Axon's Automotive Anorak: The four weirdest motorsport series you’ve never seen
Following its original American television debut in September 1968, the popular Hanna-Barbera comic show Wacky Races first aired on our British TV screens 50 years ago in 1969.
The animated TV show featured 11 distinctive ‘cars’ racing against each other, with their zany drivers, team-mates and pets all competing for the title of the ‘World’s Wackiest racer’.
Over just 17 episodes (it felt like more), memorably characters such as Penelope Pitstop, Peter Perfect, Professor Pat Pending,
Red Max, plus of course everyone’s favourite baddie, Dick Dastardly and his sniggering sidekick dog Muttley, tackled various wild races behind the wheels of their crazy cars, including the Compact Pussycat, the Turbo Terrific, the Crimson Haybailer and Dastardly’s Mean Machine.
As regular Festival of Speed visitors will know, each of these racing machines, plus all of the remaining Wacky Races vehicles not mentioned, as well as their driver and passenger characters, have been brought to life by Goodwood for a number of years now. Despite the actual life-size drivable cars created by Goodwood, the wondrous world of the Wacky Races remains the work of complete fantasy, of course.
Other bizarre and equally wacky forms of motor sport do actually exist in reality, however, from truck racing the world over, to ice racing in Scandinavia in the 1950s (and more recently in the French Alps), plus the wondrously tongue-in-cheek 24 Hours of LeMons for clapped-out ‘ordinary’ cars in the USA.
A particularly strange form of motor sport is front-wheel-drive (FWD) racing in Brittany, where the rear-end of FWD cars are cut-off and dispensed with from the B-pillar backwards, enabling just the front half of the car to race, with shopping trolley wheels welded on behind the front seats to keep the car mobile. Chopped-up Renault 4s, Citroen Visas and Peugeot 205s are particular weapons of choice for this unusual form of motor racing.
Joining these unexpected motor sport disciplines are a further quartet of lesser-known ‘alternative’ motor racing forms, both old and new, that rarely merit a mention and are now mostly forgotten. Enjoy…
DAF Reverse Racing
‘Forwards to go forwards; back to go back.’ This was the simplistic but appropriate advertising slogan once used by the Dutch passenger car maker DAF, long before it sold out to Volvo and just built trucks.
From 1959 until the mid-1970s, all of DAF’s car production was notable for its use of an innovative belt-driven continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), known at Variomatic. Though DAF’s cars were all small, slow and underpowered, the models were capable of travelling at the same top speed in both forward and reverse ‘gears’, making DAF cars as fast going backwards as they could travel going forwards!
In other words, a DAF Variomatic’s performance was exactly the same in reverse as it was when moving forward, enabling the cars to travel at maximum speeds of up to 80 mph! Inevitably, it was only a matter of time before the Dutch decided to take battered and unloved old DAFs (which were cheap and in abundant supply at the time) racing, but in reverse!
At low speeds, driving the used DAFs in reverse proved to be quite straightforward. This all changed though when the throttle was buried, DAFs travelling as fast as possible backwards around a racetrack, wheel-to-wheel with a bunch of equally fast DAFs. It all got rather crazy, with the racers relying on their mirrors and over-the-shoulder through the rear window to see where they were going, the steering done exclusively with the back of the car.
Racing initially at the Dutch Zandvoort circuit, the results were unmitigated chaos, thanks to the car’s inherent instability and limited vision, crashes happening left and right, even at low speeds. The high attrition rate of DAF cars being destroyed by reverse racing, with remaining models becoming increasingly scarce and declined from sale to would-be reverse racers saw this odd Dutch motor sport phenomenon cease in the late 1980s.
If ever you’ve driven in France, at some point you will have encountered (and probably got stuck behind) a VSP (Voiture Sans Permis), a two-seater microcar, commonly powered by a small-capacity diesel engine, and legally speed limited not to exceed around 28mph. As the name suggests, in France (and most other European countries) these VSP’s can be driven without a driving licence, from the age of 14 upwards.
Ahead of the recent wave of (almost) sophisticated VSPs, made by Aixam, Ligier and others, earlier micros from the 1970s and 80s were powered by a tiny 49cc engine, usually sourced from a moped. In the 1990s, a truly bizarre new form of motor racing began in a corner of Brittany, when a bunch of ‘enthusiasts’ got together to start racing this early 49cc VSPs around fields, the lightweight but flimsy GRP-bodied cars fitted with an outer metal cage to protect the driver and help prevent the inevitable roll-overs. This niche racing series still continues today across much of France!
As any viewer of older Clarkson-era Top Gear TV programmes will know, touring caravans are often the subject of ridicule and destruction. Banger racing with old cars towing caravans has become a popular spectacle in the UK in recent years, much to the dismay of numerous caravanning fans.
Ahead of such abuse, however, in the 1950s and 60s caravan rallies, organised by enthusiast groups such as the Caravan Club, were a popular past time, pitting a caravan-towing driver’s skill against the clock, manoeuvering a car and caravan combo through cones, reversing into tight spaces, and so on.
By the 1970s, actual ‘serious’ motor racing, with a caravan literally in tow, fleetingly became a novelty. As per the short video below, for example, in 1974 a professional caravan race was staged at Silverstone, with top drivers peddling their Ford Escorts, Capris et al at racing speeds, with caravans hanging precariously from each competition car's tow-bars.
Reliant Three-Wheeler Banger Racing
Banger racing in a range of three-wheeled Reliant models, including the infamous Robin, as well as its Regal and Rialto siblings, was inevitably going to happen sooner or later, with dramatic and sometimes hilarious consequences. Once the start flag has been dropped, the GRP Reliants roll over left, right and centre. Need I say more, when this video will tell you all you need to know… And you thought Dick Dastardly was wacky hey!