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Motorcycle Chariot Racing: An Extreme Homage to Ancient Rome

Clare Fitzgerald
Photo Credit: J. A. Hampton / Topical Press Agency / Getty Images (Colorized)

We introduced you to auto polo, and as awesome as that sport was, we think we’ve found something even better: motorcycle chariot racing. It’s as glorious (and dangerous) as it sounds, and we have some creative Aussies to thank for bringing it into the world.

Two men participating in motorcycle chariot racing

Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images

While people in New Zealand, Europe and the United States claimed to have invented motorcycle chariot racing, it actually traces its roots back to a group of Australian men looking to modernize ancient Roman chariot racing. It was around the time the silent film epic Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ was released and everyone was obsessed with the Roman era.

Instead of using horses, the group paired chariots with motorcycles for more horsepower. However, they didn’t want to lose the finesse brought by the ancient Romans, so contestants dressed up in togas and traditional Roman garb. For those unaware of what they’d stumbled into, the sight would have certainly been confusing!

In the start, the configuration consisted of one person driving the then-single motorcycle while a second – the charioteer – stood in the chariot, not really doing anything. Eventually, the chariot designs grew to include a number of motorcycles held together with welded pipes, to prevent them from straying away from one another. Those aboard went from two to one, with the charioteer now charged with steering and manning the motorcycles.

How did they accomplish this, you ask? The same way Roman charioteers steered their horses: with rope! They were tied to the handlebars, throttle and clutch, allowing them to steer, power and brake with one, we guess, easy (?) movement. It’s hard to tell how effective this method of driving was, but from what we’ve seen, it sure made for an unpredictable and exciting race.

Two men participating in motorcycle chariot racing

Photo Credit: Fox Photos / Getty Images

Similar to ancient Roman chariot racing, the events were held at oval arenas, with fans packed in the stands, eager to watch the chaos that was sure to ensue. While there are no reports of people getting injured or dying while participating in the sport, it’s safe to say riders likely suffered a few bumps and bruises.

The races were also turned into large events, featuring parades and stunt drivers on motorcycles. Attendees were also able to watch shows put on by clowns, trained dogs and other performers.

While motorcycle chariot racing was popular during the 1920s and ’30s, it never reached large-scale success. The reason for this is unknown. Perhaps it was far too dangerous a sport to continue, or maybe the Great Depression and World War II meant resources and manpower were diverted elsewhere.

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No matter the reason, the sport continues to garner the attention and respect of all those who happen upon it. In recent years, there have been attempts to replicate it – for example, on BBC’s Top Gear – but no one has tried to fully resurrect it… And maybe that’s for the best, lest we all end up in hospital.