27/6/1955

The worst motor racing accident happened at the Le Mans 24 Hour race in France.

Hours after flame and flying metal erupted, few of the spectators at Le Mans, France knew what had happened. It was days before drivers' stories and pictures could reconstruct the worst accident in racing history. Some 250,000 spectators had gathered for Europe's classic sports car race, the 24-hour test around an 8.38-mile course. Concerned about a course laid out years ago for slower cars, Mercedes Driver Pierre Levegh complained, "We need a signal system. Our cars go too fast." As the race entered its third hour the cars were breaking records at every lap when Jaguar Driver Mike Hawthorn received a signal from his pit crew to stop for gas. As he braked, an Austin-Healey swerved to avoid him. A few lengths behind, Levegh raised his hand, signaling another Mercedes to slow up. At 150 mph he had no chance to do so himself. Hitting the Healey, the Mercedes took off like a rocket, struck the embankment beside the track, hurtled end over end and then disintegrated over the crowd. The hood decapitated tightly jammed spectators like a guillotine. The engine and front axle cut a swath like an artillery barrage. And the car's magnesium body burst into flames like a torch, burning others to death. In a few searing seconds 82 people were dead and 76 were maimed. Hawthorn, though unnerved, went on to win and set a new record. But few spectators had the enthusiasm to cheer.

©2004 eric wilkins design & illustration

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