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Fast friends are hard to come by in the paddock, regardless of discipline. In the heat of battle between a field of drivers, each with their careers on the line at every turn, we know that even the bonds between teammates can be strained.
Bad blood, verbal jabs, and on-track altercations are far more common than chemistry or compassion, so in the anti-spirit of the heart-shaped holiday, we went full cynic and ranked the greatest auto racing rivalries throughout the sport’s history. (You’ll find that many of these clashes ultimately gave way to lifelong friendships.)
From the Intimidator versus The Wonder Boy to a pair of manufacturers, this list highlights the most potent of conflicts.
8. Andretti vs. Foyt
The rivalry between Andretti and AJ Foyt was more of a product of similar career paths than explicit incidents between the two drivers. Foyt’s career started about five years before Andretti. Still, Maio caught up with Super Tex quickly. From their early days at backwoods bullrings to their multiple wins at the Brickyard, the two American drivers more often than not shared the same racetrack, vying for the same top step on the podium. IndyCar, NASCAR, sports car racing—it didn’t matter. Where there was Foyt, there was Andretti and vice versa.
“There’s always someone better than you, someone who’s dominating, and that sure raises your game,” Andretti wrote in Motorsport Magazine. “You have to do something different to beat him. So you watch him, see what he does better, you work harder. This inspires you, and I love those challenges with a rival.”
7. Valentino Rossi vs. Marc Márquez
We couldn’t leave our two-wheeled friends off the list. Championship rider Marc Marquez famously went from posing next to Rossi for a fan photo as a boy to besting the legendary rider for his first Moto GP title in 2014.
Naturally, the two hall-of-famers were bound to mix it up on track. In 2015, Rossi reportedly kicked Marquez from his bike. Then, in 2018, Marquez sparked an incident which collected Rossi. After the race, Rossi didn’t mince his words:
“This is a very bad situation, because he destroyed our sport … because he doesn’t have any respect for his rivals, never.”
Marquez took fault for the incident, calling it a “mistake.” Despite taking ownership for the crash, Rossi refused to shake Marquez’s hand later that year. Imagine angering one of your childhood heroes.
6. Keselowski vs. Edwards
In NASCAR’s modern era, rivalries are certainly less prevalent than they once were. Drivers under the intense scrutiny of media, sponsorships, and team owners with high expectations are better served focusing on their craft and performance.
Every so often though, a highly aggressive rookie comes along who rubs a few of the veterans the wrong way. Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, and most recently Ross Chastain have tangled with their elders on their rise to stardom. The prior did so on the way to his first race win—an indecent that would spark a series of on-track altercations.
In 2009, Keselowski—a relatively-unknown commodity at the time—tangled with fan favorite Carl Edwards coming to the finish line at Talladega. Edwards flipped violently and Keselowski sprayed beer in victory lane.
The two would have a couple more run-ins over the next year before Edwards finally intentionally spun Kes into the fence at Atlanta in 2010. Later that year, Edwards hooked Keselowski left into the wall while battling for the lead at Gateway. After the race, it was the youngster’s father who called for an end to it all.
“I’m sick and tired of this,” Bob Keselowski said. “I’ll get my own damn uniform back on and take care of this. He ain’t going to kill my boy.” Whether it was the elder’s words or just happenstance, the intense rivalry never resurfaced after that night.
5. Lauda vs. Hunt
Formula 1 in the 1970s was chock-full of characters with long hair, big sunglasses, and thick sideburns. Sir Jackie Stewart, Gilles Villeneuve, Emerson Fittipaldi—handsome dare devils in pillowy Nomex. It was the rivalry between Formula 1 greats Nicki Lauda and James Hunt was so captivating that even decades after it dominated headlines, it captivated screenplay writer Chris Morgan and eventually director Ron Howard in 2013’s Rush.
Compared to the movie, though, the rivalry was reportedly far less nasty. The two more closely resembled colleagues, founding a friendship early in their careers while traveling Europe in the open-wheel feeder series. They even shared a flat.
Still, their public perception made them compelling adversaries. British playboy versus stoic Austrian—delicious fodder for a Hollywood script.
4. Earnhardt vs. Gordon
When Jeff Gordon showed up on the NASCAR grid in 1992, Dale Earnhardt was at the top of his game. The squeaky-clean 21-year-old Gordon, wrapped in a dayglo rainbow fire suit, was a natural foil to the Intimidator—a man as tough as nails who drove a black car and used the chrome horn.
Earnhardt won his seventh and final championship in 1994, the same year that Gordon won his first race. Both were viewed as preseason favorites to win the 1995 title. As the season progressed, the duo became locked in an intense championship battle. Earnhardt joked mid-season that the youngster would have to toast with milk if he won the title.
He would do just that, toasting the Man in Black at the 1995 NASCAR awards ceremony with a glass of milk from his chair at the champion’s table. Gordon and Earnhardt rivalry was fully formed. To Earnhardt fans, Gordon was a “crybaby,” the antithesis to the roster of good ol’ boys that put the sport on the map. The clash split the NASCAR fanbase down the middle and catalyzed it’s 1990s boom in popularity.
3. Senna vs. Prost
In the late 1980s, McLaren teammates Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost were two of Formula 1’s best drivers. Senna, a hot-blooded Brazilian, and Prost, a strait-laced Frenchman who earned the nickname “Professor,” engaged in several landmark battles throughout their open-wheel careers. (That will happen when you share the same equipment.) A tenuous relationship throughout, their gentlemen’s rivalry turned toxic at Imola in 1989.
Prior to the grand prix, the two agreed that whoever got the jump from their front-row starting positions, would lead the other into the first turn. Senna earned the honors. Later in the race, Prost decided that the informal agreement should be renewed as he jumped Senna on a restart, catching his teammate off guard. Senna would eventually get back around Prost and take the win. Still, the seed was planted.
After the two traded top honors for much of the season, the bad blood boiled over at the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix when they nearly collided contending for the top spot. Like many of racing’s spats, though, the animosity eventually faded and the two restored the respectful nature to their rivalry.
2. Snake vs. Mongoose
Back in the 1960s, drag racers Don “The Snake” Prudhomme and Tom “Mongoose” McEwen frequently lined up against one another in opposite lanes. Both won races. Both had excellent nicknames.
In 1969, McEwen approached Mattel to sell them on funny car sponsorship. Rather than plaster one car with Hot Wheels logos, he sold them on a dual sponsorship of two fiberglass floppers. When the sponsorship dollars settled, it was Prudhomme in a yellow 1970 Plymouth Barracuda and McEwen in a red 1970 Plymouth Duster. The two drivers battled in match races on the strip, Hot Wheels produced diecast toy sets of the dual Mopar monsters, and Mattel minted moolah from the duo’s drag racing popularity.
It doesn’t matter that this conflict was as real as professional wrestling. Go ahead, try to name another motorsport rivalry that got a toy deal.
1. Ford vs. Ferrari
This is the ultimate motorsport rivalry and thus earns top honors. The amount of money that was spent to best the other puts Ford versus Ferrari on a shelf by itself.
If you’re not familiar with the story, it goes something like this: Ford and Ferrari almost ink a deal to form a corporate alliance. Enzo backs out in the 11th hour after deciding the Prancing Horse would be better served without Ford’s overlording despite the promise of some serious cash. Henry Ford II gets hot under the collar and vows to beat Enzo at his favorite past time: sports car racing. And in his own back yard, Le Mans. After spending enough dough to support a small nation, Ford finally breaks through in 1966 and wins Le Mans. They made a movie about it starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale.
(If the movie didn’t do it for you, or you want to parse out reality from Hollywood, check out Leo Levine’s Ford: The Dust and the Glory, Karl Ludvigsen’s The Inside Story of the Fastest Fords, A.J. Baime’s Go like Hell, or simply click here.)
The disagreement between two tycoons changed the course of auto racing forever. Talk about a rivalry.
Honorable mention: Cole Trickle vs. Rowdy Burns
In 1990, open-wheel standout Cole Trickle stormed onto the NASCAR scene. He was fast but burned through tires and wrecked often. The dart without feathers clashed with his then-teammate Rowdy Burns. The two sparred frequently culminating in a wheel chair and rental car race to dinner with their team owner.
Burns eventually had to retire from the sport after a wreck left him with concussion-like symptoms allowing their rivalry to form into a true friendship.
Reined-in by veteran crew chief Harry Hogge, Trickle would go on to NASCAR glory. Cue freeze frame and guitar solo.
Yes, we are referring to the 1990 movie Days of Thunder, starring Tom Cruise as Cole Trickle. While it certainly isn’t a real-life spat, the feud-turned-friendship between Trickle and Burns tops our list of fictitious motorsport rivalries.
You forgot about Petty vs Bobby Allison,a lot of torn up equipment or Petty vs Pearson,a lot of long term competition!
That one was in the running. Battles between The King and the Silver Fox were legendary.
Foyt won races and championships. Andretti won the press and one race. The media loved Mario while A.J. kept on winning. A.J,. retired and began a successful career as an owner. Mario retired and quit wrecking racecars. The Brickyard crews knew one for his attitude for his cars, and the other for his attitude for his opponents. Foyt is in an ultra select group of Indianapolis 500 Four time winners, Mario ushers celebrities in his 2-seater. Yeah, this is close.
Mario was an F1 champ, and won at Daytona. They were rivals in Indycar, no one is saying Mario was the better Indycar driver, just that there was a rivalry.
They happen to be 1-2 on the all time wins list and both won in sportscars, Indy championships, and NASCAR. Mario was also f1 champion. Both did some drag racing and Can-Am. Don’t belittle one of the winningest and most adaptable racers of all time.
What about the Allison’s and Cale Yarborough? A brawl on national TV, didn’t make the cut? That was a rivalry!
It was and one of the few physical brawls caught on film. I have that in my top 25. Maybe I’ll have to do a follow-up list.
Most of these are good, but Ford V. Ferrari gets my vote…
Not Jim Hall and Bruce McLaren in the Can-Am series? Rival car constructors as well as opposing drivers….
That’s a good one!
There is no doubt in my mind that Ford vs Ferrari is the ultimate showdown between brain’s, ego’s, money, raw talent, etc, etc, and the list goes on.
You missed the most titanic rivalry of all, not only because they went head-to-head as drivers but also because of the audacious, other-worldly machines they created…not to mention that the Angel of Death camped out permanently on their shoulders to the point where it seemed that their rivalry would only end once one of them was killed. Happily that didn’t happen although each escaped near-certain death accidents. I speak of course of Craig Breedlove vs. Art Arfons. Their Hollywood story has yet to be made, but two relatively new books by Samuel Hawley about their rivalry are as good as any motorsports book ever written.
Great point, Bill. I think that rivalry deserves a stand-alone piece.
Very small section of the bleachers over here, but it has some depth:
NOVI vs. The World.
We will be back.
A supercharged V8 has my vote any day.
I’m thinkin’ Senna vs. Prost was the most cut throat/dangerous
seems to me a fresh rivalry is entirely overlooked; not much love lost between Hamilton and Verstappen!
Great point, Brian.
AJ vs Mario. They were real men. Cars cannot hold a grudge… AJ is a winner, let a girl qualify for Indy in his car, he never quit. My favorite driver ever. I must admit that Mario was very nice to my teenage sons, invited him into his paddock and gave them a tour at Laguna Seca. And a former employer claimed “he could break an anvil”. But he never took old Turn 2 at Laguna flat out.
Studenorton nailed it in NOVI versus the world. Fastest car ever at Indy but mechanical problems and poor handling kept holding it back. Paul Russo was the best of the bunch driving that beast but even he was vulnerable to the NOVI jinx. When passing everything on the Indy backstretch he gleefully raised his hand to gesture goodbye when the change in aerodynamics turned the car around. Wasn’t meant to be.
Ford, Ferrari was easily they best rivalry and intense, it certainly was.
Petty vs. Pearson
KEZ VS EDWARDS
Rossi vs. Biaggi is a far very representation of the rivalries throughout Rossi’s illustrious career.
No mention of IMSA, FIA, SCCA and CANAM and their love or dislike of Jim Hall’s innovative racing machines, the Chaparrals. The 2J Sucker car, the E and the Flipper.
I like it. Hall’s innovation versus rule books!
How far back do we go? Auto Union vs. Mercedes in the 1930’s was a pretty epic rivalry of Silver Arrows. Bugatti vs. Alfa Romeo was pretty high strung as well.
Oooh, that one didn’t even cross my mind. Nice one, Phil.
John Force vs EVERYONE! John has won 155 races and 17 world championships (16 NHRA , 1 AHRA). He is the winningest driver in motorsports. His rivalries are many with some being, Whit Bazemore, Al Hoffman, Cruz Pedregon, & Matt Hagan. At 73 yrs. old he is still a “force” to be reckoned with and drivers are always gunning for him when they line up against him.
Good one, Jeff. His modern day rivals like Hagan are almost half his age. Ha!