Gordon Smiley was an accomplished race car driver with a promising career ahead of him. He had competed in various racing events and showed great potential as he climbed up the rank. Smiley's passion for racing and his talent behind the wheel brought him to the prestigious Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he hoped to make a name for himself.
Unfortunately, his dream was tragically cut short on May 15th, 1982 when his car veered off course and collided head-on into a concrete wall at a speed of 200 mph during a practice lap for the Indianapolis 500 qualifying session. The crash was brutal, and the impact was just devastating. Poor Smiley, only 33 at the time, suffered fatal head injuries and passed away right there on the spot.
The details of Smiley's fatal car crash are still fixed into the memories of those who witnessed it firsthand while some don’t have the foggiest clue about what really happened. To better understand the whole deal, let’s revisit what really went down on that fateful day that claimed the life of Gordon Smiley in detail.
What Really Happened in Gordon Smiley Car Crash?
It all went down on the afternoon of May 15th, 1982, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Cars were setting speed records at the qualification for the 1982 Indianapolis 500 with both Kevin Cohan and Rick Mears setting the fastest qualifying average ever in their attempts earlier in the session.
Smiley, fueled by this intense need for speed, was dead set on breaking the speed record of 200 mph. He was all in, ready to risk it all, and even told his car owner, Bob Fletcher, that he was going to hit 200 mph or die while trying. It was a bold move that reminded Bob Fletcher the tragic day in 1973 when he owned the car Art Pollard tragically perished in during the Indianapolis 500.
The past haunted him, and he tried to steer Smiley in the right direction. He cautioned Smiley to seek wisdom from the seasoned, older racers, but the young daredevil had his own ideas. Veteran drivers, who'd seen it all, also took Smiley aside, giving him stern warnings. They told him he was biting off more than he could chew, that he was driving all wrong for the Speedway.
They made it clear that if his car broke traction, he shouldn’t try to correct it, as the road racers were used to. But Smiley stood firm, believing in his own style and ignoring their experienced guidance.
When Smiley went out for the lap qualifying attempt, there is usually this warm up lap before the start of each run which is used to warm up the car tires, but Smiley was pushing the car, hard like it was the actual race. On the second warm up lap, he began to lose control of his car while rounding the third turn, causing the car to slightly slide.
But Smiley, stubborn and unyielding, tried to correct the slide by steering right, a decision he'd been strongly advised against by veterans. The front wheels suddenly gained traction, sending his car directly across the track and into the barrier wall head-on at a terrifying 200 miles per hour(mph).
The force of the crash was so immense that it shattered the March chassis beyond repair causing the fuel tank to erupt into a fiery explosion, and the unimaginable force of the crash sent debris – and Smiley's body – into the catch fence and then back onto the track. It was a harrowing sight, a scene of devastation that unfolded as the car tumbled hundreds of feet across the track, connecting turns 3 and 4.
In an instant, Smiley died from massive head trauma inflicted by the severe impact. He didn't get a second chance. Rescue team on scene at that moment immediately rushed to the wreckage site, but none of them could find his body.
According to a CART Safety worker, Steve Olvey who was also on scene at that time said, he immediately rushed to his car, only to find the top half of Smiley still inside the wreckage. He was shocked to find Smiley’s helmet had been sent off his head, taking the top of his skull with it. He had essentially been scalped by the debris fence.
A gray-like material was found on the track. Rescue team, at first, started treating it as if it was oil, but it was soon discovered that it was fragments of Smiley’s brain, scattered across the racing surface. Officials spent up to three and a half hours cleaning the track. They had to clear not only the debris from the car but also the remnants of Smiley himself.
As if that wasn't devastating enough, I’m the ambulance, it was discovered that Smiley had broken every single bone in his body. He had no chance of survival. Smiley's death was the first at the Indy since 1973 when Art Pollard and Swede Savage lost their lives. And, as of now, he remains the last driver to have died during the qualifying rounds.
Gordon Smiley’s Funeral
No words can adequately capture the sorrow felt by family members and loved ones as they laid Gordon Smiley to rest after his fatal car crash on May 20, 1982. His funeral was attended by fellow racers, friends from within the industry, and countless grieving fans who wanted to pay their respects.
Smiley's final resting place is located in his birth location in Nebraska at a private Cemetery – fittingly nestled among other legendary figures from motorsport history. His grave serves as a reminder not only of his talent behind the wheel but also of how quickly life can be taken away on race tracks around the world.