Racing on the Opatija Riviera, from the Adriatic Grand Prix to the women’s car rally

Women’s car rally in Rijeka Autoklub Rijeka /

Mar 11, 2022 – Did you know that Rijeka once hosted an all-women car rally?

Rijeka and Opatija have a long tradition of motor racing, dating back to the early 1930s, when a circuit called Opatija Circuit started hosting motor races.

Also known as the Kvarner Circuit (Circuito del Carnaro), the race route was 6 kilometers long and had a starting point in Preluk Bay between Rijeka and Opatija. The tour took the streets of Opatija and its surroundings, offering splendid views of the Adriatic Sea.

The circuit’s fame was the 1939 Adriatic Grand Prix, when the Italian team decided to compete in Opatija instead of the French Grand Prix in Reims. Luigi Villoresi won the race driving a Maserati 4CL, essentially transforming Opatija into a prestigious racing location overnight.

It soon became apparent that the narrow roads along the coastline, with many roadside obstacles, did not exactly provide safe driving conditions. On more than one occasion, races on the Opatija circuit have resulted in the tragic death of drivers; although the track remained popular for decades despite all the problems, motor racing was discontinued after the Formula 3 Gran Premio Adriatico in 1968.

The end of motor racing kicked off the golden age of motorcycle racing, after the Adriatic Grand Prix became a round of the FIM Motorcycle World Championship.

The 1977 Grand Prix took place despite an order from the FIM to improve track safety. No changes were made prior to the event and the race ended with 19 injuries and 2 deaths, prompting the FIM to ban all road races from the World Championship calendar. The fame of the Opatija circuit came to an end and a modern replacement circuit was created on the other side of Rijeka – the Automotodrom Grobnik.

A lesser known fact about racing on the Kvarner coast is that Rijeka also hosted an all-women car rally. Named Rijeka Women’s Auto Rally, the racing event was held every year from 1971 to 1999.

In 1971, as Auto Club Rijeka celebrated its 25th anniversary, the club’s board decided to organize an all-female race in honor of International Women’s Day.

Organized on March 7, 1971, the first rally aroused a lot of interest, 60 drivers registered to take part in the race. The 41 km circuit took runners from the starting point in Preluk to Lovran, Jušići, Krnjevo and back to Preluk.

preluk_02-1.jpgPreluk Bay /

They competed in three classes: 850 ccm, 1250 ccm and 1250+ ccm, won in the first year by Inga Kren, Radmila Valković and Vesna Grgurina respectively.

The Rijeka Women’s Car Rally quickly became an attractive racing event which, together with the Zagreb International Rally, formed the basis for the creation of the National Women’s Championship.

Women flocked to Rijeka from other parts of Croatia to show off their racing skills. Some of the notable winners were Sonja Kezele and Mirjana Bučić from Opatija with ten wins each, Nađa Cenov from Rijeka who won the race eight times, and Olga Bebić from Split who won seven times.

After a while, 41 drivers who had won in certain categories or in the general classification were granted the right to participate in a racing event called the Champions Cup.

In 1996, Auto Club Rijeka celebrated its 50th anniversary with a grand 25th edition of the women’s rally, organized under the motto “50 hours of rallying” and complemented by an entertainment program that offered something new with every passing hour .

All-women’s rallies were held in Croatia until 1999. The last, 28th women’s rally in Rijeka was won by Auto Club Rijeka, represented by racers Palmina Alijanović, Smiljka Pavić, Luisa Božićević, Dajana Aračić and Ljiljana Kamenar .

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