Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Gordon Smiley Dies In Fiery Crash At Indy - May 15, 1982

April 20, 1946 – May 15, 1982
Gordon Smiley
(Photo: ©David Hutson)
Born in Omaha, Nebraska, USA.
Driving his first race at age 19, Smiley was an accomplished road racer. He raced SCCA Formula Ford, Formula Atlantic, Trans-Am, Can-Am, Formula 5000 and Formula Super Vee. In 1979, he raced in the British Formula One Series for the Surtees Team, and in 11 races he had eight top-10 finishes, including a win, which is the last by an American in an FIA sanctioned event, at Silverstone, England in 1979.

Smiley raced in the Indianapolis 500 twice, in 1980 and 1981, and was killed while trying to qualify for a third in 1982. In the 1980 Indianapolis 500, Smiley qualified Patrick Racing's Valvoline Phoenix/Cosworth in 20th position. His race ended when the turbocharger blew on lap 47, causing him to finish 25th. In the 1981 Indianapolis 500, Smiley qualified the Patrick Racing Intermedics Wildcat VIII/Cosworth, qualifying 8th and led 1 lap, but finishing 22nd after a crash on lap 141. His crash set up the controversial finish to the Indy 500 between teammate Mario Andretti and Bobby Unser.

In 1982, record speeds were being set during qualification for the 1982 Indianapolis 500. Both Kevin Cogan and Rick Mears set new single lap and 4-lap records in their attempts. Smiley went out for a qualifying attempt an hour later. On the second warm up lap his car began to oversteer while rounding the third turn, causing the car to slightly slide. When Smiley steered right to correct this, the front wheels gained grip suddenly, sending his car directly across the track and into the wall nose first at nearly 200 mph (320 km/h). The impact shattered and completely disintegrated the March chassis, causing the fuel tank to explode, and sent debris, including Smiley's exposed body, tumbling hundreds of feet across the short-chute connecting turns 3 and 4. The impact of Smiley's car against the wall was so violent and so extreme, and the destruction of the car was so finite and total, that the crash looked like that of an aircraft crash, the amount of pieces of debris strewn across the track was in the thousands. Smiley died instantly from massive trauma inflicted by the severe impact. His death was the first at Indy since 1973 when Art Pollard and Swede Savage were killed during that same weekend, and to date, the last driver to die during qualifying.

Smiley's funeral was held on May 20, 1982 and he was buried in his birth location in Nebraska. He was inducted into the Nebraska Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 2000.

1 comment:

  1. The bio does not mention that Gordon competed in the 1970 American Road Race of Champions at Road Atlanta in his GP Spitfire. When Gary Ouellette and I towed his Spitfire from South Florida to Texas World for the last race before the 1971 ARRC and experienced an exhaust bracket failure while leading the race Gordon came to me and volunteered to hold the exhaust in place while I slid under the car and secured it with wire. I was able to contact the operating steward and tell him that the exhaust was secured by two grade 9 bolts and would not fall off so he did not meatball Gary and he won the race. I never met Gordon before then nor spoke with him after that weekend but I followed his career and was a fan to the end, Gordon Smiley was a very special person.