Grand Prix: The Killer Years


by Eileen Marable

The Legacy of the Killer Years

The fiery crashes recently seen at the Daytona 500 are a testimony to how racing has changed over the years. With the Daytona crash, Danica Patrick walked away. Formula One racers of the 1960s and 1970s weren’t so lucky. Racing was a dance with death. These were the Killer Years.

What was so wrong with Formula One racing during this period? Why were there a shocking 57 driver deaths from 1961 through 1973? What gruesome events finally forced a change in the racing culture for good?

Grand Prix: The Killer Years, airing Sunday, March 4 at 8:00 pm E/P is an uncompromising look at just what was going on in racing during those years, and is a tribute to those drivers whose deaths eventually forced a change. This is their story.

What Was Wrong?

The 60s marked a time when rapid developments in mechanics, technology and aerodynamics were increasing the speed of cars. Drivers were often clocked at well over 150mph during test and racing runs. Unfortunately the rest of racing industry didn’t progress as quickly as the speed of the cars.

The decade started with very little safety features for the drivers – protective neck and headgear was minimal and seatbelts were just starting to see the light of day. Even those who experimented with them were often afraid they’d do more harm than good.

Fire retardant driver suits were the extent of real safety innovation that was universally adopted at the time. 

The uncomfortable truth was that safety was an afterthought and the possibility of death was an accepted risk associated with the sport. Racing was meant to be fast and raw – an adrenaline packed undertaking that allowed the racing fan to live vicariously through the feats of the drivers.

As for the drivers, one can’t deny the desire to win. Real men, real racers were expected to carry on or let the up and comers take their place on the podium.

Beyond the lack of safety in the cars, the racetracks themselves didn’t keep up with the times. Barriers or “safety walls” were not able to deal with the impact of speeding cars. Track staff were also not equipped to deal with accidents – often lacking basic safety equipment such as fire extinguishers or fire suits to assist when crashes occurred.

The Crashes That Changed Everything

Due to this perfect storm of speed and lack (some would say disregard) of safety precautions throughout the sport led to the tragic number of deaths in the period.

Jochen Rindt, image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Many promising racers perished, rocking the racing community to its core. Notable up and comers Jim Clark was killed in 1968, and Jochen Rindt died in 1970 and their deaths among the others of the period should have been enough. Unfortunately it took two more terrible events before change was adopted.

Jackie Stewart, photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

In 1966 popular and winning racer Jackie Stewart – who counts among his many achievements three World Driver Championship wins – had a crash at the Belgian Grand Prix. Rainy conditions caused a few crashes at that race, but it was Stewarts’s crash, that sent his car overturned into a safety barrier.

Upside down with his car leaking fuel, Stewart struggled to escape before a fire started. Shockingly, race marshals did nothing to help him get out of the car. Fellow racer Bob Bondurant – who had also crashed – was the one who had to pry him from his car. Despite muddled medical care and a long trip to the hospital Stewart survived.

The terrifying crash incensed Stewart and he became a voice for the drivers who, after watching so many of their friends die, were starting to reconsider the dangers they faced when they got in their cars. Stewart started calling for changes in the sport and even brought his own doctor to the races to ensure his safety.

Even though Stewart was a wildly popular and winning racer, the popular culture of the sport was hard to change. There were those that questioned the changes Stewart was calling for believing it would take the spirit of adventure out of the sport.

Meanwhile, drivers like Jim Clark who ended up dying in a 1968 crash – were quoted as saying, “I was driving scared stiff pretty much all the time.” His feeling was reported to be common among the drivers, who simply steeled themselves with a do or die mentality just to carry on.

Jim Clark, photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

While the previous record of death and high profile crashes should have been enough it took the horrifying death of 25-year old British racer Roger Williamson at the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort in 1973 that mercifully shook some sense into the sport.

After a crash, Williamson’s car was engulfed in flames. Though the race continued around the wreckage, fellow driver David Purley stopped to try and rescue his fellow driver. Unfortunately cameras were trained on the race and caught the whole tragic scene.

Purley tried in vain to turn the car over and footage shows him desperately begging track officials to help him free his friend. The track officials did not step in – not having fire retardant suits and fearing for their safety. The deeply moving footage shows Purley frantically working to save his friend with a sole fire extinguisher, and it is reported he could hear his friend begging for help as he tried to turn the car. Fire crews and ambulances failed to arrive – being confused about how to reach the wreck while the track was still in use.

Williamson perished due to asphyxiation while a frustrated and clearly devastated Purley is led off the course. The whole scene, captured on film was the emotional tipping point that finally changed the sport in everyone’s minds.

Sweeping Changes

Following the race, Stewart and the racing community led boycotts of the Belgian and German Grands Prix until drivers’ demands for safety were finally addressed. With their united voice, combined with the shocking public death of Williamson, the culture began to change to include safety as part of the standard research and development in the sport.

Some of the changes credited to Jackie Stewart’s lobbying are full-face helmets, standard safety belts and harnesses, removable steering wheels and a main switch for electrics. Track officials too were forced to install up-to-code safety barriers and pull off areas, in addition to crash protocols for their events. Proper tools were provided to officials to deal with crashes and rules regarding racing protocol when one occurs were enacted.

As the years have gone by, the deaths in racing have lowered dramatically as safety concerns became baked into the culture of the sport. That’s not to say racers haven’t perished – the tragic deaths of Dale Earnhardt and Dan Wheldon being just one of those in recent years that have shocked fans.

The difference is that when a death occurs in racing now – whether it is Nascar or Formula One – inquiries are launched to learn what happened and how to improve drivers’ odds. Earnhardt’s legacy was improvements in neck support in the cars.

The program Grand Prix: The Killer Years is a sobering reminder of a critical period in racing history. These brave, skilled and adventurous drivers that lost their lives on the public stage united their friends, and changed the sport forever.


Be sure to tune in to Grand Prix: The Killer years Sunday, March 4th at 8:00p E/P to venture in depth into this slice of racing history.

Share With Us

We’d love for you share with us here or on Facebook or Twitter your memories and thoughts of racing over the years. Do you remember these crashes? Do you think the sport is doing enough to promote safety or is it up to the drivers to adopt changes?


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