The sun goes down. The lights come up. The smell of high octane fuel fills the air and the thunder of high-powered engines shakes the world around you. The most intoxicating sensation for any motor man is the way the world changes on race day. In part one of this mini history lesson, we highlighted the road races that helped define the world of motorsports. What follows are the final five historic motor races that forged man and machine into one, marking the pinnacle of precision driving events. Without further ado, we give you the final five most influential races in history.
The Carrera Panamericana 1950-1954
You can drive 2,096 miles. Not a short trip by any means, but doable. Now, let’s give you a harsh climate, poor road conditions, and say you’re racing. Not only that, but it’s the 1950s. Your car is of low standards, when compared to those of today, and the tires simply can’t handle the abuse.
In 1950, as part of a bid to celebrate completion of the new Pan-American Highway, the Mexican government hosted the first Carrera Panamericana. This six-day race traveled from Ciudad Juarez near the American border town of El Paso, south to Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, Chiapas on the Mexico-Guatemala border. Competitors traveled through dramatic temperature and elevation changes, across grueling roads, and even through wild jungle. The race earned a dangerous and bloody reputation, with drivers, spectators, and crew members dying over the years in a variety of tragic accidents. Cancelled in 1955 for safety concerns (and because by that point we’re pretty sure it successfully raised awareness about the new road), it was resurrected in 1988 by enthusiasts. Still running today—and still one of the more dangerous historic motor races on Earth—it has effectively given us perspective on the true meaning of endurance.
The Mille Miglia 1927-1957
“In my opinion, the Mille Miglia was an epoch-making event, which told a wonderful story. The Mille Miglia created our cars and the Italian automobile industry.” -Enzo Ferrari
The Mille Miglia was a cursed event. Notoriously dangerous, this 1,000-mile endurance race from Brescia to Rome and back, ran along open roads through northern Italy. While the event spanned over 30 years, only 24 races took place on account of WWII and a deadly accident in 1938. Unfortunately, that bloody luck continued and, in 1957, racer Alfonso de Portago’s tire blew on his Ferrari, causing an accident that killed him and nine spectators—five of whom were children.
Despite its tragic and dangerous reputation, many spectators and participants felt that this was one of the greatest Italian racing events of all time. (That includes Enzo Ferrari—yes, that Ferrari.) Without this race, it’s safe to say that fine Italian automobiles, including Ferrari, would not be what they are today.
The last three historic motor races on this list are still active events that make up what is often referred to as the Triple Crown of Motorsport.
Monaco Grand Prix 1929-present
Perhaps the most famous of all Grand Prix, the Monaco Grand Prix was established in 1929 by Antony Noghès. Begun as an invitation-only event, it grew in popularity becoming part of the Formula One World Championship in 1950. This historic race runs through the tiny one-square-mile nation of Monaco, putting F1 cars smack in the middle of the most densely populated country in the world.
The original layout from the race’s origins is the same today—the Circuit de Monaco. The roads are extremely tight, making it nearly impossible to overtake another driver. That challenge, combined with its demanding changes in elevation, twisty curves, and a dark tunnel section require careful skill and often a slower speed than other races. After Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso criticized the course this year as “boring,” the BBC explained, “Teams do not want to do more than one pit stop because it means dropping behind other, slower cars, which they can then not overtake no matter how much faster they are.” This fact pushes the racers and their teams to formulate the right tech and driving strategies in order to make fuel and tires last the length of the race.
Indianapolis 500 1911-present
If someone drives fast or arrives faster than you expected, you’re likely to say, “What is this? The Indy 500?” In American culture, the Indy 500 is synonymous with fast driving—and that association is warranted. Originally built as a private testing facility, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a way for manufacturers to showcase their vehicles’ speed and power, courting consumer interest from spectators in the process. As the focus shifted from small occasional races to one long big event, the stakes rose and interest peaked.
The Indy 500 is still considered one of the most grueling high-speed races of all time. It puts both the stamina and skills of the drivers up against the durability and performance of their own cars. The victor must take into consideration whether or not the bond they have with their car has what it takes to bring home the title of champion.
24 hours of Le Mans 1923-present
It’s easy to forget what separates a fast car from a race car. The vehicles driven during the 24 Hours of Le Mans will make the difference clear. Considered to be the world’s most well-known automobile race, Le Mans separates the cars that can simply drive fast from the cars that can last.
Established in 1923, this historic race is still going strong today. Cars and drivers must not only maintain speed, but also endure 24 hours of rigorous abuse across open roads without failure. For comparison, 2010’s race covered a distance of 3,360 miles. That’s six times the length of the Indy 500. Such extreme racing conditions have secured the prestige and longevity of what is, quite possibly, the most influential of historic motor races in the world.
You can say that there are other types of racing that have an undisputed influence over the world of modern motorsports and, to be fair, you’re probably right. There are aspects of every single race that help to develop the world of motorsports every day. These events, however, are responsible for laying the stepping stones. For showing us what it takes to survive the ultimate test.
Although, right now, somewhere in the world, some plucky driver and their car are shaping the way of the future. And someday, they too will be remembered as having competed in one of the world’s most historic motor races.