Le Mans Auto-Racing Accident Kills More than Eighty Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In a horrific crash, driver Pierre Levegh lost control of his Mercedes-Benz and crashed into the grandstand at the 24 Hours of Le Mans auto race in 1955, killing himself and eighty-three spectators while severely injuring more than seventy-five. The official decision to continue the race sparked much controversy. Auto racing’s worst single accident led Mercedes-Benz to retire from auto racing for more than thirty years.

Summary of Event

The storied automobile endurance race known officially as the 24 Hours of Le Mans was first held in 1923 and is legendary for the feats of driving skill, automotive engineering, and sheer human endurance on its 8.38 mile racecourse. The race was immortalized for American audiences especially by actor Steve McQueen in the 1971 film Le Mans. It is also known as the site of the sport’s worst single accident: one driver and eighty-three spectators were killed and more than seventy-five spectators were seriously injured. [kw]Le Mans Auto-Racing Accident Kills More than Eighty (June 11, 1955)[Le Mans Auto Racing Accident Kills More than Eighty] [kw]Auto-Racing Accident Kills More than Eighty, Le Mans (June 11, 1955)[Auto Racing Accident Kills More than Eighty, Le Mans] [kw]Accident Kills More than Eighty, Le Mans Auto-Racing (June 11, 1955) Auto racing Le Mans auto-racing accident[Le Mans auto racing accident] 24 Hours of Le Mans[Twenty four Hours of Le Mans] Auto racing Le Mans auto-racing accident[Le Mans auto racing accident] 24 Hours of Le Mans[Twenty four Hours of Le Mans] [g]Europe;June 11, 1955: Le Mans Auto-Racing Accident Kills More than Eighty[04860] [g]France;June 11, 1955: Le Mans Auto-Racing Accident Kills More than Eighty[04860] [c]Sports;June 11, 1955: Le Mans Auto-Racing Accident Kills More than Eighty[04860] Levegh, Pierre Fangio, Juan Manuel Hawthorn, Mike

The 1955 Le Mans endurance race began at 4:00 p.m. on June 11. Among the well-known teams in the field were those of Aston Martin, Ferrari, Cooper, Maserati, Daimler Benz, Porsche, MG, Lotus, and the Bristol Aeroplane Company. Sixty cars started the race, but it quickly became apparent that the contest would be one between Jaguar Jaguar (automobile company) and Mercedes-Benz Mercedes-Benz[Mercedes Benz] , as Jaguar driver Mike Hawthorn and Mercedes-Benz driver Juan Manuel Fangio traded the lead several times. The crowd of 250,000 at Le Mans settled down to watch possibly the most exciting Le Mans race in history, as the track’s fastest lap record had been broken on just the second lap by Eugenio Castellotti Castellotti, Eugenio , driving a Ferrari.

Two hours into the race, several of the cars were in need of refueling and were due to enter the pits. At one point, Hawthorn was leading, with Fangio closing in behind him. Hawthorn made the decision to continue at full speed until the last possible second. His Jaguar, with its powerful disc brakes, was equipped for such a tactic. As the pack approached the pit entrance, Hawthorn was in the lead at a high rate of speed. In second place was Lance Macklin Macklin, Lance , who was traveling much slower. Behind Macklin was Pierre Levegh and his Mercedes-Benz, traveling about 40 miles per hour faster than Macklin and his Austin-Healey. Following Levegh was Fangio. Hawthorn applied his brakes and swerved to the right into the pits. Macklin, unprepared for this maneuver, locked his brakes and then lost control of his car in an effort to avoid Hawthorn. Levegh raised his hand in an effort to signal the cars behind him to reduce their speed to avoid the spinning Austin-Healey. However, at a speed of 150 miles per hour, Levegh could not stop his own Mercedes-Benz from hitting Macklin. A dramatic crash ensued.

The Mercedes-Benz spun around several times in the center of the track, charged into the embankment on the opposite side of the pits, overturned, launched into the air, and snapped in half just behind the engine when it hit the ground. The magnesium body then exploded, sending white sparks into the air. Flaming pieces of the car were launched into the grandstand like shrapnel, with the engine and the front axle cutting a wide swath through the crowd. The hood of the car, acting like a guillotine, spun into the tightly packed grandstand, decapitating several spectators. All of this happened in less than 10 seconds. More than eighty spectators were killed, along with Levegh, and more than seventy-five others were seriously maimed.

Macklin’s car traveled backward down the racecourse, but it miraculously was not hit by any other cars; the British driver was unhurt. Fangio managed to drive through the remains of burning metal unscathed. While attempting to attend to those injured at the crash site, officials debated stopping the race. Because medical attention was needed immediately for the injured, officials decided against ending the race. To have stopped the race and evacuated the crowd, they reasoned, would have made the roads to and from the race area impassable, even to emergency vehicles.

In the meantime, the Mercedes-Benz team desperately tried to get in touch with operations in Germany to get approval to withdraw their remaining cars, but telephone lines were jammed. Six hours later, they were finally authorized by the Mercedes factory board of directors to withdraw the team. The cars, one of which had a two lap lead, with the other in third place, were pulled off the racecourse by a black flag and taken back to the paddock, where they sat under tarpaulins.

The race ended in the rain on the following afternoon with only a few thousand spectators, many looking on from the very spot where most of the victims had been seated. Hawthorn and the Jaguar team won the race and set a new track record. However, it was an empty victory. The team’s main competitor, Mercedes-Benz, was out of the race, and the devastating crash had completely eclipsed the event. Levegh was the third prominent race car driver to be killed within a three-week period. Alberto Ascari had been killed in testing at Monza and Bill Vukovich was killed in a crash during the Indianapolis 500.

Hawthorn was accused in the press of causing the accident, but in the official inquiry he was cleared of negligence. He continued to declare his innocence until the day he died in an auto accident in 1959. Macklin was shaken by the incident and repeated that he would never forget the sight of the upturned Mercedes-Benz hurtling over him, with Levegh’s body slowly falling from the car. Macklin retired from racing in 1955.

Significance

In the aftermath of the race, the French government put an embargo on the sport until changes could be made in the rules to ensure greater safety of drivers and spectators. The immediate effect was the cancellation of the French Grand Prix of 1955. The German Grand Prix also was canceled and Switzerland, Spain, and Mexico completely banned motor racing in their respective nations. Many races scheduled around the world for that year were canceled. Mercedes-Benz withdrew from organized racing after the 1955 season and did not return to the sport until 1987.

The 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race survived, but the crash still resonates. The future of Le Mans was uncertain for some time. Officials enacted new rules, which called for a redesign of the race circuit; a large sum of money was spent on these improvements. Improvements including lowering the grandstands by 6.5 inches and widening the road in front of the stands. Earthen fortifications were built to protect the grandstands and the pits were moved much farther down the track. The new pit area was wider than the original and the old pit road was left intact to be used as an escape road. A new remote control system for signaling was installed, designed to speed up the process of alerting drivers to changing track conditions. Changes were also made to race regulations, including reducing the number of cars, limiting engine sizes, increasing the sizes of car bodies, and limiting the gas tank capacity to twenty-two gallons, which would make the minimum distance between refueling stops about twenty-eight laps. Auto racing Le Mans auto-racing accident[Le Mans auto racing accident] 24 Hours of Le Mans[Twenty four Hours of Le Mans]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Daley, Robert. Cars at Speed: The Grand Prix Circuit. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1961. Contains biographical information on the drivers as well as an account of the 1955 accident and its aftermath.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Garrett, Richard. The Motor Racing Story. London: Stanley Paul, 1969. Provides a detailed account of the development of Le Mans as well as the 1955 catastrophe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hodges, David W. The Le Mans 24-hour Race. London: Temple Press Books, 1963. Provides an overview of motor racing and discusses endurance racing in particular.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kahn, Mark. Death Race: Le Mans 1955. London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1976. This book is dedicated to the accident and the changes in auto racing that it inspired. Contains photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Laban, Brian. Le Mans 24 Hours: The Complete Story of the World’s Most Famous Motor Race. St. Paul, Minn.: MBI, 2001. Covers the legacy of the 1955 race and the history of Le Mans and its racecourse.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moss, Stirling. Le Mans: The Behind-the-Scenes Story of the Big Race. Garden City, N.Y.: Hanover House, 1960. Account of the race by a driver who raced there in 1955 and many years after.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Steinwedel, Louis William. The Mercedes-Benz Story. Philadelphia: Chilton, 1969. Traces the development of the Mercedes-Benz team and the impact that the 1955 Le Mans race had on the company.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Triffo, Chris, and Iain MacLean. Disasters of the Century. Episode 6, Human Error: The Halifax Explosion and the Le Mans Race Crash. 60 min. DVD. Partners in Motion, 2001. An extensive treatment of the crash and its impact on motor racing.

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