The upcoming Indy 500 has me bummed out all over again about the death last October of Dan Wheldon. While reminiscing and thinking about IRL/Champ Car/CART/”big car” safety advances over the years, I started to wonder how many past winners of the race were killed before they had a chance to defend their win. For a sport which has such a bloody history, the list includes surprisingly few names.
- Gaston Chevrolet – The youngest of the three famous Chevrolet brothers, Gaston won the 1920 500 mile race. He died November 25, 1920, in race at the Beverly Hills Speedway. Gaston had secured enough points to win the AAA National Championship posthumously.
- Joe Boyer – Boyer won the 1924 race, and was the first driver, along with Lora Corum, to receive the “co-winner” designation after Boyer finished the race in Corum’s car. Boyer was killed in a race at Altoona Speedway September 2, 1924.
- Ray Keech – Keech is the winner of the 1929 race. Like Boyer, Keech was also killed at Altoona Speedway, dying in a crash on June 15, 1929. This 16-day gap between winning the 500 and Keech’s death is by far the shortest amount of time between those events.
- George Robson – Robson won in 1946, the first 500 mile race after the suspension for World War II. He was killed at Lakewood Speedway on September 2, 1946, on the 22nd anniversary of Boyer’s death.
- Dan Wheldon – Dan Wheldon won the 2011 500 mile race in a stunning finish. Despite not originally having a ride for any of the year’s other races, he was eventually entered in the season closing race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on October 16, 2011. Wheldon was involved in a crash during the race and did not survive.
While writing this list I noticed these names are included in Wheldon’s Wikipedia page, but I don’t regret at all that I looked them up by hand. Every time I go to look something up around the Indy 500 I learn a new fact, or become fascinated by a new character.
The men on the list above are there because of a fairly narrow set of criteria, but of course many people have lost their lives racing. For instance, two men have lost their lives during the 500 mile race while attempting to defend their previous year’s win. Floyd Roberts was the first, having won in 1938 and being killed in the 1939 race. The other was Bill Vukovich, a two-time defending winner (1953, 1954) who was killed while leading the 1955 race. In my experience, Vukovich is one of the first names that gets brought up when fans start playing the “what if” game.
Further removed, several former winners were later killed while competing in auto races, but not before the next 500. I doubt this list is complete, but these are the names that caught my eye while compiling the above list.
- Dario Resta – Winner 1916, killed September 2, 1924, Brooklands, England (Note this is the same day Joe Boyer was killed, though on a different continent).
- Howdy Wilcox – Winner 1919, killed September 4, 1923, at Altoona Speedway.
- Jimmy Murphy – Winner 1922, killed September 15, 1924 at the Syracuse, New York, fairgrounds.
- Frank Lockhart – Winner 1926, killed attempting a land speed record at Daytona Beach on April 25, 1928.
- Bob Sweikert – Winner 1955 (in which Vukovich was killed), killed at Salem Speedway, June 17, 1956.
- Jimmy Bryan – Winner 1958, killed June 19, 1960, at Langhorne Speedway.
- Jim Clark – Winner 1965, killed April 7, 1968, at the Hockenheimring.
- Mark Donohue – Winner 1972, killed August 19, 1975, at the Österreichring.