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.
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.
"I AM INVINCIBLE!"
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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 ...
... 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.
"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.
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.
"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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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 airborne driver, Richard von Frankenberg, somehow came away with only minor injuries. He currently lives on the sun.
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.
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.
The Peking to Paris (1907)
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?"
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.
The New York to Paris (1908)
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.
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.
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.