On 20 September 2006, Hammond was seriously injured in a car crash while filming for Top Gear at the former RAF Elvington airfield near York. He was driving a jet-powered car, the Vampire dragster, which was theoretically capable of travelling at speeds of up to 370mph (595.5 km/h).
Sky News and BBC News reported that he was driving a Vampire jet car powered by a Bristol-Siddeley Orpheus turbojet engine, one of a pair built by then driver, Keiran Westman; the same car that currently holds the British land speed record at 300.3 mph (483.29 km/h). Primetime Land Speed Engineering have denied reports that Hammond was making an attempt to break the land speed record, although telemetry on one of the runs did suggest that he had reached 314.4mph (506 km/h), an unofficial British record.
The run was not a land speed record attempt; this is consistent with there being no official present, and no attempt at a second run in the opposite direction, as is required for a land speed record to be officially recognized. In the first episode of the new series, Clarkson jokingly said “the tragedy is, that would be the fastest car crash ever in Britain, but the Guinness Book of Records people are saying that you’ve got to do it going in the other direction.” However this contradicts some sources, including a statement given by the owner of ‘Event Fire Services’ which was hired to provide safety cover. He was travelling at 288.3mph (464 km/h) at the time of the crash, but when the jet car overturned and the roll cage dug into the ground he was still going at 232mph (373.4 km/h), with the top of his helmet dragging along the ground; it has been speculated that if he were any taller, he would have been decapitated. He was then taken to the specialist neurological unit of the Leeds General Infirmary.
Hammond was completing a final run to collect extra footage for the programme when his front-right tyre failed, and, according to witnesses, “one of the parachutes had deployed but it went on to the grass and spun over and over before coming to a rest about 100 yards from us.” When rescuers arrived at the car it was upside down and “dug in” to the grass. Rescuers felt a pulse and heard Hammond, who was unconscious, breathing before the car was turned right way up. Hammond was cut free, put in a neck brace and placed on a stretcher before the air ambulance arrived. “He was regaining consciousness at that point and said he had some lower back pain”.
ITV News reported that Hammond had broken the British land speed record and was on a last run filming extra scenes for Top Gear when the accident happened. Hammond’s family stayed with him at the hospital along with Top Gear representatives who were present at the accident site, as well as Top Gear co-presenters James May and Jeremy Clarkson who had also rushed to his bedside. Jeremy Clarkson was quoted by the BBC as saying “Both James and I are looking forward to getting our ‘Hamster’ back”, referring to Hammond by his nickname.
Dave Ogden from Event Fire Services, present at the scene of the accident, said on Sky News that evening: “He was just doing the final run of the day — I don’t know quite what happened — but the parachute deployed. There was quite a lot of smoke and the car veered off to the right and on to the grass, and it overturned several times and it came to a halt a couple of hundred yards in front of us.” The cause of the crash was later determined to be a blowout of the front right tyre.
The Health & Safety Executive report on the accident stated that Hammond’s “instantaneous reaction to the tyre blow out seems to have been that of a competent high performance car driver, namely to brake the car and to try to steer into the skid. Immediately afterwards he also seems to have followed his training and to have pulled back on the main parachute release lever, thus shutting down the jet engine and also closing the jet and afterburner fuel levers. The main parachute did not have time to deploy before the car ran off the runway.” The report suggests that the accident may not have been recoverable even if the driver had reacted with no more delay than was humanly possible.
The crash was shown on an episode of Top Gear on 28 January 2007; this was the first episode of the new series, which had been postponed pending Hammond’s recovery. Hammond requested at the end of the episode that his fellow presenters never mention the crash again, a request which has since been forgotten about or ignored by both Hammond and the other presenters.