Throwback Thursday: The Death of Jeff Krosnoff

19 years ago this week, American motorsport lost a likeable, passionate driver in a horrific, freak accident that also claimed the life of a track worker.

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Jul 16 2015, 4:55pm

Photo: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

19 years ago this week, American motorsport lost a likeable, passionate driver in a horrific, freak accident that also claimed the life of a track worker.

Jeff Krosnoff was a 31-year-old journeyman competing in IndyCar, the top level of American single-seater racing. He grew up in California and caught the motorsport bug when a classmate brought her father's racing trophy to a school show and tell. He was either cursed or blessed to have shared a classroom with the daughter of former F1 driver Ronnie Bucknum.

Krosnoff wanted to race in F1, too. That would not have been typical for American drivers of his age: few went abroad, with most targeting Indy racing or NASCAR; they wanted to win at Indianapolis or Daytona, not Monaco. But Krosnoff was never swayed by the tide; he showed that throughout his career.

By the late-80s, however, he was still competing at a relatively low level of American single-seaters, making a future career in F1 very unlikely. Money held him back: Krosnoff came from a well-to-do family (he'd attended the private Flintridge Preparatory School), but they didn't back his racing career financially.

With single-seaters becoming more expensive as he moved up the ladder, Krosnoff took a strange career diversion to join the Racetruck Challenge. This, as the name suggests, saw him competing in a race-spec truck. They were slow machines and considered no place for an F1 or Indy hopeful; a friend joked with him about the lack of speed, and so Krosnoff proved it by documenting a race from inside his truck by taking photos.

In 1989 he took an even stranger diversion – at least for an American driver in the late '80s – when he moved to Japan to compete in their domestic Formula 3000 championship. Krosnoff had impressed a Japanese sponsor and his seat was paid for, which made it too good to turn down. Nevertheless, it involved spending long periods of time away from his wife, and in what were pre-internet days he was effectively cut off from his life at home.

During six years in Japan he had limited success. There was the odd podium finish, and he did race against future Formula 1 stars like Michael Schumacher, Eddie Irvine and Johnny Herbert, but realistically his only shot at F1 would have come through winning the championship. Ultimately his best finish was 7th, with no race victories.

He had more success at the world famous Le Mans 24 Hours. Krosnoff competed at the French race three times, finishing second overall alongside two of his Japan-based rivals, Irvine and Italy's Mauro Martini. The trio were unlucky not to win.

Irvine – who went on to become an F1 star and a famous playboy at Ferrari – spoke fondly of Krosnoff and their time in Japan.

"[He was a] super friendly guy, you know, typical kind of Californian guy, laid back.

"We got on really well because obviously we were quite different. He was very sensible and enjoyed my wildness and I enjoyed his calmness.

"Compared to Formula 1, which, okay, you've got the fame and the money and the most amazing cars and all that sort of stuff. [But] you didn't have the camaraderie that we had out in Japan, which was something, looking back, you need a lot more than other stuff. The other stuff will disappear. That won't."

By the mid-90s Irvine was establishing himself in F1 and, in '96, Krosnoff seemed to have been handed his big break in the States. He was given an IndyCar test with the kick-ass Ganassi team, a shootout between him and the gifted Italian Alex Zanardi. Krosnoff lost out on the ride and Zanardi went on to claim two championships in 1997 and '98.

But Krosnoff did find a seat, signing for the small Arciero-Wells team. Unlike Ganassi they wouldn't give him a shot at wins, but Krosnoff at least had a chance to prove himself at the top of the American racing tree.

He would lose his life pursuing that chance.

Krosnoff's journey ended in Toronto on Sunday July 14, 1996, during the 11th round of the championship, at the Canadian city's street track.

On lap 92 of 95, Krosnoff clipped the rear of another car heading down the fastest straight on the circuit. It was not his fault – the other car was moving out to make a pass – but there was nowhere to go and, at nearly 180mph, Krosnoff was launched into the air. His car made heavy contact with the barrier surrounding the track and was flung along the concrete wall. It disintegrated as it went, hitting a tree and a lamppost. Debris from Krosnoff's car scattered, hitting a group of exposed track workers, including Gary Arvin.

Both men died instantly.

Krosnoff's was the second fatal accident to occur in IndyCar that season, following the death of Scott Brayton at Indianapolis. Like other such accidents, it brought improved safety, both at the Toronto circuit and throughout Indy racing. The track workers clearly needed better protection, and the stretch where Krosnoff suffered his accident now features catch-fencing. Cars have been made stronger, too, though the danger of them launching still exists today.

Tommy Kendall was a childhood friend of Krosnoff's who went on to enjoy success in sportscar racing. He was recently inducted to the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America.

"It's kind of surreal to think he's been gone for almost 20 years," Kendallwrote in a piece for RACER this week.

"I speak with young drivers from time to time, and a lot of what we talk about and a lot of what gets downloaded are the core aspects of Jeff and his approach to racing. His blueprint is all over today's racecar driver, which is pretty cool, considering he was gone before some of the young stars today were even born. Whether they know it or not, Jeff's legacy continues with them."

A further five drivers have lost their lives in American single-seaters during the 19 years since Krosnoff died. With each comes improved safety, though it is largely accepted — but rarely discussed — that the sport can never be entirely safe. Accidents like the one that claimed Jeff Krosnoff and Gary Arvin's lives are an inherent risk of motorsport.

@jimmy_weeks