The Medical Causes of Racing Deaths and Resulting Race Car Improvements

Sudden Deceleration Injuries with Internal Organ Disruption

Sudden deceleration injuries can occur in any person subjected to rapid slowing of their body such as during an head-on car crash. The mechanism of injury is that the body is forcibly stopped but the contents of the body cavities remain in motion due to inertia; the brain is particularly vulnerable to such trauma as is the aorta (the large artery that exits the heart). For this discussion, we will give examples of both types (brain and aorta). Deceleration injuries to the brain typically result in a sub-dural hematoma, while deceleration injuries to the aorta typically result in an “aortic transection”.

Race Car Driver Deaths due to Sudden Deceleration Injuries to the Brain

  1. Mark Donohue was killed during a practice session for the 1975 Austrian Grand Prix. On his second lap, while at about 260 km/h a rear tire of his March 751 – Ford suddenly blew, the out of control car went through the fence for about 180 feet, over a guard-rail and into a ravine. Donohue was hit in the head by a fence post and knocked unconscious. Several minutes later Donohue regained consciousness. There is film of him speaking to his rescuers and looking quite un-injured. He was taken to the hospital for observation. During the day he became confused and slipped into a coma, classic signs of a sub-dural hematoma that every nurse and doctor knows today. He was operated on later that night by a neurosurgeon but he died of his injuries two days later. This type of death is extremely unlikely today with much more knowledge of closed head injuries and better training of track medical staff that can recognize the early signs of brain injuries and blood clots. The universal use of CAT scans for any racing driver who is even suspected of having a closed head injury is another reason why racecar driver’s deaths from this cause are rare and should probably never happen. If you complain of a headache or a loss of consciousness after a crash, my fellow racers, you can expect a trip to the local hospital for a CAT scan of your brain. You can thank Mr Donohue for helping save many future racers.

Race car driver deaths due to sudden deceleration injuries to the aorta.

  1. Scott Kalitta. Scott Kalitta was a Top Fuel racer from the famous Kalitta racing family. On June 21, 2008, Kalitta was fatally injured during the final round of qualifying for the Lucas Oil NHRA SuperNationals. His car was traveling at about 300 mph when the engine exploded into flames near the finish line. The parachutes were damaged and failed to slow the vehicle and he hit a concrete-filled post that supported a safety net. He was transported to the hospital and was pronounced dead on arrival.

  2. Roland Ratzenberger. Roland Ratzenberger died during practice for the same race where Ayrton Senna lost his life the following day. Ratzenberger had several lethal injuries, including a transection of the aorta and a basilar skull fracture.
  3. Allan Simonsen. Although we do not know the actual cause of death of Alan Simonson at yesterday’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, reports are that he was conscious and talking when rescue workers first tended to him, only to have him become unconscious a few moments later, to be pronounced dead a short time later. He was driving in one of the most modern sedan-type cars (not open-cockpit) and his factory sponsored Aston Martin had every possible modern piece of safety equipment. This in car video from the car behind shows the likely cause (our opinion) of Allan’s crash was acceleration of the car while the left rear tire was on the “painted” (and very slick in the wet) blue line. His car veered suddenly to the right and then back to the left in an attempt to correct (opinion), but by then the car was out of control and it hit the armco (guard railing) on the outside of the track at a near-head-on trajectory (keep reading below). There was no evidence of penetrating injuries, and no evidence of blunt force trauma. Thus the likely cause of this terrible tragedy is almost certainly to be related to a sudden deceleration injury, either to the brain, or to the aorta.
  • HOWEVER, the real tragedy here appears to be not the “painted” curb, but the fact that the armco (guard rail) is immediately adjacent to a large mature tree. Guard rails have an inherent “give” to them that is part of the design, making them much more “forgiving” and accepting of imparted forces than a brick wall (or mature tree). The reason to have guard rails instead of brick walls and cement barriers is because the design of the guard rail is such that it is fixed to the ground at 3-4 meter (6-10 foot) intervals. The intervening “railing” can dent and be depressed inwards thereby absorbing some of the impact that otherwise would be imparted onto the driver. Having the armco guard railing next to the tree is not much different than having no guard rail whatsoever, or having the guard rail bolted to a cement wall. Understandably, the Circuit de la Sarthe has shown few official photos, and pictures from TV cameras are limited but clearly the fans know what happened and quickly erected a memorial at the site–shown in the picture on the right. The authors of this article have seen sufficient evidence to show that the armco at this turn is immediately adjacent to a mature tree, and therefore, Allan’s death is apparently due to his car hitting a tree at some 110 or so MPH. (Note: entry to Tetre Rouge in a GT car is approximately 129, 103 at the apex, and 121 at the exit).

  • Yes, the Circuit de la Sarthe, the site of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, is a “historical” venue, hosting this most famous race on “public” roads that anybody can drive upon for 50 weeks of the year. Notwithstanding this fact, it is most reasonable for racers to expect, if not demand, that there is no opportunity to hit a stationary object (such as a tree) at any reasonable rate of speed. Thus, it is most likely that the “painted” blue stripe caused Allan’s car to become out of control, however it is the sudden impact with an immovable object (mature tree) that imparted tremendous deceleration injuries to Allan’s body that ultimately caused his death. Of course it does not go unnoticed that the armco was repaired in front of the tree and the race continued. Could there have been a second death at that turn? The rain persisted on and off throughout the entire event, as did the blue paint, and the tree…

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