In just over two months the sport of automobile racing has lost three drivers of the first rank: Britain's Peter Collins last week; Italy's Luigi Musso last month; America's Pat O'Connor on Memorial Day. They were all seasoned men, famous for the security with which they drove; they were courageous, handsome, popular, successful.
Collins, said by British observers to be one of the most sensible men ever to sit in a racing car, was fatally injured when he lost control of a Ferrari on a turn in the German Grand Prix. Musso, "the reasonable champion," was fatally injured when he lost control of a Ferrari on a turn in the French Grand Prix. O'Connor, a serenely skillful track racing driver, died in the Indianapolis "500" because of a series of accidents not of his making.
And in just about the same short space of time were killed Britain's Archie Scott-Brown; France's Jean Brousellet; American Track Racing Drivers Art Bisch and Jimmy Davis; American Sports Car Drivers Harold Hurtley and Abbott Hodge Brush.
Why so many so quickly?
August 17, 1958
The answer is that nobody really knows, and the tendency among racing men is to say that this is just a bad season. There have been occasional fatalities ever since that day in the automobile's infancy, in 1898, on which France's Marquis de Montaignac became the first man to die at the wheel of a racing car. The sport was dangerous then and it is dangerous now.
The fact remains that there has been an extraordinary number of fatalities this summer, and thoughtful men here and abroad are doing some pretty serious soul searching. It has not been very long since the blue-ribbon Indianapolis drivers Bill Vukovich, Bob Sweikert, Mike Nazaruk and Jack McGrath were killed in racing accidents, nor since Italy's Alberto Ascari and Eugenio Castellotti and Spain's Marquis de Portago perished. No one has forgotten the holocaust at Le Mans in 1955, in which 83 persons were killed, nor the Mille Miglia disasters last year, which took the lives of 13.
There has been a notable emphasis on spectator safety since those tragedies and the outspoken public reaction to them. The facilities at Le Mans, for example, have been extensively rebuilt with safety in mind; the Mille Miglia has in effect been canceled. There is a wholesome trend, which this magazine has applauded in the past, away from the city-to-city and within-a-city road races at which reasonable spectator safety cannot be assured.
The cause of driver safety, however, apparently has not been served as well, although it has by no means been neglected. It must be better served now. Auto racing, like football and baseball, has come a long way from the days in which protective helmets were considered sissy. Seat belts and shoulder harness, roll bars, flameproof clothing—these with scientifically developed helmets have saved many drivers from disfiguring injuries and death. But much more is needed, as this summer's fatalities have so painfully proved.
These were not reckless men having an irresponsible fling in an adventurous sport. Indeed, the topflight three—Collins, Musso and O'Connor—were as responsible a group as there was to be found in racing. All three drove cars representative of the best in the world, all sharing the enormous engineering advances that have inevitably come with the racing car's maturity.
British experts were quick to point out that both Collins and Musso died on typical Continental road circuits which did not provide escape routes in case of errors in judgment in the turns. Italian experts were beginning to speculate that the Ferrari single-seaters they drove were "too perfect," that is, the cars gave too much confidence and failed to warn the drivers in time that safe limits of speed had been exceeded in the turns. The world champion driver, Juan Manuel Fangio, felt that today's racing cars have become too light in relation to their great power. The United States Auto Club, responsible for the most important track racing here, had no immediate solutions for U.S. racing, but called a meeting at the end of the week to review its entire safety program.
There is a notion in some quarters that the death of a racing driver is like that of a hero on a battlefield—a tragedy to be expected. It is heartening to record that racing drivers and officials reject this nonsense. No one is so naive as to believe that absolute safety can be achieved, in racing or any other adventurous pursuit, but it behooves racing men to make their sport as safe as they can, as quickly as they can.