The Medical Causes of Racing Deaths and Resulting Race Car Improvements

Penetrating Trauma

Penetrating trauma is the medical term for an injury sustained when a projectile (such as a bullet) or stationary object (such as a tree limb) penetrates the body. Penetrating trauma (lethal and non-lethal) is also less common for race car drivers who are racing sedan-type race cars where they are protected by the body of the car from objects which could potentially penetrate their body. Just like blunt force trauma, the universal use of seatbelts has dramatically decreased the number of injuries and deaths from penetrating trauma compared to the early years of racing. The design of the interior of the car also reflects safety measures taken to eliminate sharp objects, or items that are not well secured within the cockpit of all race cars. Penetrating trauma to an extremity is a non-lethal injury, but penetrating trauma to the abdomen, chest, neck and head can often be fatal.

Famous race car driver deaths / injuries due to penetrating trauma

  1. Ayrton Senna. Aryton Senna is widely regarded as the one of the top race car drivers of all time. Senna was leading the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, Italy when his car left the track and slammed into the retaining wall at 135 miles per hour. The right front wheel housing was pushed backwards and slammed into his helmet, causing fatal skull fractures. His cause of death was penetrating trauma due to the suspension piece that penetrated his helmet. Had the trajectory of the crash been only a few degrees different, it is likely that the suspension piece would have missed him completely. Since that time, suspension parts are designed differently and in a manner that their components are much less likely to break in such a way as to become a “spear.”
  2. Felipe Massa. In contrast to the many deaths listed on this page, Felipe Massa is alive and very well, currently driving for the Scuderia Ferrari Formula-1 team. His inclusion here illustrates how the many sanctioning bodies that govern the sport of racing are looking out for racers and how one accident can cause the re-design of a piece of equipment. On 25 July 2009, in the second round of qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix, Massa was struck in the head by a suspension spring that had fallen from Rubens Barrichello‘s Brawn, on a high-speed part of the track. Though wearing the most modern helmet, the spring hit with sufficient force that it actually penetrated the helmet causing a penetrating injury to his left eye. He subsequently crashed head-on into a tire barrier (which caused no injuries). Massa recovered completely to race for Ferrari the following year, but within 1 year virtually all sanctioning bodies that govern the rules of racing changed the requirements for helmets that are used in professional racing world wide. So my fellow drivers, when you were told in 2011 that the helmet you had been using was no longer legal for the 2011 season, requiring you to buy a new FIA 8860 approved helmet–now you know why. They are trying to protect our pretty noggins! The newer helmets are designed to help prevent penetration by flying objects and are thicker and made of stronger components.

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