The 6 Most Terrifying Historical Car Races

Like any sport that relies on a combustible engine and hundreds of pounds of sharply angled metal, car racers generally accept a certain amount of mortal liability when they compete. Today, there are tight safety precautions to ensure that the threat of death and mayhem is minimized as much as possible, but none of that would have been possible if not for the lawless absurdity and charred corpses early motorsports kept spitting out.

With that, here are the races throughout history that catered purely to those who were just plain sick of living.

#6. The Paris to Madrid (1903)


The year 1903 was a magical time when cars had advanced enough that they could go more than 60 or 70 MPH, but not enough so that any safety measures had been invented.

Via Wiki Commons

So you can kind of imagine what was about to take place when everyone who had one of those new "automobiles" rocked up in Paris for the Paris to Madrid race.

In all, around 275 vehicles "of all sorts, shapes and sizes ... some un-safe, unsuitable and impossible" turned up to compete. As the name implies, the race was intended to be a run from Paris to Madrid with a night time stopover in Bordeaux. But plans quickly changed when over half of the participants turned into smoking shrapnel in the first few hours.

Nobody made it to Madrid.

Via Wiki Commons
Back then, a "hairpin turn" was "literally any turn at all."

As a result of the constant, unremitting horror that unfolded on the first day, the race officials just drew a new finish line in Bordeaux.

Via Dennis David and Family
"Well Jim, if you want my diagnosis I would say it's fucked."

Given the nascence of car manufacturing, not many people understood yet the inherent danger of traveling that fast in a wood and steel shell filled with explosives. All day, cars crashed into trees, burst into flames, careened into groups of spectators or just straight up disintegrated. Out of all the hundreds of racers that started, more than half crashed out in that first day, at least eight people died including one of the founders of Renault.

History of Renault Book
He is survived by his magnificent beard.

At Bordeaux, the French government made the first sensible decision of the day and forced the race to be abandoned. All the surviving cars were seized and taken back to Paris by train. In fact, the authorities didn't even allow the drivers to start their engines again; each car had to be towed to the train station by Bordeaux horses. The reason being, presumably, no one was certain that the vehicles wouldn't take the opportunity to cast off their human masters and resume killing everyone.

#5. Targa Florio (1906)


The Targa Florio race was founded by Sicilian aristocrat Vincenzo Florio. It consisted of three laps totaling 277 miles set in the Sicilian Mountains. Cars in 1906 were not any safer than they were in 1903, and on top of that, the roads in rural Sicily at the time were not in any way designed for a motor car. They were essentially fourth-century cart tracks, winding haphazardly through the mountains with unguarded drops on the outside of nearly every corner.

Library of Congress
Back then, drunk driving wasn't illegal. It was mandatory.

You know where this is going.

The altitude not only added some hang-time to the inevitable accidents, but it also screwed up the drivers' perception and reflexes. If the lack of oxygen, numbing cold, blinding dust, shitty roads and the constant threat of suddenly plummeting off the side of a mountain weren't enough, there were a few other dangers ...

Via Art Might

... like gunfire. Sicilian peasants would, if the mood took them, fire off a shot or two at the screaming metal-beasts roaming past their fields.

Via Targa Florio
"Kill it! Before it gets the cows!"

In the 1922 Targa Florio, a racer named Henry Segrave was stranded in the mountains and spent the night in a local farmhouse. The pit crew, naturally, assumed he had been ambushed by bandits, formed a heavily armed posse and took some spare cars up into the hills to rescue him. Segrave was lucky to have broken down near a farmhouse, if he had done so in the wilderness, which constituted most of the track, he would have spent the night in the car fending off wolves.

Remember, cars back then didn't have windows, roofs or any of the other wolf-resistant features we take for granted.

#4. The Carrera Panamericana (1950)


In 1950, Mexico completed a 2,100 mile stretch of road which ran from Ciudad Juarez (near El Paso, TX) all the way down to Guatemala. To celebrate and publicize this achievement, the Mexican Government staged the Carrera Panamericana, a five-day race that would cover the whole length of the road.

And that was pretty much the extent of the planning.

Via Wiki Commons
"We built the road. They can figure the rest out."

There were no rules whatsoever on the types of cars people could bring, which meant the field featured NASCARs, F-1 racers, dragsters, rally cars and little European sports cars. Most of the competitors, however, showed up in whatever piece of shit they had in their driveway that day. Because anyone could enter, anyone with a car who happened to live near the starting line could enter the race, and they did. Even local taxi drivers showed up to race and we like to think they picked up fares as they went.

Via The La Carrera Panamericana
Note: Painting "Coca-Cola" on the side of your car does not count as a racing modification.

Like Targa Florio, much of the race was contested at lung paralyzing altitudes (up to around 8,000 feet, any higher and the racers would have developed altitude sickness) in cars with shitty brakes on roads with no guardrails and flanked by thousands of spectators. As you would expect, terror ensued. A driver in the 1951 Carrera, Bobby Unser -- who happened to be 15 years old at the time -- recalled one instance:

"The next time I tried to pass him [Carlos Panini, who didn't have a driver's license and was not fit to drive anywhere], he bumped my right-front fender, which almost pushed me off a sheer cliff to the left that was some 500 to 800 feet down. My left front tire went over the edge, but fortunately I regained control of the car. Carlos over-corrected his car to the right, and went straight into a solid rock wall. The car exploded on impact like an egg hitting a sidewalk. I didn't know it at the time, but Carlos was killed instantly.
One of the rules of the race was if you stopped to help anyone, you were automatically disqualified."

Via Arts of Fairies

That's right, the rules explicitly denied the racers not only medical care but basic human compassion. No one was allowed to stop and help anyone else without the threat of being thrown out of the race.

One racer named Ricardo Ramirez, did actually stop to save the life of Panini's daughter who was acting as co-driver in the car that smashed into the wall in the excerpt above, and he was immediately disqualified.

Via Speed Hunters
Also, one dude collided with a vulture.

In the four years of the race, 27 competitors were killed. The race was only canceled after a horrific crash in a completely unrelated event called the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1955 in which 83 spectators died. After that, everyone realized that maybe there was a correlation between car accident deaths and car races.

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