1.12: The Race To Death: The 1903 Paris to Madrid Contest Was The Worst Race Ever Held

It seems incredible by the standards of 2020, but the 1903 Paris to Madrid Race was such an incalculable calamity and had amassed such a loss of life that it was cancelled after the first day. In an era when the most powerful cars in the world made less than 100hp how could this happen? Too many people, too few rules, too little knowledge of what these machines were capable of, and ultimately no precedents to follow.

One day of racing set motorsports back nearly three decades, claimed the lives of internationally famous businessmen, soldiers, and kids. Four classes of cars scheduled to leave a Parisian palace at 3:30am turned into a spectacle the likes of which the world had never seen before and was fearful of ever seeing again.

Through the sounds of the cars that were there, the first hand accounts of competitors, and the news reporting that was done around the world, we tell the story of the 1903 Paris to Madrid Race, or as it was known then, “The Race To Death”.


  1. As a young drag racing fanatic (5 years old) I had a relative gift me a book about auto racing. There were two pages dedicated to this race and even then I knew how insane the whole thing was. Great research and even better presentation, two thumbs up!!!

  2. We con not now imagine how this tragedy could not be anticipated from the perspective of 2021 trying to put ourselves into that series of events. I as a technician and understanding forces and inertia multiplied by speed and weight, as a starting point can see the start of a series of deadly eventualities. Then add the lack of information to the nearby crowds of spectators of what the safety risks of the machines, traction on curves, steering control, braking capabilities on soft surfaces, fire risks of uncontained burning fuel, tire and rim failures at speed, driver errors at high speed, spectators allowed very near and on the race course. A course as long as that over that much time would even now be impossible to secure completely.
    I think the authorities did what was best after the fact at that point in time. I see some similarities between that race and motorcycle board-track racing which was eventually banned because of its intrinsically unsafe style that could and often enough was deadly to the racers themselves.
    Even into the years before the mandate of the safety fuel-cell in 1965, race cars would catch fire in relatively minor collisions and result in driver fatality in an otherwise survivable injury. It did take a full human lifetime to bring the achievable level of safety into the automotive racing sport, but at the cost of many human lives.
    I am sixty-seven now and when I was a young boy I would watch the nightly news on TV and most every night there was a story of a plane crash where several hundred people would die, and I recall saying to my father that they just tell the deadly crash and just move on to the next story; which they don't do so coldly now as they did then.

    in conclusion I will say that safety in technology is an evolutionary process!

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