Ben Hur with motorbikes.

Chariot racing is perhaps the oldest form of “motorsport” there is. From the coliseum to (probably) a whole lot of places in country towns near the coliseum, people in the ancient Roman Empire dreamed of glory on the racetracks of old. High atop gilded carriages pulled by thoroughbred stallions, men of good stock, with stout hearts, and stouter wallets wowed crowds with their prowess.

Despite changes in technology and the coming of the horseless carriage, chariot racing never really died. It just got better. In the 1930s in Australia, people jury-rigged motorcycles to flimsy chariots in an effort to entertain the crowds.

The goal is simple: take one steel horse, mix with courage (Dutch, more often than not), and find an oval to run about on. The result? Total hilarity right up until someone loses a limb.

It looks like most of these wannabe gladiators piloted the motorcycles with leather strapped connected to both throttles. Really talented riders would use different throttle speeds to help steer – faster on the outside, slower on the inside. Goodness knows how they stop, but our bet is the wall or the fence usually had a role to play in that endeavor. Often, with a little more force than is optimal. Jockeys would have been men of solid stature and little patience. They have enjoyed adrenalin, and pain, and hated math.

This video from the 1930s is exciting enough, and we’d be willing to bet that Julius Caesar would have preferred the coup happen this way than with a stabbing. Regardless, Marc Antony is the victor. In truth it’s hard to find a sanctioning body who’ll give this sport the time of day, but from about 1920 until about 1935, it wasn’t uncommon to see people dressed in full Roman regalia piloting wine-barrels lashed to motorbikes at your local fair ground. Especially if you lived in Australia or New Zealand. To this day, you’ll find many a Harley-Davidson rally descend through debauchery and down into chariot racing – at least until the cops show up.  

The fate that befell the contents of those wine barrels is unknown, but $20 says a fair amount of it landed in the stomach of the contestants. That is, until those contestants were overcome by dizziness, fear, or impact forces – in which case the wine would land in the laps of the spectators. If that sounds gruesome we won’t draw your attention to the spiked Roman helmets or flimsy togas worn by the racers. Nor will be point out the likelihood of the capes being caught in the spinning wheels of the rickety wagons.  

On the list of “motorsports we’d like to see reborn” chariot racing is just above motorcycle demolition derby and motorbike figure-of-eight racing. Not that either of those existed, just that both are only slightly more insane. The world needs whimsy, but not at the expense of death and dismemberment. For that reason, it’s probably a good thing motorcycle chariot racing is largely confined to the history books.  

Gallery: Motorcycle Chariot Racing

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