“Nada pode me separar do amor de deus (Portuguese for ‘Nothing can separate me from the love of God’).”
These are the words inscribed on a hedge-stone at the Morumbi Cemetery in São Paulo. It sits above the final resting place of three-time Formula 1 world champion Ayrton Senna da Silva. He was killed in a crash at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari in Imola, Italy during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. It capped a weekend that also saw Roland Ratzenberger killed in a qualifying wreck the day before and Rubens Barrichello critically injured in a practice crash two days earlier.
Death is nothing new in the world of motorsports. In fact, the very history of auto racing was paved with the blood of so many drivers. It’s not like there weren’t those in the sport who felt that the level of safety was unacceptable. Sir Jackie Stewart came to this realization after he famously ran off-track at Spa-Francorchamps in 1966, crashed into a telephone pole and came to a rest in a barn. The crash trapped him in his car while fuel began pouring into the cockpit. There was no track crew to pull him out and it took teammate Graham Hill and Bob Bondurant using wrenches borrowed from a spectator to disassemble and extract Stewart. It was a process that took over 25 minutes. Thankfully, he had no major or minor injuries. But if he had suffered a spinal injury as people feared at the time, he wouldn’t still be here today.
Another man who came to this conclusion was Bernie Ecclestone. Say what you will about him as a human being and how he runs Formula 1 today, he and Max Mosley both understood that safety had to be taken seriously if the sport was to survive.
Even as Ecclestone and Mosley began their respective ascents to the top of the motorsports world, there was still fierce resistance to even basic safety enhancements from tracks and promoters. They felt that the safety of the drivers ultimately fell upon the drivers. That’s how it was once a time when a driver or two dying on a race weekend was the exception to the rule.
The tide began to shift the other way on Oct. 24, 1976. The conditions for the season-finale Japanese Grand Prix at the Fuji Speedway was foggy, wet and running water at various spots around the track. Despite protest from the vast majority of drivers, including James Hunt and Niki Lauda, the race promoters decided to go on with the event. Despite the potential for a sequel of the events at the Nürburgring that permanently disfigured Lauda’s face, they were more concerned with not losing out on the international television coverage for the title-deciding race.
On the second lap of the event, Lauda made a monumental decision to pull into the pits and retire from the race. He felt that winning the title wasn’t worth risking his life in subpar conditions a second time. This allowed Hunt to win the title by a single point.
From that race on, drivers not dying on a race weekend went from being the exception to the rule to being the rule. Instead of multiple drivers being killed each season, there were spans of years without a driver being killed between 1976 and 1994. Even with Senna’s death in ’94, there are countless more drivers that are alive today thanks to the advances in safety in Formula 1 such as Sky Sports F1 commentator Martin Brundle.
Alas, even with the advancements in safety, auto racing remains, in my opinion, the most dangerous sport on Earth. Death will always remain a possibility each time a driver straps into a race car and 2015 was no exception to this.
The following is a list of the drivers who died in the world of racing this past year. The names on this list come from Motorsport Memorial and it may not be a complete list.
- José Lumbreras (Spain)
- Co-driver to Carlos Iscar in a Renault 5 Turbo, Lumbreras died after his vehicle burst into flames following a crash during the 12th edition of the Oris Rally Clàsico, a historic rally held at Puerto Portals, Islas Baleares, Spain.
- The accident occurred on Saturday, March 12 around the five-km mark of the ninth special stage of the rally, Coves de Campanet.
- The car hit a stone wall before crashing into a tree and immediately caught fire.
- Lumbreras died at the scene.
- Jurgen Damen (Belgium)
- Co-driver to Dutchman René Kuipers in the HRX Ford entered by Ferm Powertools World Rally Team, Damen died on Wednesday, April 22, following injuries he sustained three days before at the Sealine Cross-Country Rally in Qatar.
- The accident occurred on Monday, April 20, during the first leg of the rally.
- Damen suffered serious neck injuries when the car in which he sat alongside Kuipers overturned on a desert road, around 10 kilometers from the end of the stage.
- He was treated at the scene by the event’s medical team and then transferred by helicopter to Hamad General Hospital in Doha.
- In the following days, being his state of health still worrying, Damen was transferred by air to Belgium on Wednesday morning.
- He passed away at Leuven hospital in the evening of that same day.
- Otakar Krámský (Czech Republic)
- During an FIA European Hill Climb Championship event at Rechberg in Austria on April 25, the three-time series champion went off track at well over 100 mph and slammed into a tree.
- He was killed instantly.
- The main race was run as scheduled on Sunday “in the spirit of Otakar Krámský.”
- Simon McKinley (Ireland)
- During the fourth round of the Irish National Hillclimb & Sprint Championship on April 25, the reigning overall winner of the Clare Motor Club Scalp Hillclimb slid off track and crashed between Carron and Bell Harbour.
- He was pronounced dead on the scene.
- The rest of the event was canceled.
- Kier Millar (United Kingdom)
- The 11-year old son of famous Scottish stock car racer Keith “Mad Max” Miller was badly injured in a wreck at Lochgelly Raceway on May 9.
- He died two days later.
- Sébastien Bonisseau (France)
- During the 10th stage of the Rallye du Maroc Historique, Bonisseau and co-driver Fabrice Gordon crashed the car into a ditch next to the road between the villages of Iknoun and Tinghir in Morocco.
- Both drivers were unharmed and got out of the car.
- Bonisseau even called his wife to tell her of the adventure and that he was alright.
- While getting the car out of the ditch, he was struck and killed by an out of control high-speed car.
- Roger Garten (United States)
- The Funny Car veteran succumbed to injuries on June 28 following a wreck the previous day at Auto Club Famoso Raceway in Bakersfield, Calif.
- Todor Slavov (Bulgaria)
- During the 2015 Rally Tvarditsa-Elena in Bulgaria, Slavlov’s car went off the road and rolled down a ravine on June 28.
- He passed away later that day.
- Danny Hall and Josh Robinson (U.K.)
- During The Great European Rally 2015 in Austria, Hall and Robinson’s car crashed through a barrier and plummeted 400-meters (just over 1,300 ft.) down the side of the Austrian Alps.
- A recovery operation found the car and the drivers were pronounced dead on the scene.
- Justin Wilson (U.K.)
- On lap 180 of the Aug. 23 ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway, the nose cone came off Sage Karem’s car and struck Wilson in the face.
- He veered off track and hit the inside wall on the Long Pond straightaway.
- He died the next day in Allentown, Penn.
- As always, you can still help his family by going to this website by donating money or simply share your story of support with them.
- Mathieu Joly (France)
- During the 30ème Rallye Vosgien on Sept. 19, Joly’s car veered into a ditch and slammed into a tree.
- He was killed on impact.
- Andy Mort (U.K.)
- During the 46th Beatson’s Building Supplies Mull Rally on Oct. 10, co-driver Mort was killed when his car crashed hard into a field.
- He was pronounced dead at the scene.
- Davide Tulipani
- During the third stage of the 2015 Rally Fettunta on Dec. 6, Tulipani’s veered off-road and slammed into a tree.
- He was killed instantly.
This year, we also lost other members of the racing community outside the confines of the track that are still worth mentioning. Longtime NASCAR reporter Steve Byrnes passed away on April 21 after a second battle with head and neck cancer. This came two days after the renamed Food City 500 In Support of Steve Byrnes and Stand Up 2 Cancer at Bristol Motor Speedway in tribute to the ill cohort. When asked on Twitter if he watched the whole race, he replied with this…
@maxinem I went the distance
— Steve Byrnes (@SteveByrnes12) April 20, 2015
It’s still tough to know that he’s no longer with us, but I can only imagine the first person to greet Byrnes at the pearly gates was his dear friend Dale Earnhardt. Of course, I’m just speaking as a fan of NASCAR and a writer. I know it’s much, much tougher on his wife Karen and son Bryson.
Marussia driver Jules Bianchi, who had been in a coma since his wreck in the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, passed away on July 17. I didn’t include him in the list above because his death technically falls in the list of 2014 driver fatalities.
“Do not shed a tear. Give a smile when you say my name.” These were the departing words of Buddy Baker on July 7 when he announced on “The Late Shift” on Sirius XM NASCAR Radio that he was leaving due to an inoperable tumor in his lung. The “Gentle Giant” passed away in the early morning hours of Aug. 10 at his home in Catawba County, North Carolina.
Racing is a dangerous sport. Death is always possible every time these drivers strap into the racecar, no matter how many safety advances come along.
So why do these drivers do it? Why do they risk their lives for something as simple as a sport? Well, Michael Delaney (played by Steve McQueen) said it best in the 1971 film “Le Mans.”
Thank you for reading my tribute to those who died in the world of racing this year. Most don’t get anywhere near the attention that Justin Wilson received so I feel it’s my duty to honor these lesser-known people.