#3. AVUS Grand Prix (1937)
How's this for a radical change: Every driver in the 1937 AVUS Grand Prix was a world-class professional and they were competing on a designated and maintained track. At first glance, this race doesn't seem that bad -- that is, until you see the track.
Via Wikipedia Commons
The Nazis didn't have a thing for safety.
See that ridiculous banked curve there, with nothing to keep you from flying off the edge? They called that "The Wall of Death." In case it's not clear on the picture, there is no crash rail around the top of that curve. Get it wrong coming into that corner and you're going to be launched into the goddamn sun. And don't think that didn't actually happen at some point because it totally did.
The rest of the track was just two six mile-long straights joined with another hairpin bend that had the subtle advantage of not doubling as a ramp. And, for everyone reading this thinking, All that doesn't sound so bad, we want to assure you that it gets much, much worse: The organizers sanctioned the race as "Formula Libre" or Open Formula. In other words, they threw the rule book out the window and let the manufacturers enter ultra-high speed experimental death traps.
Via Wiki Commons
The entire vehicle is a crumple zone.
With absurdly powerful 700-horsepower engines and specially streamlined bodywork, the Mercedes team were able to produce a car capable of 240 MPH. And flight. No really, when Hermann Lang was testing his car at top speed the front wheels lifted clear off the ground. Lang regained control and still managed to win the race. During the first heat, another driver, Bernd Rosemeyer, was temporarily blinded when his car blew a cylinder and started spitting hot oil directly into his eyes. He still set a lap record, finished second and raced twice more that day.
#2. The Peking to Paris (1907)
Via Wiki Commons
In January 1907, a French Newspaper published this opportunity to the motorists of Europe:
"What needs to be proved today is that as long as a man has a car, he can do anything and go anywhere. Is there anyone who will undertake to travel this summer from Peking to Paris by automobile?"
Via Wiki Commons
What appears to be a intended as an inspirational idea rather than a real invitation, was taken as a direct challenge by five teams across Europe. They assembled in Peking (now Beijing) with four cars and some kind of three-wheeled contraption.
On June 10, 1907, they set off for Paris, with 15,000 kilometers of mostly uncharted wilderness between them. There's no way to stress this enough: There were no roads, at all, between Peking and European Russia. Whatever you are imagining, it was far worse. When the three-wheeler broke down in the Gobi Desert, the driver and mechanic, Auguste Pons and Octave Foucalt, were forced to trek for days through sandstorms and nothingness before they were miraculously rescued by nomads. The other racers had ditched them.
Oh, and keen students of history will probably already realize that the date of this race comes right on the heels of the Boxer Rebellion where, essentially, the entirety of Europe went to war with China and took some of their shit. It would be like driving through Iraq today in a car made of gold and covered in American flags. In fact, for the first few hundred miles, the cars were guarded by armed Marines on horseback, as though they were anticipating a rolling gun battle through the Chinese countryside.
If you're wondering how the horses kept up with the cars, just remember that this was the turn of the 20th century.
As dangerous as China clearly was, Siberia was significantly worse. Russia was coming out of a revolution and in the chaos, many prisoners that had been drafted into the military had just been released into the countryside and were attacking travelers.
It didn't get much better when the racers approached Europe, since various revolutionary groups were rumored to be using cars to spread anarchy and communism across the countryside. The Italian team were assumed revolutionaries and chased by the entire population of a village before being captured. They only escaped a lynching when the journalist traveling with them, who later wrote a book about the race, drew a loaded Mauser pistol and aimed it at the crowd.
That Italian team went on to win the race after 61 days, despite catching fire three times, falling through a bridge, detouring to St. Petersburg to attend a banquet and throwing away their foot brake near Omsk and driving to Paris with only the handbrake.
#1. The New York to Paris (1908)
Via Wiki Commons
The only thing more insane than a race across hostile continents in poorly made cars, is one that travels across hostile continents that are separated by entire oceans. Where the Peking to Paris was 15,000 kilometers total, the New York to Paris was more than 35,000 kilometers. Each of the six teams that started had a journalist on board relaying information back to the New York Times and Le Matin in France, their reports made the front page every day for months.
Library of Congress
The first step was to drive across America during an era when the only way to go from coast to coast was to take the railway. So that's what they did; the racers had their cars designated as official Union Pacific Trains and took the rails. From there they sailed from San Francisco to Alaska and then planned to drive across the frozen Bering Straight from North America to Asia. They intended to do this long before the concept of four-wheel drive and on tires that still had spokes like a bicycle.
Suffice to say, the part didn't happen, only the American team even attempted to drive it and they were eventually forced to use ships to cross the Pacific Ocean. By this stage, two of the six teams gave up on the race.
Somebody, somewhere, agreed to drive across that.
The four remaining cars then drove across China and Siberia on roughly the same route as the Paris to Peking (the one with no roads and a constant threat of banditry). The difference was that these teams did it in the middle of winter. Siberian winter. They assumed the benefit would be that the Siberian rivers would be frozen and easily navigated, but with an early spring those rivers quickly turned into raging torrents of death.
After 169 days, the German team entered Paris followed four days later by the Americans. The Germans, however, had gone part of the way by train and didn't even take a shot at driving across the Pacific. They were penalized 30 days for that, giving the victory to the Americans. And what was the American team's reward for driving across the world? They got to party with President Teddy Roosevelt. And a trophy or something.
Library of Congress
Roosevelt noted that the men's accomplishment was "mildly impressive," making it the highest praise received by a human being.
See more of Tony Pilgram's work at Bad Metaphors.
For more automobile insanity, check out 7 Real Car Chases Way Crazier Than Anything in the Movies and 8 Awesome Cars They Won't Let You Buy.