Almost from the very moment mankind discovered how to build moving automobiles, we started trying to race them. The earliest days of motorsports go back to 1894 when the first organized competition was arranged over a 50-mile course between Paris and Rouen. Motorsport has grown since then of course, hundreds all around the world, but which are the most popular motorsports?
Formula 1 is currently the most popular motor sport with viewers around 87 million per race in 2020. NASCAR, predominantly an American Audience, has 2-12 million viewers per race, MotoGP claims 30 million views per season and IndyCar just recorded its most watched season with an average of 630,000 viewers per race.
Those first racers only averaged speeds of around 10.2-mph, but it was only a year later that drivers were taking part in what is understood as the first ‘true’ motor race from Paris to Bordeaux…and back again! From just 50 miles in 1894 to 730 miles in 1985!
It was only 2 years later in 1897 that the first auto racing venue was opened in Nice, France. From that point it started to spread around the world and become on of the most popular sports in the world.
So what does the world of motorsports look like today? The formation of the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) in 1904 was the beginning of the process to formalize and standardize motorsports. Obviously there are countless types of motorsports that go on around the world, but the FIA has formally recognized and organized World Championships in 11 different events over the years, 7 of which are still active today.
Table 1: FIA Active World Championships
|Formula One World Championship||1950 (drivers); 1958 (manufacturers)|
|Karting World Championship||1964 (drivers)|
|World Rally Championship||1973 (manufacturers); 1979 (drivers)|
|World Endurance Championship||2012 (drivers/manufacturers); 2018 (teams)|
|World Rallycross Championship||2014 (drivers and teams)|
|Formula E World Championship||2020 (drivers and teams)|
|World Rally-Raid Championship||2022 (drivers and manufacturers)|
Table 2: FIA Former World Championship Events
|World Manufacturers’ Championship||1925-1927 (manufacturers)|
|World Sportscar Championship||1981-1992 (drivers); 1953-1984 (manufacturers); 1985-1992 (teams)|
|World Touring Car Championship||1987, 2005-2017 (drivers); 2005-2017 (manufacturers); 1987 (teams)|
|GT1 World Championship||2010-2012 (drivers and teams)|
The FIA is not the be-all and end-all, of course, with just about every country having some form of their own motorsports association, many of which also send delegates to the FIA Council and Courts. Popular US motorsport event NASCAR in January 2022 sent its very first representative to serve on FIA Courts, Gary Crotty. The FIA is not to be confused with the FIM (Federation Internationale de Motocyclisme), which governs motorcycle sports.
Among the world’s many sporting events — affiliated to the FIA or not — which are the most popular? That is the core question of today’s article.
There are arguably two ways of thinking when it comes to looking at the popularity of motorsports. The first is to look at average viewing figures for any major or regular event. If we know how many people watch the Monaco Grand Prix in Formula 1 versus the Indy 500, for instance, then we’d know which is more popular of those two?
But is that the only metric? Viewing figures is the most used go-to reference in sports when it comes to looking at popularity, but one can also consider the number of countries in which it’s practiced, as well as the amount of prestige and/or brand recognition that it has.
Counting the number of countries is easy enough, but is it misleading? One motorsport could be popular in 12 small European countries, the total population of which is only a third of the United States where another motorsport might be exclusively popular. Is it fair to say the sport in European countries is more popular?
Prestige, too, is hard to measure since it largely comes down to subjective opinion. What we’ve done, then is boiled down the viewing figures, prestige and relative size of each sport in terms of scale and grandeur and come up with 8 motorsports that we believe are fair to call “The World’s Most Popular Motorsports”
1. Formula 1
Regarded by many as the pinnacle of international motorsport, and certainly the crown jewel of the FIA. It was first sanctioned back in 1950 and now features more than 20 races each year, with each race in a different country. The sport has seen some 770 drivers over the years from 40 different nationalities. This helps make it the true motorsport event of the world.
To get the ultimate taste of Americana motorsport, one must visit a NASCAR event. The acronym stands for National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing” and currently features 3 national series in the US: Gander RV & Outdoors Truck; Xfinity; and NASCAR Cup Series. It has a history just a bit longer than Formula 1, with its first year being 1948 with countless millions of viewers in the US and around the world.
MotoGP is the highest level of motorcycle racing in the world. At least, it’s the highest one held on a paved track. Off-road motocross events are also popular (see below). MotoGP is split up into 4 main types, namely: Moto3, Moto2, Moto Grand Prix and the electric MotoE. Like Formula 1, MotoGP (the GP stands for Grand Prix) takes its events around the world for each race.
Some people confuse IndyCar and NASCAR as the same, but they’re actually different. IndyCar is a lot newer, dating back just 30 years at the time of writing to 1992. They’re often confused because the races themselves look very similar, but the cars used in each are different.
IndyCar vehicles are typically about half the weight of a NASCAR, and the driver is positioned in the center of the cabin. An IndyCar race will feature 33 cars, whereas NASCAR can have up to 60. Finally, no touches are allowed in the IndyCar circuit. The cars are so light, they may go up in the air if contact is allowed!
A unique offering in the world of motorsports, and the only one in our list coming from Asia, Japan specifically. It was popularized during the All Japan Touring Car Championship races with its most famous champion being motorcycle racer turned drifting legend Kunimitsu Takahashi.
The sport was made even more popular with the spread of popular manga series Initial D. Favorite cars of the drifters include the Nissan Silvia S15, Toyota Levin AE86, the Nissan Skyline R32, and the Mazda RX-7 FD3S.
6. Drag Racing
Nobody realized how high horsepower and torque could go until they witnessed drag racing. Drag races normally feature 2 very special cars racing along a short, straight track. The fastest type are the Top Fuel Dragster which travel at over 330-mph, delivering up to 9,400-hp at 7,200-rpm, and 7,000 lb-ft of torque at 7,075 rpm.
Rallying is a point-to-point motorsports event involving street-legal modified cars that traverse both on- and off-road environments. Famous roads past and present in the rallying world include Ouninpohja in Finland with its 75 jumps; Rally Wales in the UK, covering 94 miles and 7 stages through difficult weather and ultra-challenging conditions; and Panzerplatte in Germany, covering just 25 miles but including sudden shifts from asphalt to cobblestone and other surfaces, not to mention the random artillery pieces littering the place!
Finally, we have motocross, the world’s favourite off-road motorcycling event with each circuit littered with huge muddy jumps, which has its roots in the United Kingdom. Major competitions now include the FIM World Championship, as well as the American AMA Championship, British Championship and others. Many know motocross for the freestyle riders who perform acrobatic stunts as they ride high over each jump.
If you were being rather unkind, you might call this the “weirdest” of all the motorsports, but after searching far and wide, we decided that the most unique motorsports event goes to the 24 Hours of Lemons (LeMons) race.
It’s an obvious play on words to the endurance event of Le Mans, but this one has the unique addition of only allowing $500 for the purchase and modification of the car taking part in the event! The 2014 event holds the Guinness World Record for most participants, with 216 drivers on the track during the race.
Honorable mentions in the “most unique” category also go to…
- Pig-N-Ford Racing in Oregon — drivers must drive a Ford Model T while carrying a live pig
- School Bus Racing in Florida
- The Rickshaw Challenge in India – 550 miles in rickshaws topping out at about 40 mph — phew!
- Reliant Robin Racing in the UK – 3-wheeled Reliant Robins take to the track with their fiberglass bodies and hilarious tipovers
While researching these “unique and weird” motorsports we discovered hundreds more. So many that we thought it deserved an article on its own. So we have written one. The weirdest motorsports on eh planet!
Although we have discussed popularity in terms of viewer numbers there is more to popularity that numbers, at least in our opinion. NASCAR and IndyCar for example are vastly more watched in the USA than either Formula 1, or MotoGp despite them both having higher viewing figures globally. However, passion of fans, how much they engage with the sport are equally important benchmarks, just much less easy to quantify, and less headline grabbing.
American Motorsports remain more popular in the USA and the challenge is to export these incredible motorsports to other gear heads around the world! Maybe a good start in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series that is growing in Europe each year.