NASCAR crashes hardly make a blip on the news, in most cases. Death-defying flips, cars shearing apart into bits, none of it really clocks except in rare circumstances. It’s a long way from the days when fiery NASCAR collisions defined the sport for those who weren’t already fans. The sport continues to expand in popularity, boosted by being one of the first forms of live competition to return during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The racing world is still harried by crashes, and even NASCAR drivers periodically lose their lives in notably dangerous endeavors like sprint racing. But for NASCAR itself, massive pileups are a thing of the past. The apex was one day in 1960, when the biggest crash in the history of the sport called attention to the fact that, perhaps, the promotion could run things better than this.
The shocking details of the biggest crash in NASCAR history
The first thing a modern NASCAR aficionado will notice about the 1960 Daytona 500 is the size of the field. According to the Racing Reference report on the day, there were nearly 70 cars participating at once. It was an intentionally massive spectacle, to put on a show for both a record-setting crowd and the very first NASCAR broadcast on television.
With a field that huge, everyone involved was prepared for things to go awry. What they didn’t prepare for was just how quickly things would fall apart. A minute and a half into the race, driver Dick Foley’s Chevy spun out. He quickly regained control, and would eventually finish the race in 10th place.
The contestants behind Foley weren’t so lucky. The ensuing wave of sudden adjustments to avoid the out-of-control Chevy set off a chain of collisions that gave that first live TV audience an indelible image that followed NASCAR for decades after. 37 vehicles suddenly smashed into each other in a wild pileup, according to Jalopnik.
12 cars flipped. Eight drivers were sent off the course in ambulances. 24 drivers were left with unsalvageable vehicles and disqualified from the race, including Ralph Earnhardt. The race was stopped entirely for 39 minutes while trucks rushed to pull each of the many wrecked stock cars off the track.
The logistical reason why this 1960 crash will never be topped
The 1960 Daytona 500 wreck will likely remain alone in NASCAR history for a very simple reason. There was a massive field in the earlier days of NASCAR, and that is no longer the case.
According to Daytona’s official website, 68 cars made the final cut that day. It’s now considered irresponsibly risky for both drivers, and for the sake of good faith competition, to stuff so many cars onto one course.
The competitive field is much smaller today in live races. This, as Rotoviz reports, changed the basic concept of NASCAR. With fields cut to 40-50 competitors, and the season shortened from 48 to 31 events, 1972 is when most of the major changes to the format coalesced.
Races before that year, like the 1960 Daytona event, are met with an asterisk noting that they are from before the so-called “modern era.”
NASCAR safety standards were appalling in the ’60s, yet no one died in this massive pileup
The ’60s were a terrible time for NASCAR in many ways. The era was riddled with high-profile deaths, including the heartbreaking loss of Glenn “Fireball” Roberts.
But the massive pileup of 1960 didn’t lead to any deaths, in the end. Instead, it raised questions about the integrity of the sport, as a dual concern alongside the paramount need to keep drivers safe.
That perfect balance between fair competition, and world-class safety measures has arguably been approached in recent years. With technology catching up to the inherently demanding safety needs of NASCAR, the sport is now safer than the wildest dreams of the drivers of the ’60s.
Crashes haven’t gone away in NASCAR, but fatal wrecks are now extremely rare. And, with changes to the format, we’ll never see a moment so definitively undermine the final results of a race like that day Foley’s Chevy fishtailed itself into history.