Everyone knows racing is a dangerous pastime- but once in a while we get a vivid reminder just how dangerous it can be. There are stories at every race track of errors, mishaps, and accidents that have claimed- or nearly-claimed- the lives of those who risk it all for the glory and the personal reward.
We will always remember those who have perished in the pursuit of speed, but what about those who came very close? Here are ten stories of racers who have had tremendously close calls on the job, experiencing horrific and spectacular accidents and living to tell the tale. This is a list of ten racers who had deadly crashes… and lived.
10 Niki Lauda
The Mugello Gran Prix, 1976: In one of the most infamous crashes in Formula One history, Niki Lauda’s car veered off track and struck a wall, landing in the path of the race and igniting into flame. It was hit seconds later by two other cars, whose drivers got out okay and- joined by a third driver- all rushed to Lauda’s aid, pulling him from the burning wreckage. Niki Lauda was trapped in the car for over a minute before the safety crew was able to get him out. He suffered severe burns to his face, lost part of an ear, and was in critical condition for days following.
Incredibly, Lauda survived- and not only that, went on to keep racing and even win two F1 championships following the accident before retiring nine years later. Niki Lauda’s resilience as seen in this story coupled with his famous rivalry with fellow driver James Hunt have earned him his place in Formula One history.
9 Tetsuya Ota
Number nine is another fiery affair. In a 1998 Japanese Touring Car (JGTC) race at Fuji- in extremely wet conditions- two cars hydroplaned off-track into the outfield on the formation lap before the race start. Seconds later, Tetsuya Ota in his Ferrari also lost control and went careening directly into a stopped Porche, both slamming into the outfield wall. Both cars immediately burst into a spectacular fireball as safety crews scrambled. The Porche’s driver was able to crawl out moments later. Ota was trapped in the car for a minute-and-a-half before the fire was put out.
Ota had to get plastic surgery to fix the burns he suffered on his face and that would be his last race- he quit before doing another… and we can’t really blame him.
8 Augusto Scalbi
Augusto Scalbi had a real scare in March 2016 in Argentina’s TC2000 touring car championship. He was approaching a fast right-hand turn when his brakes failed. His Renault race car hurtled off-track at 218 Km/H (136 MPH), caught a wheel on the turf, and flipped a full six times before colliding with the fence. No fire here, but the video of the crash is still pretty spectacular.
Scalbi was knocked unconscious by the wild ride, but thanks to modern safety equipment Scalbi sustained only bruising to his hands and feet in the accident- though the mechanics surely still had some explaining to do about those faulty brakes.
7 Maria De Villota
In July 2012, Maria De Villota was test driving for her Marussia Formula One team at an airfield in the U.K. She was ending a test run and heading back to the garage at low speed when due to some failure of the brake and control systems, she went sliding into a team semi trailer, running her helmet right into the loading lift protruding off the back. (LINK 6) Response crews got her to the hospital in about an hour and a half with life-threatening injuries.
Ultimately, De Vilotta would lose her right eye but live to tell the tale. However, Maria De Vilotta barely made this list. She unfortunately died about a year later from related complications. Still, she is included in order to recognize her tenacity and her spectacular brush with death, short-lived though it was.
6 Gary Densham
From the world of NHRA Funny Car comes a remarkable drag racing incident. 69-year-old Gary Densham was running a race in his drag car when his parachute failed to open at 494 Km/h (306 MPH). At this speed, the brakes are useless. Densham and his machine went flying into the runoff area at the end of the track and into the steel safety net, nearly ripping a hole in it.
Thanks to modern safety technology, though, Densham was out of the wreck in moments and on camera giving an interview about it for the television coverage. The mangled funny car was his only racer, so he was nearly forced to end his career. But thanks to the generosity of his race community, Densham was able to return to drag racing racing a few months later in another car. Winners never quit!
5 Marc Marquez
Number five on the list from Moto GP superbike racing in Mugello, 2013. Marc Marquez crashed at about 320Km/h (200 MPH). He was at the end of the front straight (one of the longest and fastest on the Moto GP calendar) when he lost front end traction. Unable to save it, he slid off track and hurtled toward the low concrete wall. He kicked the bike away just in time and slid to a stop while his motorcycle kept grinding ahead through the gravel.
Marquez escaped with a bump on his chin and some bruising to his right side, thanks to the latest in rider safety technology: an airbag suit. These suits contain air bladders around the head and shoulders which inflate when electronics detect crash conditions, in as fast as 30 milliseconds. These suits have been in use since 2003 when rider John Hopkins first donned one for a race.
4 Sidnei Frigo
Another drag racing incident, this time NHRA Pro Mod class. Sidnei Frigo was racing in the left lane at Royal Purple Raceway in Texas when he lost control of his heavily modified Corvette. The car lurched to the right, almost crossing into the other drag lane, then snapped back across the track and ran into the outside wall. The car flipped several times, pieces flying every direction, before coming to a stop just on the other side. To everyone’s relief, Frigo was responsive when crews arrived at the car.
Frigo suffered only a broken arm in the incident and received surgery at the hospital. He was expected to recover fully.
3 Jeremy Foley
Number three on our list of survivors is Jeremy Foley, from the dirty and dangerous Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb. He and his co-driver Yuri Kouznetsov were approaching a fast left-hand curve that drops away on the outside to a huge rocky slope. There are no guard rails. This turn is known as the Devil’s Playground. The Mitsubishi appeared to be carrying too much speed into the turn and slid off, cartwheeling down the mountain casting off body panels violently. It was a truly spectacular crash, but both drivers climbed out of the mangled wreckage and survived with relatively minor injuries.
There is a follow-up video where you can hear from the drivers what it was like to be in the “washing machine of pain” here:
2 George Poteet
The fastest vehicles and drivers on wheels race out at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah every Summer, vying to set land speed records and become the fastest people alive. Our next lucky driver is one of these people.
In September 2014 George Poteet was making a land speed record run in his “streamliner”-class car when something went horribly wrong. At 575 Km/h (307 MPH), the car veered off course. Poteet tried his best to wrestle the front end back in line, but was unsuccessful. The car jackknifed sideways and started rolling down the salt flats at over three hundred miles per hour. In the incredible in-car camera footage, the canopy can be seen ripping off the car a moment into the accident. The safety cage at the heart of the machine held up in the tumble, digging into the salty earth to come to a stop with the driver still inside. He was able to climb out under his own power but was transported to hospital for a checkup.
Not only did George Poteet survive the crash, but he and his team had rebuilt his Speed Demon machine before the end of 2015, missing only a season of racing.
1 Filippos Papafilippou
And the final entry on our list of racers who should not be alive to tell the tale: An NHRA Top Fuel Drag Bike racer named Filippos Papafilippou. At Santa Pod Raceway in England, he had a crash on the drag strip you just have to see to believe.
At almost 200 miles an hour, his bike veered over into the other lane and collided with the other rider. The force of the impact wasn’t enough to crash the other bike, but was just enough to toss Papafilippou perfectly onto the wheelie bars at the back. As his machine fell over, set fire, and skidded to a halt, our lucky racer rode along with his competition until the two could come to a stop.
In the video, Papafilippou can be seen trying to get his boot unstuck from the wheelie bar assembly of the bike once stopped as rescue crews gather in response. It certainly could have been much worse for this two-wheeled speed freak.