The Tank Biathlon — A Tanking fiesta

By Vitaly V. Kuzmin

Got a spare tank lying around?

How about racing against some of the toughest tank crews in the world?

Sounds unbelievable but tank racing is a REAL sport in Russia. It’s called the Tank Biathlon, and since 2013, has become a huge hit in extreme sports circles.

The competition involves wildly-colored front-line tanks of all makes and models. We don’t know if NATO tanks have been participating on the sly, though. The Tank Biathlon copies the original skiing-slaloming-shooting sport — just that a 160-lb skier and a 10-lb rifle are replaced by a 44-ton battle tank sporting a 125-mm main gun that can flatten a building. So cool.

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The History

Every year, Russia organizes the Army Games, which is both a test and display of its military muscle. The Tank Biathlon, first organized in 2013, is one part of the Army Games. Countries from all over the world take part. This includes ex-Soviet states like Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and others. 2020 saw countries like Vietnam, the Congo, Qatar, Laos, Myanmar, and South Ossetia sign up. Russia generally always wins the Tank Biathlon, with China coming in a close second.

The Events

The Tank Biathlon is held in August every year at the Alabino Testing Grounds near Moscow. The calendar of events is spread over a week that opens with a motorcycle display, followed by air displays featuring MiG-29s, Sukhoi -30 fighter jets, Tu-95 turboprop bombers, and Ka-53 attack helicopters. Then, there’s an amateur model airplane display that seesWW2 and Cold War-era replicas take to the skies once again. Oh yeah.

The star performance of the day, but, is the Tank Ballet — which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s an orchestrated ‘dance’ of Russian heavy metal, that sees the world’s best tank pilots recreate adagio combinations with the poise and grace of ballet dancers. With the whistling of the superchargers, the huff, and puff of the dampers, and the clanking of tank tracks, the Tank Ballet is — different. There’s a special presentation of the classic T-34, too. Over the next six days, special events are dedicated to the T-72, T-80, T-90, and the all-new T-14 Armata. If you love tanks, carry extra undies.

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The Teams

The teams consist of three people — a driver, loader, and gunner. The driver is generally also the captain of the team because he has to decide when to fire. The course is an unforgiving one consisting of bridges, rivers, mud, gradients, and sand. The captain should be able to sense when and where his ship has the best chance of scoring a hit. Every participating nation can send up to four such crews, out of which one is a reserve. Six maintenance technicians can be brought along, and the crews are managed by two coaches. The coaches report to the head of the delegation, who’s a senior military officer. Everyone has to belong to the military. Civilians aren’t allowed. Bummer.

Just love tanks!

The Racing

Only tanks resembling the T-72 series can take part. This includes the Chinese Type 96 and the Indian T-90MS. For shooting, the shells used should be non-lethal, and slower than ones used for live firing. For 2020, the rules stipulated the use of a type that had a speed lower than 1000 m/s (3280 ft/s). There are three types of races. The first one is an individual race that includes one tank and one crew from all the participants. It’s a straight dash from start to finish. The second one is a relay, which first includes eight teams divided into two groups. The winners of the first relay then enter the final round which decides the winner. All the rounds involve shooting, too.

The Shooting

Well, why would it even have tanks in the first place? Because Russia (and generally everyone around the world) loves big guns. There’s plenty of shooting. It starts from the individual races. Crews race each other to the finish line WHILE shooting down tank-sized targets. Sometimes, during the relay stages, the tanks are required to shoot up slopes, while at a precarious 30-degree angle. This is a test not just of the gunner’s aiming skills, but also of how well the driver calculates the gun’s recoil and balances the tank on the inclines. Advanced rounds involve smaller targets and that’s where the auxiliary machine gun comes into play. Depending on the crew, it can either be a.30 cal or a .50 cal. The smaller.30 cal (7.62mm) gun has a higher firing rate but does less damage. But then you can carry more ammo compared to a .50 cal, which needs barrel replacement and extra cooling equipment.

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What’s it like

Before the racing begins, teams can do practice laps around the course. There’s no guarantee of victory even if you can drive around the track blindfolded, though. You see, the harder a tank is driven, the higher the chance of a mechanical breakdown. The tracks and wheels on a tank wear out every 200–300 miles, while the 800+ horsepower engines are hot and thirsty all the time. Then, there’s crew fatigue. Imagine bouncing around all day in a 50-ton metal box with little to no cushioning on the seats. And then having to aim and fire a huge gun that makes you deaf every time you press the trigger. Add to that the hot exhaust, mixed with fumes from the blowback system in the main gun, and a tank commander’s life seems rough. All the tank crews are soldiers, but no plan survives the first contact, right?

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The Tanks

The rules of the Tank Biathlon state that only T-72s or similar models can take part. That’s why you’ll see every available model year of the T-72, along with India’s T-90MS and Chinese Type 96 tanks rolling up to the start line. There are many reasons why this is done. Number one is to level the playing field so that smaller, weaker nations can take part. Then, the T-72 was the number one tank of choice for nations who were either not part of NATO or could not afford NATO equipment. The tank was first fired up in the 70s, so there are plenty of spares available. Armies either buy up old tanks and cannibalize them for parts, or make their own. The plentiful spares make repairing a T-72 much easier than, say, an M1AI Abrams, especially in a battlefield scenario. And, since it can run off either diesel, benzene, or kerosene, there’s no way you can run out of fuel in a T-72. It’s the Toyota pickup of the armored world.

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It’s Russia’s version of NASCAR, so you have to check it out in person. Tickets start from 19,600 rubles per person ($262), according to this website. It might sound like a lot, but it includes hotel pickup and drop, a guide, a full tour of the Patriot park, and tickets for the seven-day-long Tank Biathlon. In comparison, a one-day ticket for the 2021 Daytona 500 starts from $140.

The 2020 edition of the Tank Biathlon was concluded on September 5, with Russia in the first place, followed by China and Kazakhstan. A big surprise was Vietnam, who came first in the second division.

The Russians really do know how to have fun, right?

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Adreesh Ghoshal

Automobile Engineer. Content Writer. Biker. Defense Enthusiast. Indian.