F1, IndyCar and NASCAR are three of the fastest motorsports on the planet. They are notorious for their exciting races, but also for their crashes that have shaped the sports over the years. Below, we will look at each one in more detail to determine which one is the most dangerous.
Statistically, there have been the most deaths out of the three in IndyCar, with 95 since 1916. In terms of crashes, regardless of whether or not the driver is injured or killed, NASCAR usually has the most per season, but it is hard to say which motorsport is truly the most dangerous.
Although each motorsport has featured many fatal and non-fatal crashes, it is the improvements in safety in each one that have made them what they are today. These improvements have been shaped by crashes in the past, and so it is worth looking at them in more detail too.
Inherently Dangerous Sports
Dangerous By Default
Motorsport is inherently dangerous. Driving a car anywhere is already dangerous, as they are such complex machines that if not treated with enough respect can quickly turn into out of control missiles. In the US alone there are more than 6 million car accidents per year, with thousands of people being killed annually due to reckless driving.
These are accidents that can happen at very low speeds in normal conditions, just down to mechanical failures, human error or plain stupidity and lack of experience. On a racetrack, the cars are regularly travelling at more than 150mph, sometimes more than 200mph, and they are surrounded by other cars doing the exact same thing.
Very Rarely Fatal
Although the drivers are highly skilled and have lots of practice, it is still amazing that there are not more fatal accidents in each of the three motorsports of F1, IndyCar and NASCAR. It can seem like there is a crash in each of these events in every single race, and so it is really an achievement for the industry that there are rarely any fatalities.
Fatal Crashes In Each Sport
As an overview, lets take a look at the fatalities in each motorsport to get a gauge of how dangerous each sport can be at its worst. Starting with F1, the most recent fatality came in 2015, with the crash occurring in 2014. Jules Bianchi suffered serious head injuries that put him into a coma for several months following a crash at the Japanese Grand Prix.
This was the first death in a Championship F1 race since Ayrton Senna’s crash at Imola in 1994. It is worth mentioning here that we will focus on crashes and deaths that have occurred in counting races, that is races that were part of the Championship season in each sport. Including other accidents can make the data quite difficult to work with, and harder to find.
In total, there have been 52 deaths in F1, with 32 of those occurring during a Championship race. There have been over 1000 races since 1950, and so this puts the fatality rate per race at 3%. This number is hard to relate to without comparing it to IndyCar and NASCAR statistics, so let’s now consider IndyCar.
There have been 95 deaths in IndyCar races, since the first one in 1916. The most recent death came in 2015, when Justin Wilson died at the Pocono Raceway. That was the fourth death in the sport since the start of the new millennium, which is already in contrast to F1’s single fatality in the 2000s. There have been over 1300 races, giving a death rate per IndyCar race of 7%.
As for NASCAR, there have been 28 deaths since the first in 1952, with the most recent NASCAR Cup Series death coming in 2001 when Dale Earnhardt died at the Daytona 500. There have been over 2600 NASCAR Cup Series races over the years, giving a fatality rate per race for NASCAR of just 1%.
Looking at it strictly in terms of the number of deaths per race, NASCAR appears to be the safest by quite a margin. With roughly have as many deaths per race as F1, which has less than half as many deaths per race as IndyCar, there are large differences between the three motorsports. But a far more telling and relevant way to look at these statistics is by sticking to the era since 2000.
We will take a look at more specific safety implementations soon, but just looking at the number of deaths in this century, NASCAR and F1 have only had one each, while IndyCar has had 4. There have been massive safety improvements in each sport in the last 20 years, but it seems as if IndyCar has been the most lethalof the three.
Other Ways To Think About Danger
Crashes In General
Deaths are not the only metric to use when considering the danger factor of F1, NASCAR and IndyCar. The idea of danger could be interpreted in terms of the likelihood of crashing at all, regardless of injuries sustained or fatalities incurred. Just being involved in a crash is extremely dangerous at the speeds these cars go, so it is worth considering crashes in general.
It can seem like there are crashes in every race of all of the sports. In the 2020 F1 season, there has been at least one crash in 7 of the 10 races held at the time of writing, with multiple races having multiple crashes. NASCAR saw an average of 220 crashes per year for the first decade of the 2000s, which is an average of 6 per race.
IndyCar is not excluded from this attraction to crashes, with the 2020 Indy500 seeing 7 caution flags due to 6 crashes and one car on fire due to break issues, which strew debris all over the track. So, in terms of crashes, all three motorsports provide a lot of them. This is once again due to the very fine margins for error that exist at the speeds at which they drive.
The idea of debris is an important one, as it links into the idea of why drivers might crash in the first place. Some of the reasons are common across all three motorsports, while others are specific to one or the others.
Why Might A Driver Crash?
Open Wheel Racing
Both F1 and IndyCar use open wheel race cars. These don’t have any fenders or wheel coverings, and so the wheels are exposed to the elements and everything that the race throws at them. This means they are offered zero protection against flying debris, or indeed other drivers if they get too close to each other during the race.
Not only are the wheels exposed, but the drivers also sit much lower to the ground than those in NASCAR, inhibiting their visibility. The shapes of F1 and IndyCar cars are similar, with the front and rear wings offering massive downforce to allow the cars to take tight corners at very high speeds. But this also means that they are very reliant on downforce throughout the race.
The Reliance On Downforce
If the downforce is suddenly lost, due to dirty air from a car in front or a number of other reasons, the driver can completely lose control of the car. This was common back in the 70s when the cars used what was known as the ground effect. Essentially, it was a way for the teams to manipulate airflow under the car to keep the car tighter to the ground, so they could take turns at higher speeds.
But this meant that there were consequences when things went even slightly wrong. There were many accidents due to the volatile nature of the ground effect, or rather when it was rapidly broken, and so there were several steps taken to ensure it was not used in F1. Although the ground effect is no longer used, F1 cars are still prone to accidents due to loss of downforce.
The design of F1 and IndyCar cars is to go as fast as possible with as little drag as possible, giving them the classic race car shape. But this makes them very fragile, and when there are even slight bumps major components of the cars can break or fall off completely. This can make the driver losecontrol or hit other drivers who are in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Punctures are another likelihood when travelling at such high speeds, and with the massive amounts of downforce generated by these cars, the tires are under immense pressure. This means they will blow up if they are not monitored throughout the race and changed regularly, but they are also not as protected as NASCAR wheels due to their design and can be punctured in collisions or by debris.
But this doesn’t mean that NASCAR drivers are safe from punctures. They too need to watch out for sharp debris on the track, and although they are locked inside more of a box than F1 and IndyCar drivers, they can still lose control of the car if they get hit by someone else, or parts of someone else’s car.
NASCAR drivers are notorious for driving much closer to each other than F1 and IndyCar drivers. This is partly because they can afford to bump off each other more than the fragile open wheel cars, but this also makes them very prone to accidents from small – but high speed – collisions. There are also more cars on the track, which makes the likelihood of others being involved in crashes much higher.
The Big One
Crashes involving 5 or more NASCAR or IndyCar vehicles even has its own name; The Big One. These crashes are so common due to the nature of the sports and the fact that there are 40 and 33 cars on the track in each sport respectively. They are most common on the shorter oval tracks than the road circuits, due to the fact that the cars are all contained in a much smaller length of track.
The biggest of this type of crash in the modern era came in 2002 at Talladega Superspeedway, when a total of 30 cars were involved, with just three cars finishing on the lead lap at the end of the race. There have been several races to feature multiple Big Ones too, such as the 2016 GEICO 500. There were four Big Ones, with 35 of the 40 cars receiving some sort of damage during the race.
Reasons For A Crash
Regardless of which type of motorsport you are looking at, there are plenty of reasons for a crash to occur. Some are due to driver error, some mechanical failure. While some might be down to drivers taking a bit more of a risk than they needed to, others might be down to a simple lapse of concentration. But over the years, these crashes have become safer in all motorsports.
Safety Measures In F1, IndyCar And NASCAR
Different Safety Measures
Every sport has safety measures in place. Some are preventative, and some minimize the consequences of accidents. Motorsports are notoriously dangerous because of the high speeds the drivers are going, and so they are a special case when it comes to sporting safety. But there are plenty of other safety measures that have been put in place due to specific accidents, so let’s consider a few of them.
Before we look at specific examples in each sport, it is worth mentioning that there are of course plenty of other crucial implementations that were put in place in each sport due to successive accidents. These include things like seatbelts and fireproof suits, but these were implemented so long ago that they are a given when considering safety implementations.
If a driver does crash in F1, there are many layers of crash barriers in which they may end up. These have been in place for a long time, but after the death of Ayrton Senna, when he crashed into a concrete crash barrier at Imola, they have been meticulously reworked. They have continued to be amended over the years, with every crash playing a key part in determining how best to design them.
These barriers are vital, and if they are damaged and need replaced during a race, the session may be red flagged in order to allow for the necessary work to be done before the race restarts. Similar safety innovations have been implemented in IndyCar, with the aeroscreen being employed similarly to the halo of F1 cars, to protect the drivers if they crash into the collapsing barriers, and from debris.
Although not strictly implemented because of any one particular accident, this is an example of the sports trying to prevent accidents from being more serious than they could be. The halo in F1 has arguably saved several lives, most notably Charles Leclerc when Fernando Alonso’s car flew over his own car at Spa in 2018, hitting the halo (and crucially not him) in the process.
NASCAR has had plenty of safety implantations in recent years, and a lot of them owe their existence in the sport to the death of Dale Earnhardt. In 2001, he died at the Daytona 500 when he hit a wall in a last lap crash. This prompted several safety measures to become mandatory in the sport, including head and neck safety restraints and softer crash barriers.
The reason we have taken a look at these specific safety measures is to illustrate that, although F1, IndyCar and NASCAR are dangerous sports, they are constantly getting safer with every accident that does happen. Thanks to these safety measures and many others, there can be crash rate percentages per race in the high double digits, with the death rate close to zero.
There is no obvious difference in danger between F1, IndyCar and NASCAR, with all three sports having many accidents every single year, with some of them proving to be fatal. If you look at it by total and most recent deaths, IndyCar is the most dangerous. However, it could be said that NASCAR races are more likely to involve a crash of some sort, regardless of how bad they are.
The important thing to note is that each sport is constantly getting safer each year, and each crash puts pressure on the relevant sporting bodies to go one step further to ensure the cars and tracks are as safe as possible not just for the drivers, but for the staff and fans that are attending each event as well.