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Cannonball!World's Greatest Outlaw Road Race
By Brock Yates
Motorbooks InternationalCopyright ©2003 Brock Yates
All right reserved.
The Madness Begins
PEG THE START OF THE ENTIRE cockamamie affair at noon on a wintry day in New York, early 1971. I was on my way to lunch at Brew's Pub on 34th Street with Car and Driver editor Bob Brown and fellow senior editor Leon Mandel. Walking near the magazine's One Park Avenue offices, it came to me, "Why the hell not run a race across the United States? A balls-out, shoot-the-moon, fuck-the-establishment rumble from New York to Los Angeles to prove what we had been harping about for years, i.e., that good drivers in good automobiles could employ the American Interstate system the same way the Germans were using their Autobahns? Yes, high-speed travel by car a reality! Truth and justice affirmed by an overtly illegal act."
The early 1970s were a time when illegal acts were in style. Everybody was going nuts with causes, most of them against the law. The Vietnam War was at its crazed peak and everybody was protesting something. We were smoking dope. College guys were burning their draft cards and blowing up ROTC buildings. Blacks were marching in the south. Redneck Klanners were wrecking churches. They were rioting at Attica. George Wallace was yelling defiance at the Feds, as was DanielEllsberg, who gave the secret Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and was charged with espionage. Even the Army was in the act, destroying Vietnamese villages "in order to save them," massacring civilians at My Lai and drilling hapless students at Kent State. The entire system was unraveling. Peace and love was the cry in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury and New York's Greenwich Village, where vile hatred of the "pigs," "the establishment," the government and everybody over 30 was a life force.
Everybody was paranoid about everything. At Car and Driver we were convinced that the automobile as we knew and loved it was as dead as the passenger pigeon. Ralph Nader was at full cry, drumming his tocsin of automobile doom into the brains of the public, convincing them that that lump of chrome and iron in the driveway was as lethal as a dose of Strontium 90 or a blast from a Viet Cong AK-47. A few months before my idea for a race, Congress had passed a mass of legislation that was sure to transform our muscle cars and sporty machines into pallid, padded prams with all the visceral passions of a pint of yogurt. The Clean Air Act gave the automobile industry six years to cleanse its products of 90 percent of all toxic exhaust emissions. Worse yet, we were sure the new Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Agency-OSHA-were bound to unleash legions of nanny state bureaucrats on us with the sole mission of herding us into a mass of spineless, subservient humanity obedient to the will of Big Brother.
Such was the unhinged fear and loathing that pervaded the land in early 1971. Therefore, what better time to add to the national psychosis? We trekked along 34th Street with me preaching about the grand scheme of a race, to be named for Erwin G. "Cannon Ball" Baker, the greatest cross-country record-breaker of them all. It had been Cannon Ball who set all kinds of point-to-point records in the early half of the century, driving everything from motorcycles to lumpy, low-powered sedans, to supercharged sports cars, to dump trucks and army tanks, all run with his simple guarantee, "No record, no pay."
Baker, a craggy Hoosier with a big nose, a defiant smile, and a pugnacious jaw, broke into the business on motorcycles after gaining a ride with the Indian motorcycle factory team. He began to set open records, first between small cities, then across the nation, which was still unconnected, coast-to-coast, by anything that could be described as decent highways. In 1915 he drove a Stutz Bearcrat from Los Angeles to New York in 11 days and seven hours, an amazing time, considering that most of eastern California, Arizona, and New Mexico offered little in the way of roads besides cattle trails and open range. On his way to setting 143 distance records before his death in 1960, Baker raced the New York Central 20th Century Limited from New York to Chicago in 1928, beating the elite passenger train into the Windy City. His greatest drive came in 1933, when he drove solo across the nation in 53 1/2 hours, sleeping for a half-hour behind the wheel of his Graham-Paige Model 57 Blue Streak 8. Even today, with the two coasts linked by Interstates, a one-man nonstop drive in that time frame would be a prodigious feat. But to do it on 1933-vintage two-lanes, many of them unpaved, borders on the miraculous. Therefore, what better man to celebrate in any madcap intercoastal adventure than Cannon Ball Baker?
Existential, high-speed drives across the nation were in style, at least in Hollywood. The most famous of them was the 1969 hit, Easy Rider, the drug-fogged chronicle of Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson's motorcycle ride to doom at the Mardi Gras. In 1971 two low-budget pictures hit the screen, both of which became cult favorites and one of which no doubt influenced my decision to run the first Cannonball. Barry Newman starred in Vanishing Point, in which he attempted, for no apparent reason, to drive a Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco in 15 hours. The second film, Two Lane Blacktop, was trumpeted by Esquire (at the time at the height of its powers as an avant-garde literary journal) as "the movie of the year." It starred two rock stars, James Taylor and Beach Boys stalwart Dennis Wilson, as a pair of racers driving their beat-up, primer-painted 1955 Chevrolet hardtop around the country, making money from impromptu drag races. They hooked up with fabled character actor Warren Oates, driving a flashy new Pontiac GTO, and dueled him in a mad dash on back roads to-in classic existential themes-nowhere for no real reason.
While Vanishing Point wasn't released until after the first Cannonball had been run, the Esquire hype surrounding Two Lane Blacktop was a factor in my conception of the Cannonball.
Bob Brown was nervous about the idea. Mandel, always the dyspeptic contrarian, denounced it as childish and ridiculous. But Steve Smith loved it. Smith, my longtime friend and former fellow-staffer on Car and Driver during the glory years of the 1960s, and I had long been intrigued with the notion of long-distance open road drives as the ultimate test of automobiles. What better environment in which to evaluate cars? After holding the editorship of Car and Driver, Smith had drifted to Los Angeles, then back to New York and a copywriting job with the giant J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. When visiting Manhattan from my upstate New York home in the village of Castile, I always bunked in with Smith, who, like the rest of us, was consumed with the fevers of antiestablishmentarianism.
We convinced ourselves that all manner of crazies, race drivers, hot car wackos, fellow journalists, etc. would immediately throw in their lot if a coast-to-coast Cannonball was announced. Aside from Baker's known records, legend had it that basketball superstar Wilt Chamberlain had driven a Lamborghini from New York to Los Angeles solo in 36 hours and 10 minutes. But Wilt had also claimed to have boffed women equaling the entire population of southern California, and there was no way of confirming his time on the road or in the sack. John Christie, a former editor of Car and Driver who had defected to the Petersen Publishing empire in LA, bragged about driving an Austin-Healey from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., in 48 hours, which sounded impressive until it was acknowledged that he had counted only the time on the road and not his overnight stops. Any number of other so-called records floated around, but now it was time to lay down some legitimate times against a real clock. The concept would be exquisitely simple: Contestants would clock out of the Red Ball Parking Garage on 32nd Street (where the magazine housed its tiny test fleet) in midtown Manhattan and drive, ad hoc, to the Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach, (a noted racers' hangout) where they would clock in again. The lowest elapsed time point-to-point would determine the winner. This would be the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. Herewith an anomaly: While Baker called himself "Cannon Ball" I, for reasons I cannot recall, contracted the name to "Cannonball," thereby separating the late, great driver from the event, if only in name, but not in deed.
Who among serious car nuts could resist such a challenge? Everybody, it turned out.
Smith had read a story in Rolling Stone titled "Roaring Around with Robert Redford," in which the author recounted some high-speed driving by the actor. This prompted a letter from Smith to Redford. A surrogate responded indicating interest, then silence. Others in the car business expressed initial enthusiasm then began to fret about speeding tickets, punishment from employers, angry wives, etc. and steadily dropped out. We faced the prospect of a nonevent.
Our vehicle would be a 1971 Dodge Custom Sportsman van powered by a 360-cubic-inch, 225-horsepower V-8 that had been featured in Car and Driver as Boss Wagon III-the most recent of a series of vehicles that had been mildly customerized by the staff. Boss Wagon III became Moon Trash II, a paean to the well-liked, Manhattan-based Chrysler Corporation Dodge Division public relations expert, B.F. "Moon" Mullins. He was a good friend of the magazine and had arranged for the Dodge van to be loaned, after which it had been equipped with Scheel bucket seats, Cragar S/S mag wheels mounted with Firestone, 60-series Wide Oval tires, and other goodies, including a small Norcold refrigerator.
Two other drivers were recruited. I had met Jim Williams at a clothesline art show in Rochester, New York, in the fall of 1970 and had purchased a painting of a sprint car he had done while finishing up his studies at the Rochester Institute of Technology. A fine artist and fledgling writer, Williams was on the verge of being hired by Bob Brown as an associate editor at Car and Driver and was an enthusiastic recruit for the Cannonball. A fourth, expert mechanic and club racer Chuck Kreuger, with whom I had campaigned a Sadler Formula Junior and a Dodge Trans-Am car, was also set to run, but had to defer to a house-building project at the last hour. Kreuger's main contribution was to tune up Moon Trash and to install a small rooftop wing at my request-a disastrous accoutrement that would not only slow us down but would butcher our fuel mileage in the name of high style.
With three drivers, there suddenly became room for my 14-year-old son, Brock Jr., who, while too young to drive the vehicle, would serve as an observer for cops-a sort of human adjunct to our secret weapon, a crude "Radar Sentry" radar detector that was at the time a state-of-the-art device against the rising employment of X-band radar by the highway patrols. The Radar Sentry was but one of a handful of radar detectors on the market at the time. All of them were essentially useless, although the police were limited to using stationary, handheld radar guns. Antispeed technologies like Instant-on, K-and Ka-band, laser, etc., were unknown. VASCAR was beginning to be employed, but on a limited basis. The notion of using citizen band radio was unthought of and would not come into vogue until the middle of the decade.
Smith and I devised several high-speed cross-country strategies, including one ill-fated idea to run a straight-line Mercator-style route from upstate New York to Manhattan that dead-ended in a gravel pit somewhere in Bath, New York. After much planning, it was decided to take the classic route westward on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, across the Midwest to St. Louis, then angling southwest, utilizing as much as possible of the still-incomplete Interstate system to Los Angeles. The symbolism appealed: The westward movement. To the Golden State! Hollywood! The streets paved with gold! Go west, young man! Look out, Horace Greeley, here Comes Moon Trash!
Then came word from Redford. His secretary, a woman named Becky, called to say that he would like to go-Los Angeles to New York, if possible, but had a heavy film schedule and wondered if the run could be postponed until August. A second call from a Redford surrogate named Ed Jones confirmed that the actor was not available, although Kirk F. White, a Philadelphia exotic car dealer, told us he would provide a Ferrari Daytona for Redford, if he were prepared to participate. No dice. Redford was out. Other phone calls to friends in the business initially produced an agreement to race, but slowly each fell off the wagon. Kim Chapin, the Sports Illustrated writer, dropped out after he lost a codriver. Jean Shepard, the New York-based humorist and fellow C/D columnist, demurred because of a heavy television schedule. Russ Goebel, the publisher of Autoweek/Competition Press claimed scheduling problems, as did Ford public relations man Monty Roberts, West Coast magazine writer Ocee Rich and hotshot advertising director/cinematographer Joe Pytka.
Worse yet, Car and Driver editor Bob Brown was getting nervous. He fretted over reader reaction to an overtly illegal race and began to waffle over coverage, although he finally agreed that I could write an extended column covering the event. As the proposed May 3, 1971, start edged closer, the race appeared to be devolving into nothing more than a solo run across the nation in an attempt to set a coast-to-coast record, if such a thing existed.
Once we decided to actually make the run, I wrote my monthly Car and Driver column for the July issue (two months early due to printing and distribution deadlines) just prior to leaving. It was there that the announcement was made for what would forever after be known as Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. A "trophy dash" was a short race, generally five laps, for the four fastest qualifiers in sprint car and midget competition and seemed an appropriately absurd play on words for a race several thousand times longer. "Memorial" was included in the title as a veiled lament to what we considered at the time to be the impending doom to high-performance cars and fast driving, at the hands of the government and the Nader forces.
In the summary paragraph of the column I made reference to some of the inspiration for the race: "Those fey sweethearts over at Esquire gave you the entire script of Two Lane Blacktop in a recent issue. Keep your eyes glued on this spot for the real thing. Maybe we'll call ours Four Lane Cement.
Excerpted from Cannonball! by Brock Yates Copyright ©2003 by Brock Yates. Excerpted by permission.
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