Blunt force trauma is the medical term for a blunt object hitting the body with minimal or no penetration of the skin (in contrast to penetrating injuries discussed below). Blunt force trauma can cause injury to many parts of the body, and most frequently this results in broken bones and various soft tissue injuries and not death. This was not always the case, however, as blunt force injuries were extremely common in all forms of racing prior to the implementation of seat belts. The universal use of seat belts, and the improvements in seat-belt design over the past 5 decades has saved the lives of countless racers. The seat belts keep the racers tightly attached to their racecars, preventing them from flying out of the car and hitting stationary objects. Blunt force trauma still is one of the most common causes of racer deaths, but since it requires that some stationary object hit the driver, deaths by blunt force trauma are far more common in open-cockpit racecars where parts of the driver are exposed.
Famous Race Car Driver Deaths Due to Blunt Force Trauma
- Jim Clark. On 7 April 1968, Clark died in a racing accident at the Hockenheimring in Germany. Clark’s Lotus 48 veered off the track and crashed into the trees. He suffered a broken neck, skull fracture and a number of other chest and abdominal injuries. Clark died before reaching the hospital. As you will learn from reading further, these types of injuries are much more common for “open wheel” and more-specifically, “open cockpit” type race cars. The head, neck, and shoulders are exposed outside of the protective roll cage and bodywork of the car. As discussed later, all sanctioning bodies have required higher and higher side pods on open-cockpit cars over the years so that the driver’s bodies are exposed much less than in years past. In fact, the past few years has seen the fastest of the prototype sports cars going away from open cockpit designs to those that are completely covered. The most obvious examples are the latest Audi R-18s that won today’s Le Mans, compared to the “same” car that won the race 10 years ago–the new one has the driver completely enclosed. Allan McNish’s spectacular crash during the 2011 24 Hours of Le Mans is a great example of how modern race car design (including a completely enclosed cockpit) saved his life.
- Joe Weatherly. Joe Weatherly was the defending NASCAR series champion when he was killed in 1964, at Riverside International Raceway during the fifth race of the season. Upon impact with the wall, his head had come out of the window and been crushed against the wall, killing him instantly. His death lead to the development of window nets, which are now commonly used in many race car series across the world. Now you know why all sedan-type race-cars are mandated to have either a side window, or a window net.
- Dan Weldon. Dan Weldon was the reigning Indy 500 champion who’s death caused tremendous anxiety and concern in all of our fellow racers. At the IZOD IndyCar World Championship at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on 16 October 2011, Wheldon was involved in a 15-car accident during lap 11 of the race, in which Wheldon’s car flew approximately 325 feet (99 m) into the catch fence with the cockpit area first into a pole lining the track. His cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head, again, showing the increased vulnerability of open-cockpit cars to this type of injury. The new Dallara chassis used exclusively by all IndyCar teams since 2012 is named in honor of Dan (DW12) and includes changes to the cockpit and the front wing to help prevent these cars from lifting into the air and to provide better protection to the head/neck area.
Jason Leffler. Jason Leffler was a popular NASCAR driver who died only 1 week ago (June 12, 2013). He was running in second place in the first heat race of the program at the 0.625-mile, high-banked dirt oval when his car flipped several times on the front straightaway, hitting the wall twice and “then it was flopping all over.” His autopsy released just 2 days ago shows the cause of death to be blunt force trauma to the neck. Again note that Jason was driving an “open” car, a car without doors and windows that left his upper body exposed to outside objects. A very important aspect of this accident that is now being reported is that the car Jason was driving did not have the most modern type of seat that prevented lateral (side to side) movement of the head, while protecting the neck from blunt and penetrating trauma. The modern racing seat has “walls” along the bottom and sides of the seats which extend to the side of the helmets.
- Other noted racers dying from Blunt Force Trauma: Gilles Villenueve, Eddie Sachs, and Bruce McLaren. Again recognize that blunt force trauma as a cause of race car driver’s death is much more common when the driver is exposed and not completely protected by roll cage and body work.