Kiwi athletics legend Sir Peter Snell is thankful he "didn't kill someone" after suffering a serious heart scare while driving.

The 80-year-old triple Olympic champion, who first developed heart problems in 2010, said he "passed out while driving" earlier this week after suffering heart failure.

"What it does is the [heart] rate goes up too high and that causes me to pass out," Snell told the Herald from his home in Dallas.

"That may be because I failed to take my pills that morning."

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Snell was due to appear at the World Athletics Heritage Mile Night in Monte Carlo on Thursday night and even attempted to defy doctors' orders after his heart issue to attend the event, but decided against it at the last minute after "feeling poorly" at the airport.

"Yeah I was actually packed and all ready to go," Snell said. "But I waited and sat down with my wife and we decided the way I'm feeling that it would be too risky to take the flight because if I had an event on the flight there would be nothing I could do about it."

Peter Snell winning the 800m. Photo / Supplied
Peter Snell winning the 800m. Photo / Supplied

Despite being disappointed he couldn't make the awards event, which featured eight of the last 10 living men's outdoor world record holders, Snell was in good spirits and feeling a lot better after resting at home.

"I'm feeling much better because my potassium is now normal … I'm just recovering. I'm not totally there yet. But I don't think I would've been enjoying myself too much in Monaco.

"I'm not totally recovered because I don't feel like going to play table tennis tonight."

Snell says he was going to be presented with two "surprise" world record plaques at the event in Monte Carlo for 1000m and one-mile records he set in Auckland.

Snell, who is considered to be one of the country's greatest ever athletes, won gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics in the 800 metres and did the 800m and 1500m double four years later in Tokyo.