As the old aphorism goes, one of the first things that people sought to do after the first car was built was to make another and see which one was faster. Human beings are hardwired to compete, and the invention of the automobile only intensified that urge. As this invention spread across the globe, different cultures put their own spin on auto racing and made it their own.
Much like how local cuisine varies from region to region, the flavor of local motorsports can differ tremendously even within the borders of a single country. Most of the entries on this list are the result of historical factors; every now and then, the right mix of abundant machinery, smart and ambitious groups of would-be racers, and plenty of space can all come together to create some of the most bizarre motorized spectacles anywhere on Earth. Challenges can come from racing against one another, or against the clock, or maybe even against nature.
On this list, you’ll find everything from lawnmower races set up by a couple of dudes from small-town Iowa to big-rig racing organized by the world’s largest motorsports governing body to off-road rallies that span the breadth of entire continents. Some of these events are set up for charity, some for sport, and some just for the hell of it. Whatever the case, this list proves that human beings can and will race whatever is put in front of them, regardless of provenance.
25 Blind-Man Car Rally
This event has been hosted in over 20 Indian cities since its inception in 2006 and is unique for the challenges it imposes on both drivers and navigators. Drivers are visually impaired and must guide their pilot using a guidebook written in braille.
Much like professional rally co-drivers, navigators don’t use their sight to verify whether or not the route they've taken is correct and instead use their other senses to determine where and how the car is orientated.
As this is an event oriented toward amateurs, the cars used are completely quotidian; don’t expect gravel-spitting, wide-body hatchbacks here. Though the routes traveled are fairly short (anywhere between 18 to 25 miles) and speeds are extremely low (especially compared to other entries on this list), the difficulty doesn’t come from wrangling an unruly beast around a circuit but rather being able to communicate effectively in an extremely dense urban landscape without relying on senses that so many of us take for granted.
24 Lawnmower Racing
Lawnmower racing got its start in 1968 in West Sussex in the United Kingdom. A group of young English men was angered by the prohibitive costs of getting into even the most basic levels of amateur motorsport and sought to find a cheaper way of racing one another. The sport later found its way to the United States and quickly became popular in the Southern states of North Carolina, Missouri, and New Mexico. Depending on the area in which the competition is being held, few modifications are made to the lawnmower, with most of them being done in the name of safety. The cutting blades are removed, and engine covers are sometimes welded shut to prevent explosive engine failures from injuring the driver.
23 Pig-N-Ford Racing
A staple of the Tillamook County Fair in Tillamook County, Oregon, Pig-N-Ford racing is a bizarre event even among the other entries on this list, with its own list of byzantine procedures. At the firing of a starter pistol, drivers must start a Ford Model T from the early 1900s with a hand crank, then grab and lift a 20-pound live pig from a bin on the side of the circuits front straight before completing a lap, at which point they take the pig out and grab another. Of course, all of this must be done without the animal escaping from the vehicle. The first person to complete three laps with three different porcine passengers is the winner. Newcomers to the sport are rare, as cars are based down from generation to generation living in the town.
22 School-Bus Racing
The yellow school bus is a distinctive slice of Americana. It's a ubiquitous sight on both roads and pop culture, performing its essential duty of ferrying children to and from school with nary a complaint. In fact, yellow school buses are so common that few think of what happens to these humble machines after they’ve hit their expiry date. In a move that could almost be called environmentally friendly, a few industrious residents in the town of Bithlo, Florida decided to recycle their heavily used buses and give them a second shot at life (though I'm sure the more cynical of you will call it going down in a blaze of glory). Like other entries on this list, school-bus racing found its niche by being both cheap and relatively safe while also offering a huge dose of adrenaline for spectators and drivers alike. The buses can be bought for less than $5,000 at auction, and their sheer mass makes it hard for drivers to injure themselves, even without having to invest in as much expensive safety equipment necessary in smaller and lighter cars.
21 Dajiban Racing
Japan is home to a wide variety of automotive oddities, but this one makes for a fascinating story. A very recent addition to the pantheon of weird motorsports, Dajiban racing reportedly only started in 2015 after Japanese motorcycle racers had the bright idea to have friendly competitions in the commercial vehicles that they used to transport their 2-wheeled machinery and all their associated gear.
The name of the sport refers to the English pronunciation of “Dodge Van.”
The vans aren’t highly modified monsters either, as the sport sits at the budget grassroots level; common and relatively cheap upgrades include external oil coolers for long circuit sessions, along with lighter wheels, sticky tires, and lowered suspensions. As you’d expect from the birthplace of drifting, competitors will also take the time to relax from furious wheel-to-wheel combat and slide their V8-powered behemoths around tracks for maximum style points.
20 Stadium Super-Truck Racing
The brainchild of former NASCAR driver Robby Gordon, the Stadium Super Trucks series is home to some of the most dramatic, awe-inspiring 4-wheeled action you’ll ever see. The formula is simple: 600 horsepower V8s mated to trucks with pillow-soft suspensions racing inches apart on world-famous tracks that have been accessorized with massive jumps.
Competitors will pass each other on the left, on the right, and even jump over each other.
Crashes happen often and with great unpredictability, as the trucks have an extremely high center of gravity, suspension geometry, and tires ill-suited to grippy tarmac surfaces. Altogether, watching world-class drivers wrestle hard-to-handle machines around a twisty circuit makes for a live-action, full-size version of how you used to play with Hot Wheels cars.
19 Figure-Eight Train Racing
The name of this entry is descriptive by itself—train car racing entails several “trains” of two to three cars chained going wheel-to-wheel in a uniquely American motorized brawl that combines elements from demolition derbies and stock car racing, served alongside a whole heaping of absolute lunacy and complete disregard for one’s well-being. The rules are straightforward. A designated pull car must have an engine that functions, but the car’s brakes must be disabled. Meanwhile, the follow car, chained behind the pull car, can’t have a working engine and can't provide motorized thrust in any way. However, it does have to have a working set of brakes. The difficulty comes from having the drivers in each car anticipate and match each other’s inputs in such a way that prevents the entire train from spinning out of control or, worse yet, being T-boned by another automotive train.
18 Super-Truck Racing
We’ll take a break from America’s contributions to oddball motorsports and take a jaunt across the Atlantic. Unlike some of the previous entries on this list, the European Truck Racing Championship is a serious, professional effort run by the FIA, otherwise known as the governing body behind Europe’s most prestigious racing series such as Formula 1 and the World Rally Championship.
What sets the Truck Racing Championship from its stablemates is the sheer size and power of the vehicles used.
Entries from Volvo, MAN, Freightliner, and Scania litter the starting grid, producing up to 1,200 horsepower and more than 4,000 pound-feet of torque from turbo-diesel engines that can displace a maximum of 13 liters. Along with racing slicks and trick transmissions, these surprisingly agile 11,000-pound titans can accelerate to 60 miles per hour in 5 seconds flat.
17 24 Hours of LeMons
No other racing series on this list displays its disregard for the conventional rules of motorsports so blatantly. The 24 Hours of Lemons is a 24-hour endurance race with a spending cap of $500 for the purchase and modification of a car, which must meet some basic safety criteria. Other than that, the event is all about fun. Road-worn Mazda Miatas done up as vintage fighter planes will do battle with rusted Ford Focuses, vintage Fiats, tired-looking stretch limousines, and parodies of famous Hill Climb race cars. In short, the paddock is chock-full of good-humored weirdos with a deep knowledge of racing history. The 2014 race at the Thunderhill Raceway circuit in California holds the Guinness World Record for most participants in a car race, with 216 racers being on track at the same time.
16 Formula Offroad
Formula Off-Road traces its roots to the northern climes of Iceland in the 1960s and is a result of the harsh winter conditions in the country.
It began when emergency services, seeking additional funding, showed off the all-terrain capabilities of their response vehicles to the public.
The event grew in size and formed connections with local car clubs, and soon, the vehicles being entered in the race stopped carrying any real resemblance to the mildly modified rescue trucks seen before. This development led to the formation of the “Modified Class” in 1985, which places tighter restrictions on how much the vehicle can diverge from its original platform. In the higher tier “Unlimited Class,” competitors pilot V8-powered buggies equipped with nitrous oxide and massive paddled tires. Drivers don’t compete against each other but against the course itself—scores are given based on the distance traveled over the highly demanding terrain with point deductions being given based on backing up or colliding with course markers.
15 Swamp Buggy Races
Another contribution to the list from Florida, swamp buggy racing is a direct result of the muddy terrain of the Everglades. Built using an eclectic mix of scavenged airplane components and tractor parts, original swamp buggies were essential for everyday life in Florida’s swamplands. Enormous balloon tires allowed them to float well above the murky, crocodile-infested waters, while their torque-rich motors allowed them to brute-force their way through the thick murk. Their all-terrain capabilities made them popular with hunters, as they could reach almost anywhere with ample space for a gun rack and any passengers. In modern times, swamp buggies are primarily built for racing and have more in common with a top-fuel dragster than the humble family runabouts of the 1940s. Tires are tall but extremely narrow, allowing them to slice through the mud with a minimum drag penalty, while drivers are ensconced in aerodynamic, torpedo-shaped cockpits.
14 The King of Hammers
Unlike some of the other events here that stand out by virtue of unusual machinery and procedures (or both), the King of Hammers is notably unusual for its enormous rate of attrition.
Held every February in the Means Dry Lake, California, the competition combines the highly demanding disciplines of rock crawling and high-speed desert racing in a brutal 165-mile route that must be completed in under 14 hours.
The demands placed on competitors are substantial, so much so that an average of only 45 percent of drivers will see the finish line. What began as a humble affair involving 12 teams driving without an audience in 2007 blossomed into a massive off-road spectacle hosting more than 400 entrants and 30,000 spectators, along with a substantial group of big-name sponsors, including Dodge and Nitto tires. Restrictions for participants tend to be lax: dirt bikes and ATVs share the paddock with purpose-built Hemi-powered rock crawlers.
13 Superkart Racing
When one thinks of the words “go-kart,” the mind conjures images of awkward-looking vehicles not far removed from ride-on lawnmowers wobbling around an indoor track, watched over by a bored-looking, pimple-faced teenage marshal. Super karts are as far removed from their pedestrian cousins as a pug is from an arctic wolf. At the highest level of competition, these karts use 250cc two-stroke engines connected to six-speed sequential transmissions. With a power-to-weight ratio of 440 horsepower per ton and downforce-producing aerodynamic addenda, these diminutive racers pack an enormous wallop, putting up performance figures that easily shame the world’s fastest road-legal supercars. Case in point—the time of Australian Superkart racer Sam Zavaglia of 1:23.63 around the highly technical Laguna Seca circuit in 2011. Translation? A $20,000 competition vehicle with less than 100 horsepower that’s more than 5 seconds per lap faster than Mclaren’s $1.15 million P1 hybrid hypercar.
12 The Plymouth-Banjul Challenge
The Banjul Challenge, first started in 2002, pits competitors against the clock on a route that takes them from Plymouth, England, to the eponymous city of Banjul in the Gambia. On the way, drivers must pilot their cheap cars (there are no hard and fast rules, but generally, the car should cost more than the equivalent of $1,000 USD) across 3,700 miles of desolate deserts and barren coastlines that take them on a trip down the northwestern tip of the African continent. It’s all for a good cause, too—: participants don’t pay an entry fee but do have to contribute £800 to a charity of their choice.
11 Folk Racing
Another entry that subscribes to the “keep racing cheap” school of thought, folkracing is a grassroots motorsport popular in Finland, Denmark, and Sweden. At its core, it’s rallycross for amateurs, with six cars jostling for position around a twisty dirt course that rarely permit speeds to exceed 50 mph. The events enjoy a very communal atmosphere, as drivers from all ages and experience levels are encouraged to participate, from 15-year-old teens without licenses to middle-aged weekend warriors, all the way to retirees well into their seventies. To keep the competition somewhat balanced, drivers are separated into different heats based on expertise. Another essential component of the friendly vibe is the fact that cars are often swapped by participants, as anyone can place a fixed bid of $1,400 on any given vehicle. Refusal to sell a car that’s been bid on is enough to have one’s racing license revoked, also discouraging drivers from upgrading their machines.
10 Red Bull Alpenbrevet
The narrow, twisting roads that run through the Alps are perfect for any adrenaline-seeking rider looking for a fix, you might say. What makes this event so weird?
Well, the race, organized by the Austrian wing of energy drink syndicate Red Bull, forces pilots to climb around 120 kilometers of steep mountain roads on scooters that can displace no more than 50 ccs.
This certainly isn’t MotoGP, and competitors don’t act like it—machines are modified with a wide variety of laughter-inducing custom options, while riders get in on the act by dressing up in costumes ranging from ballerina tutus to business suits to fighter pilot fatigues. Like some of the entries on this list, the race isn’t actually about THE race but rather how much fun you have getting to the finish line.
9 Top Fuel Motorcycle Dirt Drag Racing
This mouthful of an entry is a surefire winner for any adrenaline junkie tired of punching grizzly bears or bungee jumping into active volcanoes. In fact, it seems that every word that makes up the title of this sport was chosen to elicit a response of “AWESOME!” from the legions of dudebros watching. Superbikes modified with lightly intimidating parts from agricultural equipment? Check. Copious amounts of nitrous oxide? Check. Dirt rooster tails hundreds of feet long? Check. All these components come together to create a heady melange of high-speed Mad Max antics and quasi-professional racing action. With power outputs occasionally reaching upwards of 1,000 horsepower, these motorcycles can cover 500 feet in just over 4 seconds, reaching speeds of around 150 miles per hour in the process. All this takes place on surfaces that are far worse terms with the word “grip” than asphalt.
8 Snowmobile Crossing
Snowmobiles are specialized tools meant to travel distances on ice and snow that most cars and trucks couldn’t dream of reaching in seriously cold climates. Even in those places, however, winter only lasts so long. What to do with these machines that are essentially useless for the remainder of the year?
Well, in July 1977, a few enterprising Wisconsinites got together to start the World Championship Snowmobile Watercross, an event that sought to determine who could skim over 300 feet of water in the shortest amount of time.
As this was the event’s infancy, few had the necessary experience or correct equipment to make the crossing. Those that did succeed added to the sport’s knowledge base. The snowmobiles aren’t heavily modified; most riders simply lighten the vehicle by removing as many nonessential components as possible. Technique is far more important—racers must keep as much weight as possible aft of the handlebars and onto the tracks, which propel the snowmobile forward over the water while also keeping the throttle wide open. Any loss in speed will result in a cold and embarrassing dip in the drink.
7 Board Track Racing
We’ll take a trip back in time to the 1910s and the 1920s and see one of the stranger and more dangerous motorsports in American racing history. Popularized by their low cost of construction and maintenance, board tracks were built exactly how their name implies—the course surface was made entirely from wooden planks, arranged in such a way to form a steeply banked oval. Driver deaths were common and came from an enormous variety of factors. Builders didn’t always create consistent bank angles, leading drivers to fly off the side of the course from entering a corner a fraction too fast. Racers could also be blinded or sliced from splinters and debris kicked up from the wooden surface. It also wasn’t uncommon for boards to lift from their mounting points and have competitors slam into them. Spectator deaths were also unfortunately prevalent, especially in motorcycle board racing events, as they would sit and spectate at the tops of the so-called “motordromes” and could be hit by any rider who had a momentary loss of control.
6 The Rickshaw Challenge
An odd brew of lighthearted road tripping and hard-nosed, against-the-clock action, with a dash of survivalist experience sprinkled on top, the Rickshaw Challenge is an event held 5 times per year by the Travel Scientists, a travel and adventure organizer. The event first took place in 2006 and forces participants to cover distances often in excess of 550 miles on what's essentially a covered scooter that tops out at less than 40 miles per hour. Interestingly, event planners are surprisingly candid about the risks that come with taking part in the undertaking. Though racers are issued road maps, travel guides, and cell phones, riders still have to adapt to unpredictable weather patterns and areas that are completely disconnected from the rest of the world, all without being able to rely on a rescue service if things do go awry.
5 Reliant Robin Racing
The Reliant Robin is a 3-wheeled British oddball best known for its flimsy fiberglass construction and propensity for tipping over, a trait that was covered in exhaustive detail during an infamous segment on Top Gear. It follows then that the most logical thing to do with these trikes is to get a whole bunch of them, gather a group of pilots lacking both the fear response and any shreds of sanity, and put them together. The result is a no-holds-barred, full-contact motorized cage match that gives audiences the impression that all drivers are trying as hard as possible to kill both themselves and anyone surrounding them. However hilarious the ensuing chaos is, don’t expect it to become the next big thing in racing. The sport is fairly regional, contained to a few muddy oval tracks in Norfolk, United Kingdom.
4 Trailer Racing
Much like train car racing, much of the humor in this event comes from watching the carnage of what are essentially enormous flails smashing into each other at not-so-high velocities. Unlike the aforementioned event, however, drivers don’t have to worry about any human passengers being dragged behind them.
Popular in the Midwest, trailer racing does actually have a few rules that keep participants from being reduced to flesh-colored paste.
Cars, usually big old American boats along the lines of GM B-bodies and rusted pickups from the late eighties and early nineties, are reinforced with steel beams across the doors, have all windows, along with any flammable material, both inside the car and in the trailer, removed.
3 The Mongol Rally
Judged purely in terms of race distance, the Mongol Rally is easily the most daunting entry on this list. The route traveled by the race boggles the mind—London, England to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia—a distance of almost 10,000 miles. In plain English? Participants cover one-third of the Earth’s circumference and see an enormous variety of natural vistas and urban landscapes, from rolling desert dunes to brutalist Soviet architecture. The best part? All of this must be done in cars that race organizers cheerfully describe as “small and sh*t.” Engine size is capped at 1 liter, and vehicles should ideally be bought for under $300. The Adventurists, the UK-based race planners/sadists, are keen to point out that purchasing an unreliable, tiny car is to ensure that participants have to interact with locals in the event of a breakdown.
2 The California Melee
The clichéd mental image of a classic car rally in California entails billionaires sipping $500 Cabernet Sauvignons in a winery ensconced by verdant, rolling hills before packing up their bespoke leather luggage and leaving in a vintage Alfa Romeo that last saw action before the Second World War. Well, the California Melee offers all of that, minus the fancy wine and any prestigious methods of travel. The 3-day route takes drivers through California’s bucolic wine-producing region in any car built before 1975, all for a fairly modest entry fee. Sure, accommodations might best be described as “seedy,” and the vehicles in the race are seldom, if ever, on speaking terms with the words “somewhat reliable,” but the event allows friends to bond over both car trouble and the beautiful vistas on offer.
1 Australian Postie Bike Grand Prix
A uniquely Australian phenomenon, the Australian Postie Bike Grand Prix places competitors on identical Honda CT110 motorcycles, better known as the bike used by the country’s postal service. Power figures aren’t particularly impressive—the bike puts out less than 8 horsepower, courtesy of a 105 cc air-cooled 4-stroke engine. The event found its start in 2013 and offers tremendously close racing action on closed urban circuits. The event is another fairly regional occurrence, however—any would-be spectators would have to travel to the city of Cessnock in the New South Wales region of Australia. This is proof that close racing can happen with any sort of machinery, no matter how boring—no one needs a Suzuki Hayabusa or a Ducati Panigale to have some nice on-track battles.