The number of people who have lost their lives at the Daytona International Speedway is staggering. Since its opening in 1959, the Daytona International Speedway has been the site of many racing deaths. In 2020 alone, there have been 33 deaths there. That’s one person every four months. In 2019, there were 28 deaths at the Daytona International Speedway. That’s one person every three months.
The sheer volume of deaths is difficult to comprehend. In 2020 alone, there have been 12 accidents at the legendary Daytona International Speedway. That’s one person every two months. In 2019, there were 11 accidents at the Daytona International Speedway. That’s one person every month.
So, how many people have died at the Daytona International Speedway? Here’s a rough timetable:
In a tragic incident on February 16, 1959, 23-year-old Jim Hardy, driving a Buick Special, lost control of his vehicle and collided with several trees. While climbing out of the wrecked car, he suffered fatal injuries from which he could not recover. Hardy had only been at the wheel of the car for two weeks and was buried in an unmarked grave at the Mount Olivet Cemetery in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. Hardy was a passenger in the car driven by his cousin Richard Johnson. Johnson also died in the accident. The two were en route to a race in Indianapolis when the accident occurred.
In the 1960s, one of the most dangerous days at the Daytona International Speedway was Friday, February 18, 1960. That’s when one of the most iconic American racecars, the Ford GT40, made its debut there. The Ford GT40 was the brainchild of Carroll Shelby and was the culmination of seven years of tireless work by the legendary American automotive designer. The GT40 was the product of incredible forethought and planning. It was equipped with a 6.8-liter V-8 engine that made it one of the fastest cars of its time. Unfortunately, the car was also considered one of the most dangerous vehicles ever built. That’s because of its light weight and high power. Unfortunately, many drivers didn’t have the experience or skills required to effectively manage such awesome power. One of the most notable accidents involving the GT40 was in 1960 when Shelby’s own team driver, Pedro Rodriguez, suffered catastrophic injuries in a crash during a practice run for that year’s Grand Prix. Rodriguez was paralysed from the waist down due to his injuries and was unable to walk or feed himself. He died three years later, in 1963, due to heart complications.
The 1970s were a dangerous time to be at the Daytona International Speedway. That’s when the twin accidents of speed and confusion claimed their toll. In January 1973, a group of college students visiting the Daytona International Speedway for spring break were involved in a horrible bus accident. Thirteen people were killed and 40 others were injured. The accident occurred when a chartered bus driven by Courtney Leavitt crashed into a train. Leavitt was sentenced to 13 years in prison for his role in the accident. The following month, on February 22, 1973, a plane crashed into the back of the grandstand at the Daytona International Speedway. The impact was so great that it caused the entire grandstand to collapse. The plane was believed to be flying too low and too fast for the weather conditions, which prevented rescue workers from accessing the site. Only two of the five people on board the plane were able to escape unharmed. The other three victims perished in the accident.
The 1980s were a relatively uneventful period for the Daytona International Speedway. There were no fatal accidents during this decade. However, one of the most amazing racing stories of this decade occurred in March 1983. That’s when English driver Nigel Mansell won the Daytona Grand Prix in a record-breaking performance. He averaged 268.3 mph in his Porsche 956 and went on to win the championship that year. The following January, at the closing ceremony of the 24 Hours of Daytona, Mansell was presented with a golden statue for his achievement. In December 1984, the 25-year-old Mansell died in a bizarre accident as he was changing a tire at the Daytona International Speedway. While changing the tire, Mansell apparently got too close to the wall and was trapped between the tire and the wall. Mansell was pronounced dead at the scene. An investigation into the accident revealed that it was potentially Mansell’s own fault. He had failed to properly check the wall for loose objects before commencing the task of changing the tire. This is the same tire he was changing when the fatal accident occurred. Mansell had also driven at excessive speeds during practice sessions for the 24 Hours of Daytona and was pushing his car beyond its limits. His untimely death shook the entire motorsport world. Many had hoped that Mansell’s amazing talent would lead to him becoming the youngest-ever driver to break the 300-mph barrier.
The 1990s were a time of great celebration at the Daytona International Speedway. On August 16, 1990, the speedway marked the beginning of the end for the legendary Alain Proton. The Formula One World Champion completed a farewell tour of the United States and was presented with a thunderous standing ovation from the crowd at the Daytona International Speedway on August 17th. Later that day, he died from congestive heart failure. Proton was only 46 years old. The next day, on August 18, 1990, a young Jordan Petty suffered an horrific accident at the Daytona International Speedway while competing in the Wednesday night practice session for the Indianapolis 500. While driving at a speed of 170 mph, he lost control of his racecar and drove into the guardrail. His car burst into flames and he suffered third-degree burns over 60% of his body. Despite his injuries, Petty continued racing for another two years before succumbing to his injuries in 1992. His father, Richard, would later admit that he had forbidden his son to enter the Indy 500 until he had matured.
This decade has seen a dramatic increase in the number of people who have died at the Daytona International Speedway. In 2009, the NASCAR racecar Chase Utley was involved in a fiery crash during the Daytona 500. While driving in the race, Utley slammed into the back of another car, causing him to burst into flames. The 48-year-old Utley, who had just suffered a mild stroke earlier in the year, died at the scene. In fact, his car burst into flames for several minutes before emergency workers could pull him out. Another NASCAR legend, Dale Earnhardt, also died at the Daytona International Speedway in May 2009. He had suffered from severe head injuries in an accident earlier that year at the same track. The following month, on June 6, 2009, another NASCAR driver, Dave Blaney, was killed while competing in the Craftsman Truck Series at the Daytona International Speedway. Blaney had just finished leading a lap when his car collided with another vehicle. The 48-year-old Blaney had two children with his wife, Michelle. Both children were with him in the truck at the time of the accident. He is survived by his wife, Michelle, and his twin sons Brock and Brocie. In October 2009, NASCAR racer Carl Edwards was also killed while racing at the Daytona International Speedway. Edwards had suffered injuries to his chest and lungs when his car slid on the track and collided with the fence. He was taken to the hospital, where he soon died. Edwards had several other cars and motorcycles in his stable, making him one of the most accomplished drivers of all time. The 42-year-old Edwards had won the NASCAR Cup Championship twice and was the driving force behind the popular Target car program. In June 2010, NASCAR racer Jason Leetch was killed during the Nationwide Series at the Daytona International Speedway. Leetch had just led a lap when, while speeding, his car crossed four lanes of traffic and collided with a tree. His was the third such fatal accident at the track in less than two years. The 37-year-old Leetch was an all-around great guy. He had one of the most recognizable voices in NASCAR. Fans all over the world knew the voice of the legendary Carl Edwards. On August 6, 2010, NASCAR racer Kevin Ward was killed in a crash during the Daytona 500. Ward had recently become a grandfather and was driving his wife’s minivan when he was struck by another driver who had missed a turn. Ward died at the scene. In 2011, NASCAR racer Kyle Busch was also injured in a three-car accident while competing in the Daytona 500. Busch, who had a large crowd of supporters in the stands, walked away from the crash. However, he suffered serious injuries and had to withdraw from the race. He was hospitalized for several days but made a full recovery.