LE MANS, France — Austrian driver Jo Gartner was killed early Sunday in the Le Mans 24 Hour race when his Porsche crashed and burst into flames.
Gartner, 32, crashed on the three-mile straight, where top speeds reach 230 m.p.h., near the midway point of the race. The field was slowed behind a pace car for more than 90 minutes after the accident.
Gartner, sharing the Kremer team car with Sarel van der Merwe of South Africa and Korumitsu Takahashi of Japan, had been running as high as seventh earlier in the race.
French driver Jean-Philippe Grand, who arrived at the accident scene within seconds, said Gartner's car hit the guardrails "very hard, and there were pieces of car all over the road."
He said the Porsche apparently hit the left-side guardrails then swerved across the track, a three-lane road, and slammed into the right-side barrier.
Before the race, pole-sitter Jochen Mass of West Germany said speeds on the straight were unnecessarily high and should be cut by 25 to 30 m.p.h.
When the accident occurred, the Porsche of the Reinhold Joest team had been battling the Porsche factory cars for the lead for more than 11 hours, often only seconds apart and with the lead switching repeatedly.
But after running slowly under the yellow for nearly two hours, the Joest team announced the car was retiring because its engine was overheating.
The car had won the race for the past two years--in 1984 with Klaus Ludwig of West Germany and Henri Pescarolo of France and last year with its current crew of Ludwig, John Winter of West Germany and Paolo Barilla of Italy.
That left the lead to the factory Porsche 962C driven by world endurance champions Derek Bell of Britain and Hans Stuck of West Germany and American Al Holbert. The advantage was eight laps over a Porsche 956 driven by Oscar Larrauri of Argentina, Jesus Pareja of Spain and Joel Gouhier of France.
Gartner was a former Grand Prix driver who competed in eight races with the Italian Oszella team in 1984. He finished fourth here last year.