Gordon Smiley - The Dark Side of Indianapolis (Warning: Graphic Details) #BlogPost
On Sunday, Fernando Alonso will be running in the Indianapolis 500. All eyes will be on him, but a sole car, lining up 33rd on the grid, will be driven by James Davison. The car he will be driving is for the low-budget Dale Coyne Racing. This car was the fastest car in the State of Indiana, until Turn 2 on Lap 3 of Saturday qualifying. Driver Sebastian Bourdias had set the 2 fastest laps of Qualifying, and the first 2 laps in the 231 mph range. In Turn 2, on his 3rd lap, something went wrong. The back end stepped out, Bourdias corrected, and the car went straight into the wall at 230 mph. The car flipped over, caught on fire, and slide to a stop on the backstraightaway. Bourdias was unable to get out of the car, but he was alive. He had several fractures to his pelvis and a fractured right hip. Many credited the track’s safety, specifically the SAFER barrier that is installed all around the track, and the safety of the DW12 generation of IndyCar. 35 Years ago, Gordon Smiley witnessed a similar crash, but with different, and more horrific, results.
On May 15th, 1982, a cocky young driver named Gordon Smiley went out to qualify for the 1982 Indianapolis 500. Only a week after Gilles Villenueve’s passing at Zolder, the world was worried about open-wheel racing and its perils. Cars were braking speed records at Indianapolis already, with Rick Mears setting the fastest qualifying average ever earlier in the session. Smiley talked to his car owner, Bob Fletcher before he strapped into his car. He told him he was going to hit 200 mph, or die trying. This brought back many memories for Fletcher, who owned the car that Art Pollard died in during the 1973 race. Fletcher warned Smiley that he should seek experience from more experienced, older drivers. Many veterans had warned Smiley that if his car broke traction, to not try to correct, as the road racer was used to. Smiley seemed to push the advice off.
Smiley went out for his 4 Lap qualifying run, the average of which would serve as his qualifying time. There is a warm up lap before each run which is used to warm up the tires, but Smiley was pushing the car, hard. He was on the limit of grip through Turns 1 and 2. His foot was to the floor as he headed down the backstraightaway. He turned into Turn 3, and the car broke sideways. Smiley corrected, and the car spun back to the right.
WARNING: GRAPHIC WRITING AHEAD, IF FAINT OF HEART, SCROLL PAST TO THE NEXT SECTION OF BOLD TEXT
I won’t share any pictures or videos of the accident, as they are extremely, extremely graphic but are readily available online, which can be searched outside of this article.
Smiley hit the wall at an estimated 185 mph. The cockpit and front wing assembly collapsed on impact, sending Smiley’s head into the wall. He was killed instantly. The fuel tank burst, catching what was left of the car on fire. The March 81c Chassis wrapped itself in the catchfencing, spinning wreckage wildly across the track. The car, and Smiley, was scattered everywhere across the track.
Officials rushed to Smiley’s car, but none could find his body. CART Safety worker Steve Olvey rushed to his car, only to find the top half of Smiley still inside the wreckage. He was shocked to find Smiley’s helmet had been sent off his head, taking the top of his skull with it. He was described to have been “…scalped by the flying debris…” A gray substance was found on the track. Officials initially started treating it as oil, but it was soon discovered that it was Smiley’s brain matter, which had been scattered across the track. Officials spent 3 1/2 hours cleaning the track from both debris from the car and from Smiley. In the ambulance, it was discovered that Smiley had actually broken every single bone in his body. He had no chance of survival.
GRAPHIC DETAIL HAS PASSED
The race and Qualifying went on, but media outrage was swift. To the uneducated, both Villenueve and Smiley looked like they had been driving in similar cars. Open-Wheel racing was under fire. The next day, the New York Times wrote an attack piece on USAC and the Indianapolis 500, demanding they do something before someone else was killed.
However, USAC did not bow to the media. They told the media changes were being made, but nothing was done to the cars. The next year, the cars got faster. Nothing was done. Jim Hickman was killed in another March 81c less than 2 months later during a practice session for the CART race at the Milwaukee Mile. There was a straw that broke the camel’s back, however, but it came 17 years after Smiley. When Greg Moore was killed at Fontana in 1999, it was put into millions of living rooms across the world. CART and the Indy Race League was forced to do something. They continued to make improvements of the tracks of the series. People crashed, people survived. Open-Wheel racing had become much safer than it had before.
This brings us to today. This article wasn’t meant to scare Formula 1 fans who are just tuning into IndyCar because of Alonso into thinking Indy is a death trap. It is infact the opposite. In 35 Years, IndyCar has turned an unsurvivable accident into only a broken pelvis and a fractured hip, while still gaining 30 mph around the track. IndyCar and Open Wheel racing is safer than ever, and I encourage you to enjoy Sunday’s Indianapolis 500.
This content was originally posted by a Car Throttle user on our Community platform and was not commissioned or created by the CT editorial team.