For as long as man has been building motorized vehicles, there’s been competitive motorsport. And while the age-old tradition of pushing man and machine to their absolute limits is nothing new, some racers have opted to push the limits of competition itself, giving way to increasingly grueling events. Whether it’s the length or layout of a course, the type of terrain or conditions, or the pedigree and sheer level of competition, motorsport history has seen the inception of a number of increasingly-demanding events that, for one reason or another, manage to set themselves apart from other races.
From hill climbs to time endurance events and from rally raids to road-races, we’ve decided to shine a light on some of the most intense motorsport races that our planet has to offer. And while each of these elite events is taxing for different reasons, all of the entries on this list take the already-challenging pursuit of going wheel-to-wheel to new extremes. Attracting only the very best competitors in the business, these events are known the world over for their unforgiving nature and their immense level of difficulty.
What Separates These Races From The Rest?
A Daring Adventure
Racing a vehicle against a grid of competitors is far more challenging than most realize, and that’s under normal, ideal conditions. Once you start adding absurd lengths of time (or distances), perilous terrains, and breakneck speeds, the level of difficulty increases near-exponentially. And this is on top of having to defend, perform overtakes, and carry as much speed as possible through each corner — an act that in and of itself requires an incredible level of focus for prolonged periods of time. Without further adieu, let’s dive into the 13 toughest motor races.
The 24 Hours Of Le Mans
Going wheel-to-wheel with world-class drivers in cutting-edge machines for any prolonged period of time is insanely-difficult, but when you do it for a full 24-hours, it pushes both the driver and their machines to another level entirely. And this is very much the case with the iconic 24 Hours Of Le Mans. First held in 1923, this famous French race is the oldest active endurance motorsport competition on earth. Hosted at the 8.46 mile-long Circuit de la Sarthe, this intense endurance competition includes a large portion of night racing. Dating back almost a full century, the 24 Hour Of Le Mans has inspired a host of similar format 24-hour track-based endurance events.
First Year: 1923
2020 Location: Sarthe, France
The Baja 1000
Stretching back to 1967, the Baja 1000 is a wildly-demanding off-road race running down the Baja California Peninsula. Typically consisting of a full 1,000-mile course (depending on whether it’s a point-to-point or loop race). Representing the final round of a larger four-part annual race series, the Baja 1K sees competitors in a variety of different vehicle types tear down countless rough miles along the Pacific Coast. And while the course itself is plenty taxing on its own, the Baja 1000 is made all the crazier by the fact some local spectators have been known to plant booby traps in and around the course, making this a race that is literally out to get you.
First Year: 1967
2020 Location: Baja California, Mexico
Length: 840 Miles
The Classic TT
Inspired by the earlier days of the Isle Of Man Tourist Trophy, the Classic TT is a modern event where riders take to the Snaefell course on vintage race bikes. And while it’s true these retro racers don’t offer the same hair-raising 200mph+ speeds as the Superbike TT, it nonetheless adds a level of difficulty due to the fact riders have to compete on antiquated machines. That means navigating the unforgiving 37.37-mile course using dual rear shock setups, conventional telescopic forks, drum brakes, and dated frames. On top of serving as some good old fashioned two-wheeled competition. the Classic TT also helps to preserve the rich history of the island course.
First Year: 2013
2020 Location: Isle of Man
Length: 150.92 Miles
The Cannonball Run
While this is technically an unofficial race unlike the rest of the items on this list, it’s nonetheless extremely-closely regulated (though unsanctioned) and is considered to be tremendously prestigious amongst a certain sect of the car community. In a nutshell, the Cannonball run consists of drivers, usually in teams of two or three, trying to set the fastest possible time between New York and Los Angeles, all on public roads. Obviously this isn’t legal, and successful record attempts require equal parts, skill, luck, and preparation. In late 2019, the record was beaten for the first time since 2013 with a time of 27 and-a-half-hours which means an average speed (including stoppage time) of over 100mph. While it’s not what usually comes to mind when we hear the term “motorsport event”, it’s hard to argue that this is any less grueling than the other entries on this list.
First Year: 1975
2020 Location: America
Length: 2,995 Mile
The Dakar Rally
If you’re looking for a truly bonkers, all-consuming off-road motorsport event, look no further than the Dakar Rally. First held in 1978 and originally running from Paris to Dakar, this world-famous rally raid event is made up of 13 days of grueling competition across some of the harshest and least-forgiving terrain the world has to offer. Rugged conditions, extreme heat, and fierce competition are compounded by the thousands of miles this event is held over, making the Dakar by far one of the most intense and challenging motorsport races in the world. And while the Dakar does permit a wide variety of vehicle types to compete, the actual number of riders to cross the finish line some years falls to as low as 20%.
First Year: 1978
2020 Location: Saudi Arabia
Length: 4,900 Miles
The Erzberg Rodeo
Part of both the Red Bull Hard Enduro Series as well as the World Enduro Super Series, the Erzberg Rodeo is an insane, four-day motocross and dual-sport event held at an open-pit mine in Austria known as the “Iron Giant.” Each year the race attracts around 2,000 amateur and professional entrants, all pushing themselves and their machines in a bid to be crowned that year’s champion. The sheer level of difficulty presented by the course’s crazy-steep hill climbs and rock-crawl stages leave little doubt as to how or why this grueling two-wheeled event has risen in popularity in recent years.
First Year: 1995
2020 Location: Eisenerz, Austria
Length: 21.78 Miles
The Isle of Man Tourist Trophy
Quite possibly the most famous motorcycle/superbike race on earth, the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy dates back to 1907 and sees world-class riders compete on a 37.37-mile circuit comprised of (closed) public roads — complete with lamp-posts, brick walls, and other immovable objects – on a small island in the Irish sea. Removed from the Grand Prix calendar due to the immense risk involved, to date well-over 250 riders have lost their lives on the Mountain Course. With average speeds now clocking over 135mph and with absolutely zero margin for error, it’s not hard to see why the TT is considered by many to be the last great motorsport event in the world.
First Year: 1907
2020 Location: Isle of Man
Length: 224.22 Miles (Superbike TT)
King Of The Hammers
One of the newer events on this list, having been founded in 2007, King Of The Hammers is an intense off-road race held each year on Means Dry Lake in Johnson Valley, California. Though it started as a single race, the event is now made up of five separate competitions. Tens of thousands of fans flock to “Hammertown” every year to see the more-than-400 teams try their luck at the unique event which combines rock racing, sand crawling, and desert running into a single competition. Racing in what are referred to as “Ultra 4” vehicles, competitors line up two-at-a-time before setting off on the 165-mile course — which is made all the more difficult by the fact it must be completed in under 14 hours.
First Year: 2007
2020 Location: Johnson Valley, California
Length: 165 Miles
The Macau Grand Prix
Like the TT or Pikes Peak, the Macau Grand Prix is a professional motorsport event held on a 3.8-mile circuit made up of public roads and freeways in a dense urban area. As such, there’s no run-off space in corners like with regular race tracks, and racers careen past walls and barriers at breathtaking speeds for a total of 15 laps (which equals over 57-miles). Making the event all the more unique is the fact that both motorcycles and cars are permitted to compete (albeit separately). And while it’s not quite as deadly as some of the other entries on this list, the Macau GP is no stranger to fatalities. This is partially due to the fact that, unlike the TT, in which riders race the clock, the Macau GP actually uses a grid format where racers go wheel-to-wheel on the tight and technical impromptu circuit.
First Year: 1954
2020 Location: Macau
Length: 57.042 Miles
The Nurburgring 24
Inspired by the format first used at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Nurburgring 24 is a full-tilt auto endurance race held over a grueling 24 hour period. Dating back to 1970, this event sees many of the difficulties associated with the French event such as campaigning half of the event in darkness and cranks it up several notches by holding the race on Germany’s world-famous Nurburgring. This means drivers have to negotiate an unheard of, more than 15.5-mile track. And as if things couldn’t get any more extreme, the race sees as many as 200 separate race cars competing, resulting in ample opportunities for both overtaking and wrecking.
First Year: 1970
2020 Location: Nurburg
Pikes Peak International Hillclimb
First held in 1916, the Pikes Peak International Hillclimb is a unique American race held each year in Colorado on a 14,000-foot mountain. A plethora of vehicle types each takes their turn racing against the clock up the 156-turns that comprise the now fully-paved 12.42-mile course. This extreme event is made all the more noteworthy by the fact both racers and their machines must contend with less oxygen due to the altitude, not to mention the race takes place on a closed pubic road and therefore doesn’t have dedicated run-off areas. Despite its relatively humble roots, PPIHC now attracts major factory race efforts and is seen as one of, if not the most prestigious motorsport events in the US.
First Year: 1916
2020 Location: Colorado Rockies
Length: 12.42 Miles
The Rain Forest Challenge
It’s hard to think of a better off-road proving ground than a tropical rain forest, and that’s pretty much the idea behind the Rain Forest Challenge. The race was first held in 1997 in the jungles of Malaysia, but the popularity of the event has lead to half-a-dozen other countries hosting the competition. The Rain Forest Challenge takes the concept of competing on an untamed course and runs with it, with drivers having to navigate their way over boulders and logs, as well as through swamps, streams, and even rivers deep enough to fully submerge unlucky competitors. Needing to be winched out of the mud or jungle is a normal part of this tropical race.
First Year: 1997
2020 Location: N/A
The Safari Rally
Originally known as the East African Coronation Safari, before later being changed to the East African Safari Rally, and now known simply as the Safari Rally, this classic rally car event sees competitors trek over 600-miles across untamed African bushland, jungle, and desert. The general lack of infrastructure, coupled with the rough state of the terrain and the abundant presence of large animals that often find their way onto the course all make the aptly-named Safari Rally unlike any other motorsport event in existence. And, while this race was removed from the WRC calendar and doesn’t possess the same level of prestige that it once did, the race is set to return to the WRC schedule for the first time in over 15-years starting this year in 2020.
First Year: 1953
2020 Location: Africa
Length: Up To 3,100 Miles
The 8 Best Track-Only Cars You Can Buy
Has reading about the world’s most intense motorsport events got you itching to get behind the wheel of a bonafide race machine? Well, our handy guide to the best track-only cars you can buy is here to help you find just the right race-only ride.