Take one look at the picture above and you’d think that Danny Ongais would have died that day, 35 years ago. The front half of his car had disintegrated, the back half was on fire, and he, unconscious, was careening across the track at the Indy 500.
Ongais was one of the most badass drivers of his day. The “Flyin’ Hawaiian” first made his name in the lower 48 by winning the ‘64 Hot Rod Magazine Championship drag race on foot, and was a hugely accomplished Porsche sports car racer in the gnarly turbo era.
He was leading the Indy 500 at the 137 mile mark, as The New York Times contemporarily reported, when he pitted for fuel. Ongais stalled, then rushed out of the pits after the long stop, and then by Turn 3 he was in the wall.
The nose of the car flattened. The rear of the car, filled to the brim with fuel, burst into flames.
Ongais was knocked unconscious, and his body was left completely exposed to the track. This kind of exposure simply does not happen in a modern race car. One leg was dragged underneath the car, bare bone showed on the other.
There were compound fractures, and a break in his arm as well. The crash also put a six-inch tear in his diaphragm, but all of those injuries had been operated on and repaired by the next day. He was back at racing only a few months later. Ongais was incredibly lucky in that his car took most of the hit, and that fire crews rushed to his car only moments after the wreck, as you can see from the live TV report.
Crash safety has come a long way since 1981, and it would be unthinkable to see something like this happening today. Safety cells keep drivers’ bodies securely isolated from the outside world even in the worst crashes. But there is still work to be done in protecting drivers’ exposed heads in open-topped cars that still race at Indy. Hopefully all of the drivers this month will be as lucky as Danny.