Although the Burt Reynolds movie-inspired Cannonball 2000 may place first in the self-indulgent department — the five-day, five-city tour across Europe is “drenched in luxury with no expense spared” and a “carnival atmosphere,” minus, of course, a schizophrenic Dom DeLuise donning a satin cape and mask — and does boast its fair share of costumed competitors, 2012’s top “motoring lifestyle event” is pretty mild — and dare we say, classy and decidedly less dangerous — when you think about some of the other long-distance road races and charity-supporting endurance rallies out there.
Below, we’ve rounded up six extreme and unusual road rallies and track races from around the globe, ranging from charity-supporting banger events to a gleefully low-budget take on France’s 24 Heures du Mans to a 10,000-mile trek where participants are asked to “imagine you’re lost in a massive desert, hundreds of miles from civilization, driving a car your granny would be embarrassed by.” Eh, we think we’ll pass.
Is there an unusual race or rally we left out? Tell us about in the comments section, especially if you participated.
Does driving a $500 beater around a racetrack for an entire weekend sound more appealing than gallivanting across Europe in a fancy vintage sports car for five champagne-drenched days? Well then, meet the 24 Hours of LeMons (get it?), an aggressively, borderline annoyingly cheeky American take on France’s iconic endurance race held outside of the city of Le Mans. What started out as a singular event held at California’s Altamont Motorsports Park, this self-described “breeding ground for morons” has morphed into a series of nationwide events.
Although most 24 Hours of LeMons races don’t actually last a full 24 hours (more like 14.5 with breaks at night for “eating, sleeping and Band-Aid application”), participating vehicles must truly be lemons and entrants are limited to spending $500 to purchase, modify and/or track-prep their cars for the race. Clarify the event organizers: “Cars that ‘should be’ worth $500 don't count; cars that "were worth $500" before you spent another $2000 to fix them don't count; cars you've owned for 20 years and spent more than $500 on during that time don't count; ‘it would have been worth $500 if it didn't already have a cage’ doesn't count. Five hundred dollars means five hundred frickin' dollars.” (Required safety equipment along with brakes and tires are exempt from the $500 limit).
24 Hours of LeMons races are also famous for their ridiculous rules and humiliating black flag penalty punishments (i.e. the “Why Am I Upside Down? Rule” and the “Lousy Driving Rule”). However, punishment for some less serious violations can be avoided by making a tax-deductible donation to the event’s chosen charity. Cash prizes, some worth up to $1,500, are paid out to the winners in nickels. Yes, nickels.
Oh you know, just another one of those leisurely jaunts from the England to Mongolia. One of several truly-not-for-everyone adventure rallies organized by the Adventurists — rickshaw expedition across Indonesia, anyone? — the Mongol Rally, as described, terminates in the Mongolian city of Ulan Bator. Unlike typical “banger rallies” that place a cap on a participating vehicle’s worth, the humanitarian-minded Mongol Rally is open to all vehicles registered after 2004 provided that their engine displacement is less than 1,200 cc (oddball vehicles such as ambulances, taxis and hearses are also permitted as are motorbikes with an engine displacement of less than 125 cc). Participating teams, most composed of two to four people, are also required to raise £1,000 ($1,624.90 today) for charity in addition to paying an entry fee. A total of 297 teams participated in the 2012 Mongol Rally.
But back to the whole England-to-Mongolia bit. Teams begin the journey either in the U.K. or in another Western European country before making their way to the Czech Republic for a raucous kickoff party. From there, well, it’s up to each team on how to proceed along the event’s “un-route.” Explains the Adventurists website: “Some teams plummet south through Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan, others rise up north through the Arctic Circle, still others surge straight through Central Asia and countries that don’t even legally exist.” Although it varies by “un-route” taken, most teams complete the trek within three to four weeks after having driven 8,000 to 10,000 miles. If a team happens to finish the drive and make it to Ulan Bator, their car is auctioned off or donated.
And on the topic of making it to Mongolia, the Adventurists website makes it abundantly clear that the Mongol Rally is a “genuinely dangerous thing to do.” Reads the “WARNING” section: “Your chances of being seriously injured or dying as a result of taking part are high. Individuals who have taken part in previous Adventurists adventures have been permanently disfigured, seriously disabled or lost their life.” True story.
It may seem torturous to embark on a scenic three-day trek through Napa, Mendocino and Sonoma Counties without pulling over for a pit stop at a winery or spa, but the participants of the California Melee wouldn’t have it any other way. Unlike the fancy-schmancy California Mille, an annual endurance race in which the handpicked vehicles must be historic designs from 1957 or earlier (the final year of Italy’s famed Mille Miglia race), the California Melee is open to sports and touring cars in all conditions provided that they’re pre-1975.
And although the California Melee winds through the same stunning Northern California scenery as its upscale counterpart that kicks off at San Francisco’s swanky Fairmont Hotel, the organizers “understand the cost of building and running old cars, so we have always believed that an event shouldn't cost more than a set of used tires, or maybe a homemade wiring harness.”
So what does that translate to in terms of the actual experience? The California Melee home page sums it up best: “Sure, chances are you won't see pre-war Alfas, or enjoy a catered lunch at a winery, but you will have the thrill of running with oil burning E-types, and enjoy a sleepless night at a seedy motel. Remember what we lack in pedigreed machinery and gourmet cuisine we make up for in pure grass roots enthusiasm and fun.”
Roof of the World Rally
Ever get the urge to drive from London to Tajikistan? Yeah, neither have we. But some brave motorists out there are indeed up to the task, which explains the existence of the Roof of the World Rally. An unpredictable 8,000-mile trek from the U.K. to the Tajik city of Qurghonteppa — geography reminder: Tajikistan is a small, landlocked country bordered by China, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan; it’s also Central Asia’s poorest country — over four suggested routes, the Roof of the World Rally is all about spreading the love of tea. No, seriously.
Explains the event website: “We aim to deliver possibly the greatest beverages to the people of the world, with the aim of meeting just a few of them. Over the years the Rally has been finessing the tea strategy and finding out with works best on road and with the locals — we’ve found out that tea bags (too strong) are not ideal but loose tea hits the spot. Therefore we send off teams with plenty of loose tea and tea strainers. You’ll be surprised at just how popular tea can make you.”
As with similar adventure-based charity rallies, participants needn’t be behind the wheel of a fancy vehicle (“… you are allowed to take anything from a small 1 litre hatchback to a fully pimped Land Rover and everything in between”). There’s also the palpable sense of danger and zero backup assistance (“you head out on the rally going bravely into the unknown with nothing but a toothbrush and a spare wheel to fight off marauding bandits.”). And, of course, there’s the altruistic aspect, as the rally itself is organized by a nonprofit organization called Go Help. A bulk of funds raised through the event — teams are required to generate 1,000 pounds ($1,624.80 on this day) for charity in addition to forking over an entry fee, vehicle deposit, import tax, etc. — are donated to either Save the Children or SWODE-Teppa, a Tajikistan-based organization specializing in poverty-reducing sustainable development programs. And once teams eventually reach Qurghonteppa, their well-traveled vehicles are donated and put to good use in the community.
The one prerequisite of the Banjul Challenge is that your car must be a banger, or, in non-auto speak, a giant piece of crap. Seriously. A really low-budget take on the famed Dakar Rally, entrants who make the epic, three-week trek from southern Spain (no, the race doesn’t technically start in the seaside British town of Plymouth) to the Gambian city of Banjul must do so ideally in a vehicle worth not much more than the 375-pound ($607.35 on this day) entrance — fee the original 100-pound-worth limit has since become a touch more generous.
Founded by Julian Nowill in 2002 when the original finish line was Dakar, Senegal, this ridiculous not-really-a-race has spawned several spin-offs including the Timbuktu Challenge and the Petra Challenge. As with the original challenge, any vehicles that actually manage to make it to the final destination are donated or auctioned off to charity, and if a vehicle breaks down at any tough point in the journey … well, tough luck — there’s no roadside assistance provided.
The event’s website sums everything up beautifully: “… if you have a pile of excrement on your drive which needs scrapping and the local car scrapdump does not fill you with excitement, then buy some cable ties and gaffer tape, and some cases of vodka and Pot Noodle and jump in and go south or north or somewhere. You will have no support and backup, and mechanical knowledge is frowned upon.”
The Dumball differs a bit from other banger endurance rallies in that the organizers do lend a bit of a helping hand to foster a not-entirely-grueling experience: Accommodations, meals and, of course, parties are arranged and included in each destination city in lieu of participants fending for themselves. That said, drivers are completely own their own while out on the open road: “There is no support network whatsoever covering the Dumball. You are on a mad-cap adventure not a school holiday: which means there are no support vehicles, no medical arrangements and no arranged back-up to get you to your destination.”
And while there are no prizes for coming in first — remember, this isn’t a race — the Dumball is still a competition of sorts and the team of Dumballers who show the most “passion, courage and madness” during the trip are rewarded with the event’s top honor: a monkey statute carved out a coconut. Or, impeccably attired participants can take home the coveted Dame Edna Award.