June 11, 1955–The Le Mans Motorsports Tragedy
Today Marks the 62nd Anniversary
Le Mans, France is one of the most revered sites in all of motorsports, known around the world as the site of the oldest active endurance-type sports car racing event, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Since its first running in May of 1923, the event has attracted celebrities and motorsports enthusiasts from around the world to what has become arguably the country’s premier sporting event. With the exception of a 1936 postponement and a 10-year break during World War II, the event has been an annual ritual for France.
On June 11, 1955 the unthinkable happened at Le Mans. Paris native Pierre Eugène Alfred Bouillin, driving a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR and entered in the event under the name Pierre Levegh in honor of a famous uncle, was running sixth early in the enduro when he was involved in a three car incident with British drivers Mike Hawthorn and Lance Macklin. His car became airborne, crashing into a retaining wall and disintegrating on impact. The pieces of Levegh’s Mercedes sprayed the crowd in the stands behind the retaining wall, while Levegh was ejected from the car and died with a crushed skull.
What came next was the ultimate horror, as the Mercedes’ flammable magnesium body ignited and sent flaming embers into the crowd. Track safety workers attempted to combat the flames using water-based fire extinguishers, further accelerating the devastation as a result of the chemical reaction in the magnesium-based fire. The wreckage was said to have burned for hours.
Historical accounts of the tragedy place the total death toll at between 80 and 84, including driver Levegh. With the number of injured estimated in the range of 120 to 178, it was clear that medical transport would be an immediate problem, so race officials elected to resume the event in order to avoid a mass exodus from the track that would have blocked roads for incoming emergency vehicles.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, France and several other European countries banned motorsports until safety standards and facility improvements could be enacted. As could be expected, governmental inquiries were convened and, ultimately, the tragedy was declared a racing accident. No specific drivers were determined to be responsible.
In a nod toward irony Mike Hawthorn, whose heavy braking to enter his pit is speculated to be the initial cause of the three-car incident triggering the wreck, went on to win the race with co-driver Ivor Bueb. Levegh, incidentally, was one of 22 drivers who lost their lives at Le Mans, 16 during the race itself.
For a complete account of the 1955 Le Mans tragedy, check out this Wikipedia article…