The Le Mans disaster occurred during the 1955 motor race in Le Mans, France on 11 June 1955. A car plunged through the Le Mans circuit’s wooden safety barriers and seconds later burst into flames; killing everyone inside. The accident, which claimed more than 82 lives, remains one of the deadliest racing accidents in motorsports history.
Le Mans is a city in France about an hour southwest of Paris. Le Mans was the site of the Le Mans 24-hour car race on public streets, which took place more than 100 times from 1923 to 1975. Le Mans has hosted Le Mans since 1923, first with cars and later with motorcycles. The town’s population hit 27,000 during the Le Mans races, but only half that number lives there today.
The Le Man’s circuit had grown dangerous by 1923 when at least 55 people were killed during five major accidents over 10 years. But it wasn’t until the 1955 Le Mans disaster that officials finally decided something needed to be done about it. At 4:19 p.m., just before the start of the race on June 11, Le Mans racer Pierre Levegh lost control of his car at the first turn. Le Levegh’s vehicle slammed into another driver’s car and exploded in a 200-mph fireball that sent debris flying everywhere.
At the time, Stirling Moss of Britain and Juan Fangio, the world champion, were driving a Mercedes in the lead. Just before crashing to his death, Fangio said that Levegh had saved his life. He stated:
“I was doing 260 kilometers an hour. Just before we reached the first pits I saw in front of me, hardly more than fifty meters away, Levegh suddenly raise his hand. He was warning me of some danger I could not see. I braked but at that speed, there was no question of pulling up in a few meters. Everything occurred so quickly that I could not see all that happened. I saw Levegh shoot off to the right while Macklin’s Austin-Healey was thrown to the left just in front of me. How I got through and missed Macklin I don’t know.”
Le Levegh, other drivers, and scores of spectators were killed during this awful crash. It was the worst racing accident ever to take place — up until that point — and it prompted officials to make changes to improve safety at Le Mans. The tragic accident also led race organizers to ban death-defying speeds of more than 150 mph on public roads.