Four deaths in four days sadden the motorsports world

A young Gil de Ferran posing for a portrait in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Paulo Fridman/Corbis/Getty Images

They say notable deaths come in threes, but the motorsports community suffered four over the long weekend, including one that rocked the IndyCar world.

Winner of the 2003 Indianapolis 500, Gil de Ferran, 56, died Friday from an apparent massive heart attack while driving with his son Luke at a private event at The Concours Club racetrack near Miami. On-scene medical personnel attempted to revive de Ferran, to no avail.

That 2003 Indy win came for car owner Roger Penske, who said in a statement: “We are terribly saddened to hear about the tragic passing of Gil de Ferran. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Angela, Anna, Luke and the entire de Ferran family. Gil defined class as a driver and as a gentleman. As an IndyCar champion and an Indianapolis 500 winner, Gil accomplished so much during his career, both on and off the track.”

He won the 2000 and 2001 IndyCar championships, also driving for Penske. In 2000, his qualifying speed of 241.428 mph for the race at the California Speedway oval in Fontana, California, set the closed-course record for fastest speed, which still stands.

He retired from IndyCar racing in 2003 but returned to competition as a team owner and driver at de Ferran Motorsports, racing for Acura in the LMP2 class with the American Le Mans Series in 2008. He retired again as a driver in 2009, returning to IndyCar as co-owner of de Ferran Dragon Racing, which folded in 2011.

Born in Brazil but living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, de Ferran was working for McLaren as a consultant when he died.

In NASCAR, three-time Cup champion Cale Yarborough died in a hospice in Florence, South Carolina, on Sunday. He was 84. Yarborough won three straight championships, in 1976, 1977, and 1978, driving for team owner Junior Johnson. He also won the Daytona 500 in 1968, 1977, 1983, and 1984. His final season came in 1988 as an owner-driver. He won 83 races in all.

Yarborough was involved in one of NASCAR’s most famous moments, at the 1979 Daytona 500. Racing for the win with Donnie Allison, the two cars collided on the back straightaway and their cars skidded into the infield. Both drivers left their cars and began fighting, soon joined by Allison’s brother Bobby, as television cameras rolled. It was the first time CBS had carried the entire Daytona 500, and ratings were huge, largely due to a snowstorm that socked in much of the Midwest and Northeast.

Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison 1979 daytona 500 motorsports rival rivalries
Daytona Beach, Florida — February 18, 1979: Track emergency workers try to break up a fight between Cale Yarborough, Donnie Allison and Bobby Allison after Yarborough and Donnie Allison crashed on the final lap while battling for the lead in the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway. ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images

Yarborough, who also competed in the Indianapolis 500 and 24 Hours of Le Mans, was named to the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2011. “Cale Yarborough was one of the toughest competitors NASCAR has ever seen,” NASCAR chairman Jim France said in a statement. “His combination of talent, grit, and determination separated Cale from his peers, both on the track and in the record book. He was respected and admired by competitors and fans alike and was as comfortable behind the wheel of a tractor as he was behind the wheel of a stock car.”

In drag racing, Roland Leong, “The Hawaiian,” died Friday. The Honolulu native began his racing career back home in Hawaii as a successful driver, but he moved to Los Angeles in the early 1960s to work for the famed Dragmaster shop building race cars. He built the Top Gas car that fellow Hawaiian Danny Ongais drove to victory in the 1964 NHRA Winternationals.

Leong moved to car ownership soon after, hiring a young Don Prudhomme to drive for him. They won the 1965 U.S. Nationals, launching Prudhomme’s career, and they remained close until Leong’s death. Leong continued to field Top Fuel and Funny Cars with various drivers as a car owner, tuner, and crew chief until the late 1990s. Leong’s cars were among the most popular on the circuit, especially the “Hawaiian Punch” Funny Car.

“I guess I always wanted a little brother,” Prudhomme once said. “He was just like me. All we cared about was drag racing and cars.” Leong was 79.

Finally, sprint car racing lost one of the winningest drivers when Rick Ferkel, “The Ohio Traveler,” passed away. Ferkel was one of the founding drivers in the World of Outlaws series, winning 21 WoO races. He finished second in the standings to Steve Kinser in the WoO’s first full season, in 1978.


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Constantly on the road during the height of his career searching for the highest-paying events, the driver of the number 0 sprinter often ran 75 races a year. His best season came in 1978, when he won 38 times. After Ferkel retired as a driver, he continued to field cars for up-and-coming racers. He was named to the Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1995.

Ferkel, 84, died at his home in Michigan on Monday.




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