79 people die in the worst tragedy in the history of motor racing.
The crash occurred in the third hour of the 24-hour race on the pit straight. Mike Hawthorn led a pack of cars, with Lance Macklin behind him and Pierre Levegh to the back left of Macklin.
Hawthorn decided to pit and braked quickly to the right. Macklin swerved to the left to avoid him; Levegh hit Macklin and his car was lifted onto an embankment on the left. It flipped multiple times along the embankment and flew into the crowd of spectators.
“The car was shattered by the impact: its flat motor hood ripped loose and scythed through spectators like a guillotine knife,” wrote Time. “The heavy engine followed, spewing parts. The first row of the crowd was cleanly decapitated. Twenty yards away, the chassis cut another swath. Gasoline took fire; then the Mercedes’ magnesium-alloy body went up in a searing white flame. Levegh’s headless corpse was burned to a crisp. A 400-sq. yd. stretch of gay and cheering people became a black, hysterical horror.”
Eighty-two spectators were killed and 76 were badly injured. Authorities decided to continue the race so that spectators in other areas—who had not heard about the accident—would not leave and clog up the roadways needed for ambulances.
“Hawthorn, though unnerved, went on to win and set a new record,” wrote Life. “But few spectators had the enthusiasm to cheer.”
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