From one of the most physically demanding sets of sports, we move on to one of the most mentally demanding groupings. In Part 3 of our series “What is the Most Difficult Sport?”, I’ll be diving into the thrill-seeking world of motorsports and attempting to determine what discipline is the most difficult.
From stock cars to dirtbikes, open wheel to off-road – motorsports require an incredibly intense level of mental focus and ability. To lose focus for even a fraction of a second is to court disaster. Everything that goes into building a car adds to the driver’s mental challenges. Engineers, strategists, and crew members all play a role in the execution of a race. Don’t be fooled though, there are also some physical difficulties when it comes to motorsports.
Let’s kick things off by talking about the world’s most popular form of motor racing – Formula 1.
The pre-eminent form of open-wheel single-seater racing worldwide, Formula One’s first true season was in 1950. From its European roots, F1 quickly expanded overseas with an Argentinian Grand Prix in 1953. The modern-day cars are nearly unrecognizable compared to the original Formula One cars but the thrill of the race remains the same.
I don’t want to discount the skill of Formula 1 drivers or open-wheel racers as a whole. The amount of focus and talent required to race wheel-to-wheel in the sport is probably second to none. However, relative to some other cars on the list – I believe F1 cars handle a little bit better. If our purpose is to find out “What is the Most Difficult Motorsport?”, we are going to have some difficulty of our own weighing physical and mental challenges.
NASCAR, not football or any of the other stick-and-ball sports, was my first sporting love. A sport with origins in bootlegging moonshine during prohibition, stock car racing has always held more of an outlaw edge than open-wheel racing in the United States. With drivers tuning their cars to their limits, it was only natural racing would begin. The first-ever NASCAR Cup series season (the NASCAR Strictly Stock Series) was held in 1949. Strongly rooted in the Southeastern U.S., the sport has since grown worldwide.
For the sake of the “What is the Most Difficult Sport?” argument, we’ll lump all forms of stock car racing together under the NASCAR banner. While I think stock cars are more difficult to handle from a physical standpoint than open-wheel cars, mistakes are much more manageable. A little bit of contact in F1 can end your race. In NASCAR, contact is almost expected with “rubbing in racing” being a bit of a calling card. Additionally, the majority of NASCAR races take place on ovals. While not without their own challenges, ovals do not have the same technical requirements as the road course or street circuits of other forms of racing.
Like Formula One, touring car racing finds its roots in Europe. The British Touring Car Championship (then known as the British Saloon Car Championship) got its start in 1958. It can be difficult to distinguish touring cars from GT cars but as a rule of thumb, touring cars tend to be based on sedans or family cars.
Touring car championships have spread around the world including the wildly popular Supercars Championship in Australia and New Zealand. Touring cars see a mix of endurance and sprint races, each with its own unique set of challenges. The heavier cars make for more difficult handling in corners but like stock cars, contact tends to be a little more forgiving than in open-wheel cars.
Endurance racing can be traced back to the Coppa Florio, an Italian race that was run in 1900. With grand prix racing moving towards open-wheel cars, sports cars shifted towards endurance racing. As you would expect from the name, endurance racing features the longest races in motorsport. Shorter events range around six hours, with longer events often being 24 Hours.
IMSA and WEC are the leading championship series’ of endurance racing while the crown jewel race is a bucket list event for me personally, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The length of the races produces a very unique challenge for both drivers and crews. In the interest of safety, drivers rotate over the course of an event alleviating some of the fatigue factor. Is endurance racing our answer to “What is the Most Difficult Sport?” in the motorsport category? I’m not sure.
Up to now, we have limited racing to paved surfaces. While rally races can be run on paved surfaces, that isn’t always the case. Rallying can trace itself all the way back to the origins of motor racing in France with the 1894 Paris–Rouen Horseless Carriage Competition. Rallying probably has the widest variety of competitions ranging from road rallying and off-road rallying which are speed trials to rallycross which features competitors racing against one another.
With the point-to-point nature and the undedicated racing aspect of rally courses, rallying presents an entirely different level of difficulty to motorsport. It is an extremely physically taxing and daring form of racing that requires the perfection of participants. Given the unique challenges of the sport, I think it has to rank pretty highly as an answer to our “What is the Most Difficult Sport?” question.
From four wheels to two wheels, we move into the world of motocross. With roots in the early 1900 trials of Britain, motocross is a sport featuring off-road motorcycles, sometimes referred to as dirt bikes. As the sport has evolved rapidly, different disciplines have developed including the high amplitude Supercross.
Up to this point, we have highlighted forms of racing that allowed for the drivers to be secured into their vehicles. That is not the case in motocross. Riders must be able to maintain grip and balance to stay on their bikes, something that adds another layer of difficulty to racing. With the number of jumps and turns, simply holding on to the bike creates a challenge. Not to mention the competitors around you also attempting to complete the circuit as quickly as possible.
Grand Prix Motorcycle Racing
From the dirt of motocross, we head back to the pavement for grand prix motorcycle racing. Dating back to 1949, grand prix motorcycle racing has steadily evolved through the years with several bike manufacturers and riders attempting to claim the top spot in the sport. With the MotoGP era beginning in 2002, the sport saw an explosion of popularity.
While grand prix motorcycle riders aren’t subjected to the jumps of motocross, the bikes reach incredibly high speeds and subject the riders to incredible g-forces in the turns. Watching the riders lean their bikes nearly parallel to the ground is simply mesmerizing.
I have to confess when it comes to our “What is the Most Difficult Sport?” series, I believe judging the most difficult motorsport may be the most difficult challenge yet. Every single motorsport has an inherent risk component that creates an added layer of mental difficulty. This doesn’t even begin to consider the teams of engineers, strategists, and crew members that add another level of mental difficulty.
The physical difficulty of some of these sports can be hard to explain but I don’t want to take anything away from the drivers and crews. Conditions within a car can be extreme due to the combination of fire-resistant suits and the heat generated by engines. The g-forces produce another physical factor to consider as well. However, given the sheer physical beatings that participants of one particular motorsport experience – I think I have a winner. My final verdict on the most difficult motorsport is motocross.
I am actively second-guessing my choice here but I had to pick a winner. The mixture of what I imagine to be an insane amount of grip strength and stamina combined with the inherent mental difficulty of dealing with death-defying jumps, fellow competitors, and tuning of the bikes has swayed my opinion.
I have to imagine given the wide variety of motorsports and the ways that you could weigh the difficulty of any given discipline will lead to some disagreements here. We’d love to hear from you on what you think is the most difficult motorsport on Twitter at @Pokatok_Fest and stay tuned for the next edition of “What is the Most Difficult Sport?”.