The racing world experienced a second driver tragedy this month with the death on Saturday of Allan Simonsen after a crash during the fourth lap of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The crash brought an evident pall to what was to be a celebratory anniversary of the touted endurance race with this year being Le Mans’ 90th anniversary.
Needless to say, the 34-year-old Danish driver’s death, who was a 19-year veteran of the sport, will once more become the fodder for another debate toward the benefits of auto racing as the sport seemingly continues to put not just drivers, but pit crew members as well as spectators at risk.
One reason the 24 Hours of Le Mans in particular is viewed with a critical eye is that it holds the unenviable memory of the worst race-related tragedy in auto racing history, when in 1955, a Mercedes-Benz driven by Pierre Levegh flew into the crowd and exploded, killing 80 spectators in addition to Levegh.
While the 1955 Le Mans disaster remains one accusation of those who believe auto racing is unnecessary, particularly when a driver perishes or fan and crew safety are threatened, it is also worth noting that racing is not all mayhem and carnage. In fact fewer deadly accidents occur in auto racing today than at any time in the sport’s history, mostly due to continual innovations in safety measures not only for the driver, but the car and track as well.
As for cars, these advancements cannot be denied, especially in how designs in safety equipment have translated from racing cars to typical family vehicles. One only need to look at three-point seat belts as well as structural reinforcement, safety glass, door barriers, internal roll cages and crumple zones as examples.
Other track-born developments for passenger vehicles include four-wheel disk brakes and later, anti-lock brakes, both of which have added exponentially to passenger safety.
While safety is tantamount in Le Mans, the endurance race is also an event in which automakers showcase advancements in chassis and engine design.
As Audi and Toyota entered hybrid race cars in this year’s Le Mans, their intent was to show that racing is not just about speed, but responsible and prudent engineering in fuel mileage and environmental awareness. And this intent worked, with Audi and Toyota finishing first and second in their LM P1 classes.
Innovation has been Le Man’s calling card as automakers use the race to test their products’ endurance levels, then take measure that should those products survive, their possibility of becoming a later application to more traditional forms of consumer-oriented transportation.
Without a doubt, Allan Simonsen’s passing just as was the case two weeks earlier with the racing death of NASCAR driver Jason Leffler, and before him, the loss of Dan Wheldon, Dale Earnhardt and Formula One driver, Aryton Senna, have been the source of great consternation and conflict. Many people simply ask if such tragedy is worth it. Well, as they do so, these facts should be considered:
- Dan Wheldon’s death has led to better on-track safety measures involving catch fencing behind which spectators sit.
- Dale Earnhardt’s death has made it mandatory that all race drivers wear the HANS safety device to reduce impact-related neck injuries and trauma.
- Aryton Senna’s death led to increased crash suppression involving suspension components and other parts flying from a car on impact.
In the auto racing debate between the sport and consumer, what may hold the ultimate truth, if not irony, is that someone who balks at racing’s validity might be the same person who gets in a car without regard to the sacrifices taken toward the technologically-advanced, fuel-efficient and immensely safe engineering that they now accelerate, steer and brake.
The paradox is not lost here, and Le Mans as well as other racing venues realize it.