obviously doesn’t help with magnesium fires.)
How the accident happened:
The 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans began on 11 June 1955, with Pierre Levegh behind the wheel of the #20 Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR run by Daimler-Benz. American John Fitchwas Levegh’s assigned partner in the car, and he would take over driving duties later. Competition between Mercedes, Jaguar, Porsche, Ferrari, Aston Martin and Maseratiwas close, with all the marques fighting for the top positions early on. The race was extremely fast, with lap records being repeatedly broken.
At the end of Lap 35, Levegh was following Mike Hawthorn’s leading Jaguar D-type, just as they were entering the pit straight. Hawthorn had just passed Lance Macklin’s slower Austin-Healey 100 when he belatedly noticed a pit signal to stop for fuel. Hawthorn slowed suddenly in an effort to stop rather than make another lap. Hawthorn’s Jaguar, with the new disc brakes, could decelerate much faster than other cars using drum brakes, such as Levegh’s Mercedes. The sudden, unexpected braking by Hawthorn caused Macklin in the Healey to brake hard, throwing up a small cloud of dust in front of Levegh, who trailed close behind. Macklin then swerved across the centre of the track, attempting to re-pass the slowing Jaguar, but also apparently out of control. Macklin had not noticed Levegh nor Juan Manuel Fangio, in another 300 SLR, approaching rapidly from behind. Fangio was in second place at the time, but directly behind, and attempting to lap Levegh.
Levegh, ahead of Fangio on the track, did not have time to react. Levegh’s car made contact with the left rear of Macklin’s car as he closed rapidly (at about 240 km/h (150 mph)) upon the slowed car.
When Levegh’s 300 SLR hit Macklin’s Austin-Healey from behind, his car became airborne, soaring towards the left side of the track, where it landed atop the earthen embankment separating spectators from the track itself. The car struck the mound at such speed and angle that it was launched into a somersault, which caused some parts of the car, already damaged and loosened by the collision, to be flung from the vehicle at very great speeds. This included the bonnet and the front axle, both of which separated from the frame and flew through the crowd.
The bonnet decapitated tightly jammed spectators like a guillotine. With the front of the spaceframe chassis—and thus crucial engine mounts—destroyed, the car’s heavy engine block also broke free and hurtled into the crowd. Spectators who had climbed onto trestle tables to get a better view of the track found themselves in the direct path of the lethal debris. Levegh was thrown free of the tumbling car, and his skull was fatally crushed when he landed.
As the somersaulting remains of the 300 SLR decelerated, the rear-mounted fuel tank ruptured. The ensuing fuel fire raised the temperature of the remaining Elektron bodywork past its ignition temperature, which was lower than other metal alloys due to its high magnesium content. The alloy burst into white-hot flames, sending searing embers onto the track and into the crowd. Rescue workers, totally unfamiliar with magnesium fires, poured water on the inferno, greatly intensifying the fire. As a result, the car burned for several hours. Official accounts put the death total at 84 (83 spectators plus Levegh), either by flying debris or from the fire, with a further 120 injured. Other observers estimated the toll to be much higher.
Fangio, driving behind Levegh, narrowly escaped the heavily damaged Austin-Healey, which was now skidding to the right of the track, across his path. Macklin then hit the pit wall and bounced back to the left, crossing the track again. He struck the barrier near the location of the now burning 300 SLR, causing the death of a spectator, although Macklin survived the incident without serious injury.
Laika (c. 1954 – November 3, 1957) was a Soviet space dog who became one of the first animals in space, and the first animal to orbit the Earth.
Laika was a stray dog, originally named Kudryavka (Russian: Кудрявка Little Curly); she underwent training with two other dogs, and was eventually chosen as the occupant of the Soviet spacecraft Sputnik 2 that was launched into outer space on November 3, 1957, (becoming the first dog in space, to orbit the Earth, and was also the first animal to die in space.) The Soviets designed the spacecraft knowing she would not survive. One Soviet scientist took her home to play with his children because he said “I wanted to do something nice for her. She had so little time left to live.” Laika likely died within hours after launch from overheating, possibly caused by a failure of the central R-7 sustainer to separate from the payload. The true cause and time of her death was not made public until 2002; instead, it was widely reported that she died when her oxygen ran out on day six, or as Soviet government initially claimed, she was euthanized prior to oxygen depletion.
As a kid who was very into rockets and airplanes I remember being told about her (mind you, I wasn’t born until the cold war was ending), but in my childish innocence I assumed she came back okay.
Here’s a statement made by Oleg Gazenko, one of the Sputnik scientists:
“Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it… We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.”
You know what makes me (sorta) happy? They built her a window. Despite the challenges and costs of building a secure window in a pressurized capsule, they did it so the dying dog could look out.
Gazenko speaks of the bond that grew between the dog and him as they worked toward her mission, leading us in unembroidered prose through a brief tale of preparation, hours of readiness on the launch pad, and the launch itself. But the heart of the article for me, and the part to which nothing I’ve found since makes reference, is this: Gazenko tells us that as engineers rushed against deadlines to complete the capsule that would carry the dog into space, outfitting it with equipment to record the details of her death, he took on a battle in Laika’s behalf. Against heavy objections from the decision-makers, he insisted upon the installation of a window. A window in a space capsule, where such a luxury would cause complications and expenses that I can barely imagine. A window for the dog whose monitored demise had been this man’s objective in all the interactions that had bonded her to him with the eager devotion of every well-trained working canine.
Yet Gazenko persisted and prevailed.
Roof In Peace.
Secretariat comes down the stretch in the 1973 Belmont Stakes, “He’s moving like a tremendous machine.”
I’ve always thought of Secretariat as one of the most bad-ass athletes in all of sports.
- Derby – Sets record running faster as the race goes on, record still stands
- Preakness – Wins again by 2.5 lengths, on covers of Time, Newsweek and SI
- Belmont – Wins by 31 lengths in 2:24 (averaging 37.5 mph), a record that still stands today.
- FUN FACT: The word “horse” technically means an ungelded male over age 4. It can be used interchangeably with “stallion.” A colt is an ungelded male younger than that, a gelding is gelded male of any age. Filly is a female <4 years old, mare is a female >4 years old. Foal is a baby of either gender.