The Indianapolis 500 Tragedy Rarely Talked About After an Errant Tire Killed a Fan in the Stands

The Indianapolis 500 is known as the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” as drivers travel around the famed track at speeds topping 200 mph. Unfortunately, there’s very little margin for error when traveling that fast, and when something goes wrong, it can have catastrophic consequences. 

In the history of the famous Brickyard, 73 people have died because of racing since 1909, including drivers, mechanics, and spectators. The latest spectator incident happened in 1987 when a tire went airborne into the grandstands and killed a 41-year-old man from Wisconsin. Here’s a look back at how the tragic events unfolded that day. 

Al Unser Sr. pulls off upset and wins 1987 Indianapolis 500

Fans watch Indianapolis 500
Fans look on as the cars drive three-wide down the front stretch on the pace laps before the start of the NTT IndyCar Series 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. | Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Mario Andretti was the car to beat heading into the 1987 Indianapolis 500. Andretti dominated practice, qualifying, and most of the race before mechanical issues sidelined him with just 23 laps remaining. Andretti’s loss turned out to be Al Unser Sr. ‘s gain.

Interestingly, Unser, who was well on his way into the twilight of his career, wasn’t even supposed to race at the famed Brickyard that year. After dropping down to part-time status the previous year, Unser didn’t have a ride for the 1987 event. That all changed when Danny Ongais suffered a concussion in a practice crash, and Roger Penske called on the veteran driver.

Unser took the lead shortly after Andretti went out of the race and held on for his fourth Indy 500 victory. 

Tire flies in stands and kills fan

While most remember the 1987 Indianapolis 500 for Unser’s improbable victory, one Wisconsin family remembers that day for the unimaginable pain born from tragedy just past the midway point of the race. On the 130th lap, a tire came loose off Tony Bettenhausen’s No. 56 car in the third turn. 

The tire rolled down the track until Roberto Guerrero’s No. 4 car hit the tire and sent it airborne. It soared skyward over the catch fence and into the grandstands. Karen Kurtenbach and her husband Lyle had traveled from Wisconsin to Indianapolis for the 10th straight year to watch the race with their family, all part of a family reunion weekend. They were sitting on the top row when the errant tire bounded up into the stands and struck her husband.

“It took one instant,” Karen told the Indy Star in 2018. “You look up, it’s coming toward you. We were in the process of ducking, and he didn’t duck enough. It was instantaneous. He fell right on my lap … it hit him, and he fell right on my lap. I was glad he didn’t fall over the balcony.”

Interestingly, during the race broadcast there was only a mention of Guerrero’s car suffering damage after hitting the tire but nothing else about the tire going up into the stands.

Death resulted in changes at Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Kurtenbach’s teenage daughter, Dawn, sat and watched the horror unfold a few seats away. A doctor and nurse, who were nearby spectators, tended to his injuries and checked for a pulse. There wasn’t one. Karen went with him to the speedway’s hospital, where he was briefly revived. Minutes later an ambulance rushed him to a nearby hospital where he was pronounced dead. He was 41 years old.

His death was the first spectator fatality at the speedway in nearly three decades. His wife filed a lawsuit against the speedway, the U.S. Auto Club, and Bettenhausen’s race team for $9 million. It claimed Bettenhausen’s car and wheel were defective, and the USAC — which governed the Indy 500 back then — failed to properly inspect the equipment. The suit was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount three years after the accident.

In addition, Indianapolis Motor Speedway made changes, including raising the catch fence by more than four feet. No fan has died at the speedway since that 1987 accident.

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