Auto Racer. He is remembered today as the ill-fated protagonist of the 1955 Le Mans disaster, the deadliest accident in motorsports history. Born Pierre Eugene Alfred Bouillin in Paris, he was an enthusiastic sportsman and excelled in ice skating, hockey and tennis. After watching the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 1930, he took the pseudonym Levegh from his uncle, a pioneer auto racer, and made winning that event his life's ambition. He competed at Le Mans in 1938 and 1939 but World War II curtailed his career. When he resumed racing at 42, his age and stern appearance earned him the nickname "The Bishop". Following an undistinguished spell on the Formula 1 circuit, Levegh again focused on Le Mans and represented Lago-Talbot in four consecutive races (1951 to 1954). He came closest to his dream at the 1952 competition. Driving for 23 hours solo, he was safely in the lead when a gear-shifting error blew his engine just minutes from the finish line, costing him the victory and a place in the record books as the only driver ever to win Le Mans single-handed. For the 1955 event he joined the Mercedes-Benz team and was given their new 300 SLR model, with a top speed of 185 mph. This caused him concern at the outdated Le Mans track, which had been built in the 1920s for slower vehicles. During trials he was overheard saying, "We need a signal system here. Our cars go too fast". His foreboding proved nightmarishly correct. The catastrophe occurred three hours into the race, when driver Mike Hawthorn overtook Lance Macklin and then breaked hard for a pit stop. Macklin swerved to avoid hitting him and was clipped from behind by Levegh, who was doing about 150 mph and had no time to take evasive action. With the sloping rear of Macklin's Austin-Healey as a launching pad, the Mercedes went airborne, somersaulted into a dirt retaining wall and exploded, hurling the engine block and other flaming debris into the crowded stands. Levegh's body was thrown 250 feet from the impact. Macklin also crashed but escaped unharmed. The casualties among the spectators were never definitively recorded. At least 70 people were killed at the scene, with between 10 and 19 more dying later in area hospitals; over 120 were injured. As horrific as this incident was it could have been worse. Right before the collision, driver Juan Manuel Fangio saw Levegh raise his hand, either as a danger signal or a reflex action, and narrowly avoided the smash-up; he later credited Levegh with saving his life and possibly those of more onlookers. In the wake of the accident race tracks around the world underwent major safety upgrades. Mercedes-Benz withdrew from auto racing until the 1980s, and the sport was banned in Switzerland for 52 years. The Le Mans grandstand and pit areas were rebuilt in 1956 and a memorial plaque was dedicated near the crash site. The plaque is sometimes covered during competition at the insistence of superstitious drivers.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards