Race car driver Gordon Smiley was killed today at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when his car slammed head-on into a concrete wall during a warmup lap before time trials for the May 30 Indianapolis 500.
Smiley, 33, from Grapevine, Tex., died instantly of massive head injuries suffered when his March-Cosworth car veered suddenly into the wall at the third turn and went airborne about 50 feet before breaking into three sections. He was due to begin his qualification run on the next lap and was going about 185 mph.
It took the track safety crew about 10 minutes to pry Smiley from the wreckage and transport him to the infield hospital. About 20 minutes later, he was pronounced dead.
"The back end just seemed to get loose, and your first impulse is to correct the slide," said Bob Fletcher, the owner of Smiley's car. "In correcting it, he went into the wall. When these cars start to go loose, they will lose some of their ground effects. And when they do, it's like an unguided missile. They just take off."
Upon impact, the car burst into flames and scattered debris several hundred feet down the track.
Smiley's death was the first at Indianapolis since 1973 and the second to occur during qualifications for a major racing event in the past week. Gilles Villeneuve of Canada died May 8 when his Ferrari Formula I car crashed at Zolder, Belgium.
In 1973, three people were killed at Indianapolis--drivers Art Pollard and Swede Savage, and mechanic Armando Teran. Smiley's death was the 62nd at the speedway since it opened in 1909.
Coincidentally, Fletcher also was the owner of Pollard's car.
"You never get used to something like this," he said. "You hope that it doesn't happen, but you have to realize that it can happen. It wouldn't have made any difference if he was going only 170 (mph). Anytime you hit a brick wall head-on, it's not going to make a difference."
Fletcher said his crew examined the wreckage and believed nothing had broken on the car that might have caused the fiery crash.
Smiley qualified for the Indianapolis 500 last year at 192.988 mph, good for a start from the No. 8 position, but crashed in the fourth turn after 141 of the 200 laps. He wound up 22nd among the 33 starters. In 1980, he finished 25th.
Smiley began racing professionally in 1975, gaining most of his early experience with the Sports Car Club of America and the Aurora Formula I series in England. He was a four-time SCCA champion and won the Aurora series championship once.
Smiley is survived by his wife Barbara.