By the dawn of the 1950s, international motor racing had become more colorful, more exciting, and more glamorous than ever before. Avid race fans came to watch the beautifully styled and impeccably engineered race cars rush past them at death-defying speeds mere feet away. In those days, racing was less about huge cash prizes and lucrative sponsorships, and more a matter of both national pride and personal fortitude.
Beyond all the pomp and circumstance, the fierce flag-waving and the hero worship of the drivers, darker forces were lurking just beneath the surface. The grim specter of death was ever-present and cast a long and wide shadow over every event. Even then, racing fatalities were nothing new. Ever since the first two Roman gladiators squared off against each other in their horse-drawn chariots, vehicular speed and endurance contests all too often ended with a funeral. As motor cars became faster and more sophisticated as the 20th century wore on, death rates would increase exponentially, both on and off the track.
In the years following WW2, the performance of modern sports racing cars had far exceeded the capacity of the archaic circuits that they frequently raced on, leading to some rather spectacular mishaps. Driver and spectator safety were an afterthought, if they were even thought of at all. The fans loved the spectacle, but not everyone was thrilled. Anyone who tried to voice their concerns over the unsafe conditions at these events, however, were swiftly silenced by race officials, team bosses, and even the drivers themselves. The brave men who climbed behind the wheel of these beasts were fully aware of the lethal hazards they faced, but casually brushed them off with a mixture of macho bravado and quiet resignation.
At the 24 Hueres Du Mans in July 1955, the inevitable finally happened. A single accident that caused death and destruction on an unprecedented scale. It was an appalling tragedy that shocked the world and changed the face of motorsports forever. It turned friends into enemies, fans into critics, and winners into losers. Even now, over half a century later, the echos of that dark day still reverberate in the hearts and minds of everyone who lived through it.
A final, chilling footnote. The car at the center of all this, Lance Macklin’s Austin-Healy 100 prototype, was repaired just one year after the crash. In 2011, it was auctioned off for a record-breaking $1.3 million after sitting idle since the 1960s.
Finally, in 2016, its current owner had it fully restored to its pre-accident condition, to make its debut at Bonhams Auction House.
Many superstitious gearheads expressed concern that the infamous Healy might now be cursed, after being the primary cause of such a horrific large-scale tragedy. Others are glad to see such a rare and valuable piece of racing history restored to its former glory. Others would like to see it get crushed and melted down, for obvious reasons.
RIP to the victims.