These Are the Wildest Off-Road Races You've Never Heard Of

Photo:  Ford
Photo: Ford

If you’re a motorsport enthusiast, chances are you’ll have heard of the Dakar Rally or Baja 1000, even if you mostly follow big races or the famous racing series that run on asphalt. There’s less of a chance you’ll have heard of the Breslau Rally or French Truck Cross, however, and we’re here to change that.

Just like the Grand Prix races of Formula 1 or the endurance test of Le Mans, the Dakar and Baja loom large in the world of motorsport because they are grueling events that try athlete and machine alike. But unlike F1 or Le Mans, Dakar and Baja take place in unforgiving environments far from civilization and its comforts.

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That’s not to say road racing is easy, but off-road competitions make it seem like there’s more at stake given the literal wastelands they traverse and extreme vehicles they require. Dakar and Baja just happen to be two of the better known events, but there are many others worthy of the spotlight. So, here are a few of those other off-road competitions you’ve probably never heard of:

The California 300

Photo:  The California 300
Photo: The California 300

The California 300 takes after the Mint 400 in a few ways, not the least of which being that it’s organized by the same people. It’s also a similar race in terms of how it’s run and what machines are allowed to participate: three high-speed laps are run over a desert course some 70 miles long. And it includes UTV classes, along with former “trophy trucks” now known as “Unlimited Trucks.” The inaugural California 300 took place in Barstow this year; the desert race is due to return next year in the same wide open stretch of Southern California.

The South African Cross Country Series

Photo:  Ford
Photo: Ford

This isn’t a single event so much as a series set in South Africa that includes the many rounds of the South African Rally Raid Championship. But SA is one of the countries that rivals the love the U.S. has for gnarly trucks, so I’m including this series. Really, both Australia and South Africa may very well live and breath off-road more than the U.S., but these countries do it differently with machines based on nimble mid-size trucks like the Ford Ranger and Toyota Hilux.

The HARDI Australia 24 Hour Trial

Photo:  HARDI 24 Hour Trial
Photo: HARDI 24 Hour Trial

Speaking of nimble, here’s an Australian endurance event where pilots compete on enduro motorcycles rather than in full- or mid-size trucks. The HARDI 24 is a true war of attrition: only half of the competitors make it to the end. This is an endurance race that’s taken place in South Australia for close to a century — since 1924. Riders at HARDI include some of the world’s best, even former Isle of Man TT riders. It runs in the middle of winter when temperatures can easily dip below zero degrees Fahrenheit. You ever try riding a torquey two-stroke in freezing rain for 24 hours? Or doing that in a sidecar? Yeah, me neither.

The Rally Jameel

Photo:  Rally Jameel
Photo: Rally Jameel

We love the Rebelle Rally at Jalopnik. It’s one of the most welcome recent additions, as an event that does away with the notion that motorsport — and off-road motorsport — is a boy’s club. The desire to hoon a truck, SUV, or bike in some inhospitable corner of the Earth is damn near universal.

Except there are places in the world where women are told they can’t even drive, let alone compete off-road. Rally Jameel is trying to bury that notion in the Arabian Desert, where the event takes place. It’s a women-only navigation rally in Saudi Arabia that tests the ability of its pilots to find their way through a swath of the largest desert in the world.

The Trophée Andros, or Andros Trophy

Finale ELITE Course 2 | Val Thorens 2020

Going to extremes is what off-road racing is all about, so I’m compelled to include races that take place in sand and snow. The Andros Trophy is a French ice racing series that started in the early 1990s. So, not only is the race awesome because it put rally cars on ice, more or less, but it’s also because it’s featured some of the best designs ever. Ah, nineties cars. And the series continues being awesome by adopting EVs: in 2019, it became the e-Trophée Andros, featuring fully-electric race machines racing on ice.

The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge

Photo:  Audi
Photo: Audi

The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is a rally raid that’s part of the FIA and FIM World Rally-Raid Championship, but it comes after the Dakar Rally in the race season. That means there are fewer fair weather fans watching, and also means that it features drivers fresh off their victories (or losses) from Dakar. It’s not exactly a victory lap for winners at Dakar, but the air probably has a bit of post-Dakar tension in it. You know, on top of the race being set in the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Desert.

The Alcan 5000 Rally

Winter Journey To The Arctic Ocean - The Nitto Alcan 5000

The Alcan Rally is celebrating its 40-year anniversary soon, and in that time it’s become known as one of the longest rally competions. It’s less about outright speed and more about balancing speed with endurance and precision at the Alcan 5000, which has teams cover over 5,000 miles in just 10 days. The time-speed-distance (TSD) competition has had routes that start at the Pacific Northwest of the U.S., through Canada, onto the Yukon and Arctic Circle. Oh, and did I mention many take on the Alcan 5000 in mostly unmodified vehicles?

The GP Ice Race

Photo:  Škoda
Photo: Škoda

The GP Ice Race has been taking place in Zell am See, Austria, for almost 50 years. It’s set on a frozen lake in the Austrian Alps, and has close ties to the Porsche family. The event has grown quite a bit in the half-century it’s been around, and hosted famous cars and drivers, like the Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo and current F1 World Champ, Max Verstappen. Ice cold.

Coupe de France Camion Cross, or Truck Cross French Cup

Camion Cross Elne 2022 Coupe de France (Edgar-RaceVideos)

Once again, this is not a single race but a series set in France. It’s unlike some of the other entries in this list, since the events take place in a closed course that’s much shorter than the journeys undertaken in, say, Abu Dhabi or South Africa. But these are short course off-road races where cabover trucks swing their rear axles around and slide gleefully. That’s all I need.

The Nitro Rallycross

Photo:  Nitro RX
Photo: Nitro RX

The Nitro Rallycross features pretty big names for such a relatively unknown race, including Travis Pastrana, Tanner Foust and Ken Block. But I want to shine a light on the event because it’s a pretty new series, having started off around 2018. The series has drivers compete in a bracket tournament with heat laps that get testy. Full contact is common as the cars (including a new EV class) slide and jump around a dirt course full of high-banked turns and ramps.

The Breslau Rally

Photo:  Mercedes-Benz
Photo: Mercedes-Benz

I can’t help but heap praise on any competition that features big rigs. The Breslau Rally is a long-running event — organizers claim it’s the oldest amateur off-road rally in Europe — where the Mercedes-Benz Unimog is king. The competition features other classes or categories, but we as Americans know that you go big or go home. I guess the Polish know it better than us Americans with our cute little trophy trucks. At Breslau, it’s Unimog or bust.

The Africa ECO Race

Photo:  Africa ECO Race
Photo: Africa ECO Race

We’re briefly back to the Dakar with the Africa ECO Race, which picked up where Dakar left off. The Africa ECO Race started in 2009 after Dakar moved to South America; the ECO Race is a rally raid event set throughout North and West Africa that features motorcycles (the most efficient machines in motorsport) and bigger vehicles in a rally that’s all about sustainable and non-invasive competition. It’s like if someone applied the idea of “leave no trace” to motorsport. Whether or not that’s possible is unclear, but it’s a neat idea.

Extreme E

Photo:  Extreme E
Photo: Extreme E

Again, I can’t help but double up on cool ideas and vehicles, which is why I’m including Extreme E. Many of you will be familiar with the series, so it’s unfair to call it a race you’ve never heard of. But this is one of the events more people need to hear about. Extreme E wants to turn off-road racing into a guilt-free sport for people who love the outdoors as much as off-roading, by using and helping to develop sustainable technology. That deserves more exposure.

La Carrera Panamericana

The Spirit of La Carrera Panamericana

I’m going to test your patience with another entry that’s a bit of a stretch. This time, it’s not about how well-known the Carrera Panamericana is, but as its status as an “off-road” event. It’s not an off-road race, strictly speaking, but it’s set in Mexico. And that means part of the week-long race is set over mixed surfaces that resemble fire roads more than any U.S. interstate.

People often overlook that Mexico is basically a collection of cities and villages nestled in mountain valleys or dotted among the desert. Many of the roads connecting these are not ideal race courses. But that’s exactly what makes racing through Mexico in a Porsche 911 or other air-cooled VW so damn fun.

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