In the classic racing movie, Le Mans, starring Steve McQueen, the title character (played by McQueen) is asked why he races. His response, quoted verbatim by racing aficionados everywhere, is that a "lot of people go through life doing things badly. Racing's important to men who do it well. When you're racing, it's life. Anything that happens before or after... is just waiting.”

And when the waiting is for the most important race of the year for a given motorsport, the anticipation, intrigue and pageantry can reach a fevered pitch. The victors know that they will walk the hallowed halls with the most revered names in motorsports. And because racing can be a life-or-death endeavor, its heroes take on mythical proportions for those who follow it.

And so it is that on eve of the 90th anniversary running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, we bring you the Top 10 most prestigious motor races in the world.

What makes them the best of the best? Well, many different things: the level of challenge and difficulty, the skill and technology required to master it, the history, the venue itself. But fundamentally, they are the ones that the racers themselves want most to win.

Ask any racer which race they most desire to win, and there is rarely hesitation. These races bring accolades and often fame to their victors, but more importantly, they are the highest accomplishment that the racer can achieve in their sport. And they and their rivals will fight tooth and nail to scale that podium. These races have been won by some of the most accomplished racers in their respective sports and by unheralded racers who indelibly etched their names in the history books simply by winning one.

You could call them, as many do, the “Super Bowl” of their respective disciplines, but to do so can diminish their grandeur and history to those for whom “racing is life.”

10 Most Prestigious Motor Races In The World Slideshow


10. Bathurst 1000 (V8 Supercars)

V8 Supercars is Australia’s homegrown racing series, somewhere between NASCAR and Le Mans-style racing. A handful of manufacturers enter stock cars that are driven primarily on tight road courses with very close racing and a lot of contact. The Bathurst 1000 is a 1000km race held at Mount Panorama each year and is known as "The Great Race," with many considering it the pinnacle of Australian motorsport. For a sense of what racing on the mountain is like, take a look at veteran NASCAR racer Darrell Waltrip’s reaction to riding shotgun on a lap of the course.


9. Belgium Grand Prix, Spa Francorchamps (F1)

If the Monaco Grand Prix gets the award for the most glamorous of all Formula 1 Grand Prix, Spa gets the award as the track for which most of the racers want bragging rights. Nestled in the Ardennes Forest, Spa is known for weather patterns which often include rain in one portion of the track while other portions remain dry, making tire selection and car set-up very difficult. Spa also boasts one of racing’s most famous corners, Eau Rouge, which is characterized by a slight downhill turn with incredible chassis compression, followed by an uphill section with extremely high speeds. F1 cars now routinely take this corner flat out and many consider it the most breathtaking corner in all of racing.


8. Rally Finland (WRC)

Known as the “Grand Prix of rallying,” the rally Finland is the World Rally Championship’s fastest race. Attended by hundreds of thousands of fans each year, it is one of the largest public events in all of the Nordic countries. Unlike Dakar, it is a true rally race with very fast, smooth gravel roads run by modified road cars rather than off-road vehicles. It is known for its exciting blind crests and incredible “air” that the cars get over multiple jumps.


7. 24 Hours Nürburgring (touring and GT cars)

Like the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the 24 Hours Nurburgring race is an endurance race pitting multiple classes of race cars on the track at the same time. Run on the famed Nurburging in Germany, the 15.7 mile course consists of portions of Nurburgring’s F1 course plus the well-known Nordschleife (north loop), which is actually a public road. Because of the length of the course, over 200 cars are often entered into to the race. Like most endurance races, the field often includes amateur “gentlemen racers,” but perhaps even more so in the case of the 24 Hours Nurburgring simply because of the sheer volume of cars entered. Like Le Mans, there is often as much going on outside the track as there is on it, and the fans are known for their tradition of painting graffiti on the track.


6. Dakar (rally raid)

The Dakar Rally, formerly known as the Paris-Dakar Rally, is a rally-raid style of off-road endurance race, where competitors in multiple classes of cars, motorcycles and trucks race along very difficult terrain in stages over a two-week-plus timeframe. The stages themselves can be relatively short to hundreds of miles per day. Traditional rally cars are modified road cars that attack winding off-road courses selected to handle high-speeds but not particularly rugged terrain. On the other hand, rally raid vehicles are true off-road vehicles and are challenged with seemingly impossible terrain that is purposely difficult to traverse. Originally designed as a race from Paris to Dakar and started in 1978, the race moved to South America in 2009 after being cancelled in 2008 for safety concerns in North Africa. Each year, significant numbers of participants start the rally but do not make it to the finish line.


5. Isle of Man Tourist Trophy (moto)

The Isle of Man is a week-long series of motorcycle races in multiple classes of bikes, culminating with the TT Senior race on the final day. Races are done in time-trial format with each racer racing against the clock and each other. Run since 1907, currently on a 37.773 mile road course on the Isle of Man (located in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland), it is considered by many to be the most dangerous motorcycle race in the world — with average lap speeds reaching over 130 mph, rocketing through small villages with stone wall and tree-lined streets. It was once a mainstay on the motorcycle Grand Prix calendar, but safety concerns forced it off the big stage. However, judging by the annual pilgrimage many current Grand Prix stars make to observe the TT for themselves, it has not lost any of its mystique or the sheer awe most experience as these daredevils blast through public roads, often inches from centuries-old stone walls.


4. Daytona 500 (NASCAR)

Unlike most other race series that hold their most prestigious race either in the middle or at the end of the racing calendar, NASCAR’s "The Great American Race" is the very first race of the season. It is one of four “restrictor plate” races on NASCAR’s calendar, given both safety and competitive concerns for the long track and its famous 31-degree banking in its four corners. A continuation of the early Daytona Beach races held in the years prior to Daytona International Speedway’s 1959 opening, the Daytona 500 draws the largest US television audience of any motor race.


3. The 24 Hours of Le Mans (Le Mans)

Perhaps like no other race, Le Mans captures every aspect of motorsports in one weekend in the French countryside. “Le Mans” style “sports car” racing is conducted with multiple classes of race cars, each with differing levels of performance, and therefore provides some of the most exciting — and harrowing — overtaking of any racing format. Teams use multiple drivers who take turns in multiple stints throughout the race. The 8.469 mile Circuit de la Sarthe consists of both permanent racetrack and public road sections, closed off for the race. Known as the Grand Prix of Endurance and Efficiency, teams must balance outright speed with the endurance required to complete a full 24-hour race — come rain or shine, day or night, dusk or dawn. And because the race is 24 hours long, there often is as much action off the track as there is on, including a full amusement park near the start-finish grandstands for the multiple hundreds of thousands of fans who attend each year.


2. Indy 500 (IndyCar)

The Indianapolis 500 celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2011 and runs the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, usually the same day as the Monaco Grand Prix. Billed as “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” the Indy 500 is known around the world for its incredibly high average speeds — qualifying laps in excess of 220 mph average are the norm. With traditions such as a bottle of milk being presented to the winner and the kissing of the brick finish line (the venue was once paved entirely in bricks and is still known as the “Brickyard”), the Indy 500 and its legion of famous winners continues to be America’s open-wheeled race to win.


1. Monaco Grand Prix (F1)

The Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix, run since 1929 in the tight streets of Monte Carlo, is undoubtedly the most glamorous of all races. There is virtually no run-off, concrete barriers lining both sides of nearly the entire track. With demanding elevation changes and top-speeds reached in a tunnel, it is among the most difficult on the F1 calendar. And with the rich and famous rubbing shoulders in attendance, it is for many “the” event of the year, racing or otherwise.

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