Gordon Smiley

Last updated
Gordon Smiley
Nationality Flag of the United States.svg American
BornGordon Eugene Smiley
(1946-04-20)April 20, 1946
Omaha, Nebraska, U.S.
DiedMay 15, 1982(1982-05-15) (aged 36)
Speedway, Indiana, U.S.
Champ Car career
3 (2 starts) races
Years active1980–1982
Team(s) Valvoline, Intermedics
First race 1980 Indianapolis 500
Last race 1982 Indianapolis 500

Gordon Eugene Smiley (April 20, 1946 – May 15, 1982) was an American race car driver who was killed in a single-car crash at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. [1] He was inducted into the Nebraska Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 2000.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Motorsport track in the Indianapolis, IN, USA

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is an automobile racing circuit located in Speedway, Indiana, in the United States. It is the home of the Indianapolis 500 and the Brickyard 400, and formerly the home of the United States Grand Prix. It is located on the corner of 16th Street and Georgetown Road, approximately six miles (10 km) west of Downtown Indianapolis.


SCCA and road racing career

Driving his first race at age 19, Smiley was an accomplished road racer. He raced SCCA Formula Ford, Formula Atlantic (SCCA Formula B), Can-Am, Formula 5000 and Formula Super Vee, winning in each series while setting 25 track records, winning the SCCA National Championship four times prior to turning pro in 1974.

Formula 5000 international motor racing format

Formula 5000 was an open wheel, single seater auto-racing formula that ran in different series in various regions around the world from 1968 to 1982. It was originally intended as a low-cost series aimed at open-wheel racing cars that no longer fit into any particular formula. The '5000' denomination comes from the maximum 5.0 litre engine capacity allowed in the cars, although many cars ran with smaller engines. Manufacturers included McLaren, Eagle, March, Lola, Lotus, Elfin, Matich and Chevron.

In 1979, he raced in the British Formula One Championship (sometimes called the "Aurora Formula One Championship") 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. He also disputed the F1 non-championship 1979 Race of Champions in Brands Hatch, finishing 10th with a Tyrrell.

The British Formula One Championship, often abbreviated to British F1, was a Formula One motor racing championship held in the United Kingdom. It was often referred to as the Aurora AFX Formula One series due to the Aurora company's sponsorship of the series for three of the four seasons.

1979 Race of Champions

The 1979 Race of Champions was a Formula One non-championship motor race held at Brands Hatch, United Kingdom on 15 April 1979. The field was made up of seven Formula One cars that competed in the World championship while the rest of the field usually competed in the Aurora series.

Brands Hatch race track

Brands Hatch is a motor racing circuit in West Kingsdown, Kent, England. First used as a grasstrack motorcycle circuit on farmland, it hosted 12 runnings of the British Grand Prix between 1964 and 1986 and currently hosts many British and International racing events. The venue is owned and operated by Jonathan Palmer's MotorSport Vision organisation.

Indy career

Smiley raced in the Indianapolis 500 twice, in 1980 and 1981, and was killed while trying to qualify for a third in 1982. [2] [3] [4]

Indianapolis 500 Auto race held in Speedway, Indiana, United States

The Indianapolis 500-Mile Race is an automobile race held annually at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) in Speedway, Indiana, United States, an enclave suburb of Indianapolis, Indiana. The event is held over Memorial Day weekend in late May. It is contested as part of the IndyCar Series, the top level of American Championship Car racing, an open-wheel open-cockpit formula colloquially known as "Indy Car Racing". The name of the race is often shortened to Indy 500, and the track itself is nicknamed "the Brickyard", as the racing surfacing was paved in brick in the fall of 1909.

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. [2] [3]

1980 Indianapolis 500 64th running of the Indianapolis 500 motor race

The 64th 500 Mile International Sweepstakes was held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Speedway, Indiana on Sunday, May 25, 1980. Johnny Rutherford won the pole position, led 118 laps, and won the race by a commanding 29.92 second margin. After failing to finish the race the year before, Jim Hall's radical new Chaparral 2K ground effects chassis was a heavy favorite entering the month, and drove a flawless race. Rutherford, the winner in 1974 and 1976, became the sixth driver to win the Indy 500 three times.

1981 Indianapolis 500 65th running of the Indianapolis 500 motor race

The 65th Indianapolis 500 was held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Speedway, Indiana on Sunday, May 24, 1981. The race is widely considered one of the most controversial races in Indy history. Bobby Unser took the checkered flag as the winner, with Mario Andretti second. After the conclusion of the race, USAC officials ruled that Unser had passed cars illegally while exiting the pit area during a caution on lap 149. Unser was subsequently issued a one-position penalty. The next morning, the official race results were posted, and Unser was dropped to second place. Mario Andretti was elevated to first place and declared the race winner.

Mario Andretti Italian-American racing driver

Mario Gabriele Andretti is an Italian-born American former racing driver, one of the most successful Americans in the history of the sport. He is one of only two drivers to have won races in Formula One, IndyCar, World Sportscar Championship and NASCAR. He also won races in midget cars, and sprint cars. During his career, Andretti won the 1978 Formula One World Championship, four IndyCar titles, and IROC VI. To date, he remains the only driver ever to win the Indianapolis 500 (1969), Daytona 500 (1967) and the Formula One World Championship, and, along with Juan Pablo Montoya, the only driver to have won a race in the NASCAR Cup Series, Formula One, and an Indianapolis 500. No American has won a Formula One race since Andretti's victory at the 1978 Dutch Grand Prix. Andretti had 109 career wins on major circuits.

After the 1981 CART season ended, Smiley was released from Patrick Racing, but was essentially traded to a Patrick-affiliated ride, Fletcher Racing. [4]


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, into the catch fence and then back onto the track, tumbling hundreds of feet across the short-chute connecting turns 3 and 4. 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, 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.

CART medical director Steve Olvey, who was on staff at the time, discussed the crash in his 2006 autobiography, Rapid Response: My Inside Story as a Motor Racing Life-Saver:

During an attempt to qualify for the Indy 500, Gordon Smiley, a cocky young driver from Texas, was determined to break 200mph or die trying. Several veteran drivers ... had warned him that he was in way over his head, driving all wrong for the Speedway. Smiley was a road racer and was used to counter-steering his car to avoid a crash if the rear wheels broke traction. While rushing to the car, I noticed small splotches of a peculiar gray substance marking a trail on the asphalt leading up to the driver. When I reached the car, I was shocked to see that Smiley's helmet was gone, along with the top of his skull. He had essentially been scalped by the debris fence. The material on the race track was most of his brain. His helmet, due to massive centrifugal force, was literally pulled from his head on impact ... I rode to the care center with the body. On the way in I performed a cursory examination and realized that nearly every bone in his body was shattered. He had a gaping wound in his side that looked as if he had been attacked by a large shark. I had never seen such trauma." [5]

Olvey later said in his book that in the aftermath of the wreck, he and the IndyCar paramedic team made a mistake of declaring Smiley to have died at the scene. It caused a circus and led to the racing standard of not declaring a driver dead at the track unless he is incinerated or decapitated. [5]

Racing record

SCCA National Championship Runoffs

1967 Daytona Porsche Porsche C Production1513Retired
1969 Daytona Triumph Spitfire Triumph G Production39Running
1970 Road Atlanta Triumph Spitfire Triumph G Production141Retired
1971 Road Atlanta Merlyn Mk.21 Cosworth Formula B 136Retired
Merlyn Mk.20 Ford Formula Ford 21Running
1972 Road Atlanta Merlyn Mk.21 Cosworth Formula B 154Retired
1975 Road Atlanta Titan Mk.9B Ford Formula Ford 2411Retired
1977 Road Atlanta Lola T326 Volkswagen Formula Super Vee 143Running

Indianapolis 500 results

See also

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  1. "Gordon Smiley". www.myf5000.com. Retrieved 22 October 2018.
  2. 1 2 "Driver Gordon Smiley 1981 USAC Gold Crown Series Results". www.racing-reference.info. Retrieved 22 October 2018.
  3. 1 2 "Driver Gordon Smiley 1980 CART Results". www.racing-reference.info. Retrieved 22 October 2018.
  4. 1 2 "Historical Motorsports Stories: Drivers' Reactions to Gordon Smiley Crash". www.racing-reference.info. Retrieved 22 October 2018.
  5. 1 2 Olvey, Steve. Rapid Response: My Inside Story as a Motor Racing Life-Saver. Haynes Publishing UK. pp. 98–99. ISBN   184425982X.