NASCAR has long been considered a dangerous sport, and unfortunately, fatalities have occurred. While the safety improvements in the sport, and in the motorsport world in general, have made it much less dangerous, there are still a number of NASCAR drivers that have died in races.
18 NASCAR drivers have died in races at the Cup Series level. An additional 11 drivers have died either in testing, qualifying, or practice sessions. The Daytona International Speedway has the highest number of Cup Series fatalities at 8, with Dale Earnhardt being the most recent.
Below, we will explore notable NASCAR fatalities that eventually led to vast safety improvements in the 2000s, culminating with the Car of Tomorrow (CoT). We will also touch on how common NASCAR fatalities are and reveal just how dangerous NASCAR is today compared to the 20th century.
A total of 29 NASCAR drivers have died in the Cup Series since NASCAR’s inception. Of these deaths, 14 occurred during races. Just five deaths occurred at the top in the 90s and 2000s. Thankfully, there have been no deaths in the NASCAR Cup, Xfinity, or Truck Series since the 2001 season.
Of the 29 Cup Series fatalities, 14 of them occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, with 1956 and 1964 being the two deadliest years for the organization. The 1970s saw just four deaths, while five occurred in the 1980s.
In the face of these fatalities, NASCAR would implement new safety mandates to try and prevent future deaths from occurring. From 1989 until 2001, NASCAR’s quest for safety heated up. Below, you will find notable deaths in the NASCAR Cup, Xfinity, and Truck Series from 1989 to 2001, plus the safety mandates NASCAR implemented, and the cause of the respective driver’s death, if available.
Adcox’s death occurred at the 1989 Atlanta Journal 500. In Adcox’s 60th Cup race overall and third race of the season, Adcox’s right side slammed the wall, and an oil fire erupted that NASCAR safety crews quickly extinguished.
However, the impact caused chest and head injuries to Adcox, who was extracted from his car and airlifted to a nearby Atlanta hospital. It was later found that Adcox’s seat was not mounted properly, and the severity of the impact caused the seat to dislodge. As a result, NASCAR mandated that teams thoroughly mount their drivers’ seatsthe next season and beyond.
McDuffie was racing behind Jimmy Means when a wheel spindle broke on his left front tire, causing him to lose control of the car. Since the situation caused McDuffie’s brakes to fail, he could not slow down or stop his car,which hit the tire retaining wall and tire barrier. The car flipped and landed on its roof, and McDuffie died of a basilar skull fracture.
McDuffie’s car hit the barrier with so much force that officials needed to repair it before resuming the race.Following McDuffie’s death, Watkins Glen International filled the grass area that McDuffie’s car skidded across with a chicane to prevent similar incidents from occurring. McDuffie’s death led to brothers-in-law Jim Downing and Bob Hubbard to develop the HANS Device.
McDuffie’s death also motivated further research into basilar skull fractures and how to best prevent them from occurring. With more research available, NASCAR and other auto racing drivers became receptive to the HANS Device, which NASCAR would later mandate following the death of Dale Earnhardt.
The son of the famed Bobby Allison and younger brother of Davey Allison, Clifford was killed during a practice session for the Detroit Gasket 200 at Michigan International Speedway. Coming out of Turn Four, Allison’s car turned one-hundred-eighty degrees before it slid backward and slammed into the wall on the driver’s side.
Allison’s death marked the first NASCAR fatality at Michigan, and he reportedly died of severe trauma. It’s also notable because it showed just how vulnerable drivers could be when they hit the wall on the driver’s side.
With the advent of the Next Gen car 30 years after Allison’s death, NASCAR bumped the driver cockpit closer to the center to help provide more of a barrier between the wall and the driver. The Next Gen’s technology better helps the car absorb impact.
Bonnett was taking part in practice for the 1994 Daytona 500 when his shock mount broke. With no way to control the car, Bonnett swerved multiple times before he hit the wall head-on.
Bonnett’s death was a controversial one since NASCAR initially blamed driver error. The Orlando Sentinel led an investigation that traced the cause of his accident back to the broken shock mount, forcing NASCAR to do away with its initial explanation.
Drivers like Richard Petty confirmed that when shock mounts break, it is impossible to control a car. Three days later, Rodney Orr was also killed, with the Sentinel tracing his cause of death to the same issue of Bonnett’s.
Roper’s death marked the second in the Truck Series, and the first since John Nemecek in 1997. A neck injury restricting blood flow to the brain resulted in Roper’s death and basilar skull fractures resulted in the fatalities of Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin Jr, with both occurring at New Hampshire.
Following Roper’s, Petty’s, and Irwin’s deaths, NASCAR mandated the kill switch. They also experimented using the restrictor plate at New Hampshire, but following a stale race at the track, NASCAR did away with them.
The trio’s deaths, along with those of Dale Earnhardt and Blaise Alexander (ARCA), resulted in improvements in safety. Following these fatalities, NASCAR eventually mandated the use of the HANS Device in October 2001 and the installation of SAFER Barriers a year later.
The most recent death in NASCAR was in 2001, when Dale Earnhardt died in a crash at the Daytona 500. Following Earnhardt’s passing, NASCAR prioritized safety and immediately got to work on replacing the Generation 4 car. Its successor, the CoT, became a full-time fixture in 2008.
Fortunately, NASCAR’s top three racing series have not seen a fatality since 2001. While some were critical of NASCAR’s handling of previous fatalities, the truth is they have been steadily making headway in the safety department, taking strides shown in the examples above.
On February 18th, 2001, Earnhardt attempted to hold off a three-wide between Ken Schrader, Rusty Wallace, and Sterling Marlin. Earnhardt and Marlin bumped one another, which knocked Earnhardt loose. He and Schrader collided, and Earnhardt hit the wall.
Controversy surrounded the actual cause of death, ranging from a broken harness on the left lap belt to improper head and neck restraint, to finally, a variety of issues. Nonetheless, Earnhardt’s death motivated NASCAR to invoke many safety improvements over the next half-decade.
The then-new CoT’s safety features saw drivers survive and even walk away from gruesome crashes.Michael McDowell’s 2008 crash at the Texas Motor Speedway showed just how far NASCAR had come in developing safer cars. Austin Dillon’s spectacular crash in 2015 and Ryan Newman’s crash in 2020 further reinforce how Earnhardt’s death may have prevented future drivers from meeting a similar fate.
NASCAR deaths are not very common as far as the Cup Series goes. However, the sport is still constantly improving in terms of safety. NASCAR’s ultimate goal is zero deaths, and, following Earnhardt’s death in 2001, they have made good on that goal in the 21st century.
There have been even fewer deaths in the Xfinity and Truck Series, with only Nemecek and Roper dying in the latter. The Xfinity Series has seen eight deaths that spanned between 1958 and 2000. With the 29 Cup Series deaths and the 10 deaths in the two lower divisions, you get a total of 39 deaths between 1952 and 2022, with 20 occurring during a race.
There have also been non-driver deaths in the NASCAR Cup Series. However, this has occurred just nine times in NASCAR’s history, with the most recent occurring in 1990. In the lower divisions, non-driver deaths occurred 10 times, with the most recent occurring in 2021.
The most dangerous NASCAR track for fatalities is the Daytona International Speedway, which saw 8 deaths in the Cup Series between 1965 and 2001. Some of the drivers who died at the Daytona track include Billy Wade, Rodney Orr, and Dale Earnhardt.
Buren Skeen and Neil Bonnett are two more drivers who died at Daytona in the Cup Series, and Talmadge Prince, Freddy Hassler, Ricky Knotts, and Bruce Jacobi were killed during the 125-mile qualifying races for the Daytona 500. The deaths of these four drivers makes for 12 of the 29 NASCAR Cup Series deaths occurring either during or related to a Crown Jewel race.
Another six fatalities occurred at Daytona in the lower series. That list includes Habe Haberling, Don MacTavish, Don Williams, Charles Ogle, Joe Young, and Joe Booher.
Behind Daytona, Charlotte Motor Speedway and Langhorne Speedway have seen three deaths apiece for NASCAR Cup Series drivers. Memphis-Arkansas, Darlington, Riverside, Talladega, and Atlanta have each seen two fatalities. Fatalities in the NASCAR Cup Series have also occurred at Michigan International Speedway, North Wilkesboro Speedway, Watkins Glen International, and the New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
NASCAR is still a dangerous sport, even though the organization makes vast safety improvements with each new car design they haul out. No matter how many drivers walk away from mangled cars or survive crashes some never would have survived at one time, NASCAR will always be dangerous.
Nobody can ever be completely safe driving a car between 150 and 190 miles per hour. There is always some sort of risk involved, even with the best restraint system and state-of-the-art safety features, SAFER Barriers, and absorbent technology for cars to better withstand impacts.
And NASCAR is not alone in this. The NFL and NHL are dangerous contact sports that, while they put together numerous safety measures themselves, cannot fully eliminate sometimes major injuries. It is impossible. Far fewer fatalities occurred, but brain injuries remain an issue in both sports.
Instead, sports like NASCAR can only do everything in their power to prevent fatalities. So far in the last two decades, they have accomplished just that, and they will continually find even more ways to enhance the safety of their product, regardless of the dangers the sport will always have.
NASCAR fatalities were more common in the sport’s early days, and they steadily fizzled out as we entered the 21st century. Dale Earnhardt’s death at Daytona in 2001 is the most recent NASCAR Cup Series fatality. Daytona has seen more Cup Series fatalities than any other track, with 8.