The Ten Greatest Upsets In Racing History

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Motor racing, like many sports, is often dominated by a certain team or a certain driver. But all Goliaths fall eventually. Chosen by Jalopnik readers, these are the ten greatest upset victories in auto racing history.


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Photo Credit: Ford

10.) 2011 Canadian Grand Prix

Suggested By: CanuckChinaman


Why it's amazing: No one expected Jenson Button to pressure the world champion Sebastian Vettel into a mistake on the last lap. Vettel is a machine. He does not make mistakes. In what became the longest Grand Prix in history, Button came back to win from 18th place. He even pitted for a puncture while he was playing catch-up. Button might have been a world champion driver in a top team, but he was the victorious David to Vettel's Goliath.

9.) 1997 NHRA Mopar Nationals

Suggested By: Ghost of Rob


Why it's amazing: The 18-year-old Cristen Powell skipped her prom to race her Top Fuel dragster at Englishtown, New Jersey. She won the event, making her the youngest Top Fuel winner of an NHRA event. Not six months after receiving her Top Fuel license, she had her first win.


8.) 2004 FIA GT Imola 500 km

Suggested By: Phil Frank


Why it's amazing: This nomination comes from Phil Frank, the man who actually designed the Saleen S7 after work at another job, as well as the GT1-class S7R. I will let him tell the story himself:

September 8th 2004 Imola, Italy.

Privateer team Vitaphone Racing Team scores what could be the most dramatic home track upset victory in motorsports history with their Saleen S7R in the FIA GT Series. Drivers Michael Bartels and Uwe Alzen took the all American Saleen S7R Supercar to the overall victory at Ferrari's home track Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari in front of Fiat Chairman, Luca di Montemzemolo and the Italian Press against two Maserati MC12's (thinly guised Ferrari Enzos), three Ferrari 550's, three Ferrari 575's and two Lamborghini Murciélago in the GT Class.

"We were no match for the Saleen today." Luca di Montemzemolo.

I'm a bit biased as I designed the beast.

Photo Credit: Ker Robertson/Getty Images (winning car not pictured)

7.) 1990 Daytona 500

Suggested By: cmusic1

Why it's amazing: Dale Earnhardt was about to win the Daytona 500 for the first time, having dominated the race all the way up to the last lap. There was no chance that anyone could catch him. The unknown Derrike Cope, who was about to get the best finish of his career with second place, flew into first on the last lap when Earnhardt blew a tire. The win is often regarded as the greatest upset in Daytona history.


6.) 1984 Monaco Grand Prix

Suggested By: McLarry


Why it's amazing: Senna was a rookie driver in '84, running in a completely outclassed car. He came from thirteenth to first, but a controversial call to red flag the race due to rain meant that Senna's final pass on Alain Prost would not count. While it seems that one of the greatest upset victories was taken away from Senna, it was really the young and recklessly fast Stefan Bellof who was catching both Senna and Prost. While the race officially went to Prost, the near victory of both young drivers was an upset of its own.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

5.) 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans

Suggested By: waveridin1959


Why it's amazing: Ferrari had dominated the greatest sports car race in the world for six years in a row when Ford came to Le Mans in 1966. Ford had struggled with their GT40 program, mismanaging their very expensive and very public vendetta to beat Ferrari at the 24 hour race. In '66 it all came through with a stunning 1-2-3 finish. Ferrari never won outright again.


4.) 1964 Rallye Monte Carlo

Suggested By: Irving Washington


Why it's amazing: Mini had come close to winning the famed Monte Carlo rally in 1963, but it was in '64 that the Irish Paddy Hopkirk beat out eight heavy, heavily modified V8 Ford Falcons to Monaco. Hopkirk had started in Minsk, and managed to get himself up to second, before falling back to third with one last night — the "Night of Long Knives" — to go. While the big V8s struggled in the twisting, snow-bound roads, the Mini made up just enough time to be declared the victor.

Photo Credit: BMW/Mini


3.) 1901 Henry Ford vs. Alexander Winton

Suggested By: Auto Guy


Why it's amazing: Henry Ford's career started out with a succession of failures. It looked like the last investors in the US were going to give up on Ford in 1901, until one win helped save him. Reader Auto Guy explains:

Henry Ford vs. Harry Winton, Oct. 10, 1901. Ford's machine outmatched by a competitor with THREE TIMES the horsepower in a ten lap race. Winton's machine looked superior, and he was an established car manufacturer, selling to the likes of the Vanderbilts. Ford was washed-up from the failure of his Detroit Automobile Company and nearly broke.

Ford won, investors were impressed, and the Ford Motor Company was born. This one is hard to top for sheer under-doggedness plus historical significance. A loss by Ford would have likely made him footnote in early automobile history.


Photo Credit: The Henry Ford


2.) 1959 Formula Libre, Lime Rock

Suggested By: With.a.G


Why it's amazing: Known to many simply as "The Race," the'59 race of Formula Libre stands out as one of the greatest wins in American racing, and car racing as a whole. Formula Libre is just an open Formula, where any car meeting safety standards can race. There was prize money, and the best racers had to go find the best cars to use to win it.

Roger Ward had won the Indy 500, and took an Offenhauser-powered, open-wheeled midget to the race. No one had ever taken an oval car to run on a circuit against sports cars before. Ward said his car had a "just a foot throttle," meaning it had a single-speed transmission. Up against a Jaguar D-Type, an ex-Fangio Maserati 250F Formula One car, an Aston Martin DBR-2, and a host of other European sports cars with some of the best drivers in the world, including a young Pedro Rodriguez.


You'd expect Ward to be powerful on the straights, but lose speed in the corners, but he actually had no trouble staying even in the bends, but the one-speed held him back. He changed his final gear and beat them all in a 60-lap race. And just in case you think this was a case of a faster car gifting him the win, there were another four midgets in the race, none of which came close.


1.) 1935 German Grand Prix

Suggested By: MechaScroggzilla


Why it's amazing: The German Silver Arrows from Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union had massive budgets. They used the most advanced materials, and had more powerful cars than any other team racing at the time. Tazio Nuvolari was racing a three-year-old Alfa Romeo against four Benzes and four Auto Unions, all driven by some of the best drivers of their time. Nuvolari's car was 100 horsepower down on the German competitors and for the first nine laps of the race, he just cruised, trying not to get into any trouble. He managed to work his way up to second, but a remarkably slow two-minute pit stop dropped him down.

Angry at the delay, Nuvolari took off, flying up to second place again behind the aristocratic Manfred von Brauchtisch. With seven laps to go Nuvolari was 1m27s down on the leader. He cut that down lap after lap until he was 21 seconds adrift on the final lap. Under pressure, von Brauchtisch was driving as fast as he could, wearing down his rear tires until one of them burst. Nuvolari sailed in to claim a victory in front of 300,000 spectators and many Nazi officials, including Hitler himself.


The victory was so unexpected, that they didn't even have a copy of the Italian national anthem to play when awarding Nuvolari his prize. It was the first great legend of the ‘Ring.

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