Today, we remember a promising IndyCar talent cut short 30 years in qualifying for the Indianapolis 500.
Gordon Smiley was a native of Omaha, Neb., in an era when such an upbringing didn't automatically lead one to assume that a local racing driver would be headed for NASCAR. Smiley headed straight for road racing competition, and was one of the most dominant Formula Ford drivers of his generation. Smiley won four SCCA Club Racing National Championships before turning pro in 1974 and graduating to the Can-Am, Formula 5000 and Formula Super Vee pro series. He also ran in the Aurora series for Formula 1 cars, winning at Silverstone in 1979 in a Surtees.
By 1980, Smiley had set his eyes on Indianapolis, and competed at Indy with the Patrick Racing squad for 1980 and '81. He qualified solidly – 20nd in 1980 and eighth in '81 – but retired from both races. The following year Gordon returned with a March entered by Jack Fletcher's team, but struggled with the car's handling in the week leading up to qualifying. Attempting to carry the car proved disastrous as, on his second warm-up lap during qualifying on Pole Day, the rear of the car viciously stepped out. When Smiley corrected the slide, the ground-effect car hooked up and launched straight into the outside wall. The 36-year-old Smiley died instantly in the devastating crash, which was described by onlookers as resembling a bomb explosion.
Gone but not forgotten, Smiley was inducted into the Nebraska Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 2000.
• Also lost on this date at Indy in 1992 was Jovy Marcelo. The Filipino, a Formula Atlantic champion, lost his life in an accident during practice after passing his rookie test. He was 26.
• Italian grand prix driver racer Elio de Angelis died following a crash of his Brabham F1 car during testing in 1986. He was 28.