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The Cannonball Run

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The Article originally appeared in Car and Driver March 1972

From the March 1972 issue

Those damn fools, they went and did it. Shortly after midnight on the 15th of November, 1971, six outlandish vehicles, manned by 16 even more outlandish drivers, co-drivers, navigators, mechanics—and a TWA stewardess, for God’s sake—scattered out of the Red Ball Garage on East 31st Street in New York City and headed west. A few hours passed and two more entrants joined the chase—a coast-to-coast epic that will be remembered as the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. Eight vehicles in all, 23 lunatics. Less than a day and a half later (six minutes less, to be precise), the first car, a mud-streaked Ferrari Daytona, yowled into the parking lot of the Portofino Inn in the marina of Redondo Beach, California, 2863 miles from New York. In the next three hours, four more machines had checked in, and the exhausted, red-eyed competitors were lounging around, breathing the gentle Pacific air, stretching their cramped, grubby bodies in the warm sun, and exchanging tales of their adventures. Twenty-four more hours passed before the last competitor, a pachydermatous Travco Motor Home with a shrieking police motorcycle escort, rolled sedately over the finish line.
It was over. The Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash had entered the annals of sporting minutiae, leaving future generations to decide what it meant, if anything. To those involved, it had been an adventure, encompassing difficult endurance driving, nasty weather, brushes with the law—some of the latter bordering on the absurd—navigational challenges and a variety of mechanical troubles. The concept had been refreshing in its simplicity. Whereas every automotive competition in the world is encumbered by a thicket of confusing rules, the Cannonball Baker had but one—“All competitors will drive any vehicle of their choosing, over any route, at any speed they judge practical, between the starting point and destination. The competitor finishing with the lowest elapsed time is the winner.”

There were no other rules. Once this word filtered through the underground of the sport, a substantial discussion arose as to what type car would be best suited, what route would be the fastest, etc. In keeping with the essentially anarchistic underpinnings of the event, there was no organizing body (save for a shadowy group known as “The True Friends of Hernando de Soto”), and more important, no prize money. The only material award to be gained by the winner was possession of the S-K “Nutmaster” trophy—a free-form sculpture of wrenches, hammers, and pliers fabricated and donated by the S-K Tool Company.

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In its simple challenge, getting from New York to Los Angeles in the quickest possible time, lay the fascination for the competitors. Others wanted to go but were held back by obligations to job and family, or in some cases fear of censure. Others talked big but disappeared before the start. In the end, it was eight cars, 21 guys, and two women who ran the Cannonball Baker.

The race began at the Red Ball Garage shortly after midnight on November 15. While the competitors could leave at any time they chose during the 24 hours of the 15th, most chose to depart New York in the dead of night, primarily to avoid the Manhattan and New Jersey normal cheek-to-jowl traffic and to permit them to run the Los Angeles freeways at roughly midday, 36 to 38 hours later—if all went well. While an Indy-type flying start through the Lincoln Tunnel would have been ideal, practical considerations dictated the staggered start with the entrants leaving the Red Ball at informal intervals. The competitors are listed in the order in which they departed: Chevrolet Sportvan: Polish Racing Drivers of America—Drivers, Oscar Koveleski, Tony Adamowicz, and Brad Niemcek. This team requested to leave first, based on its obvious claim to the “pole” position.

This request was not contested by the other teams, so the PRDA rolled away from the Red Ball at 12:11 a.m. with a small cluster of photographers, Car and Driver staffers, and baffled pedestrians witnessing their departure. The plan was to run nonstop, thanks to a special setup using five 55-gallon fuel drums and a myriad of hoses, lines, and pumps, which gave them a total onboard capacity of 298 gallons. (Note: Others knew they would have to stop. The original Cannonball Baker, run last May by Moon Trash II, an infamous Dodge Van, in 40 hours and 51 minutes, had consumed 315 gallons of gas. With nearly an extra ton of gas on board, giving their PRDA van a gross weight approaching 7000 pounds, mileage had to slump to a point where a stop would be necessary.) Briggs Chevrolet, the New Jersey dealer that entered the van for the PRDA, had also modified the dipstick and filler setup so oil could be added without stopping. A special 3.07:1 final drive, Corvette dual ignition, heavy-duty Goodyear tires, tachometer, bunk, and modified air cleaner completed the improvements.

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Professional racer Adamowicz, one of the two FIA-graded American drivers, was teamed with Oscar Koveleski, a perennial Can-Am competitor, SCCA champion, and racing public-relations expert, and club racer Brad Niemcek. They left a substantial tide of publicity (which some of their more paranoid rivals thought the police might have read), claiming that with the aid of multitudes of PRDA members across the country and their nonstop capacity, they would win by maintaining legal speed limits. Decked out in fancy fireproof racing uniforms, they accelerated their wildly decorated van into the night as Steve Smith, Cannonball pioneer and sage of cross-country racing, commented, “They’ll need more than Nomex to protect them if they so much as cough. If that thing lets go, it’ll make Amchitka look like a wet match.”

1971 Cadillac Sedan deVille: Driveaway Special
—Drivers, Larry Opert, Nate Pritzker, Ron Herisko, all of Cambridge, Massachusetts. As this trio rolled away at 12:14 a.m., they had to be strong candidates for the Style Award (if there could be such a thing in an event of this nature). Lawyer Opert, brother of racing-car dealer Fred Opert and himself a club racer, plus his law partner Herisko and engineer friend Pritzker, had no car that suited the demands of the Cannonball, so they found one in the stygian pages of the New York Times. They answered an ad from a stuffy New York businessman who wanted his new Caddy transported to California. Our three heroes got the job, provided they did not drive the nearly new (2500 miles) sedan before eight o’clock in the morning, did not stay on the road after nine in the evening, and under no circumstances exceeded 75 mph. Putting the owner’s mind at rest, the Cambridge team snatched up the car, stuffed a set of binoculars in the glove compartment, and screeched off toward the Red Ball.

1970 MGB/GT
—Drivers, Bob Perlow, Baldwin, Long Island, and Wes Dawn, Venice, California. Perlow and Dawn left at 12:15 in a car they hadn’t expected to be driving. Perlow’s original entry, a Volvo P1800, had been stolen at the United States Grand Prix (and recovered, although the local authorities never bothered to notify him), so he bought the MGB used with 10,000 miles on the clock. A student at Hofstra University, Perlow met up with Dawn, a West Coast television worker and club racer, a few days before the race. Aside from adding driving lights and cans of fuel and water, their car was dead stock.

1971 Dodge Van, Modified
—Drivers, Tom Marbut, Randy Waters, and Becky Poston, all of Little Rock, Arkansas. Everyone called them the “Little Rock Tankers,” because they’d mounted 190-gallon aluminum gas tanks in the back of their dazzling, new Dodge van.

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Operators of the Sound ’N Sirloin restaurant in Little Rock, Marbut and Waters, plus Tom‘s girlfriend, Becky Poston, had put together their van after reading the exploits of Moon Trash II in C/D. Aside from its special paint and fuel system, the van was equipped with a 2.94 final drive, an outside exhaust system, a radar detector (which sounded an alarm at every airport, but never made a peep in the vicinity of the police) and a thickly rugged interior. Its 360 cu. in. engine had been fitted with a Holley 750 CFM carburetor. “Snoopy II,” as they called the van, had made a reconnaissance run from Little Rock to New York and back the week previous to the race. The Little Rock Tankers departed the Red Ball Garage at 12:22.

1971 Ferrari 365GTB/4 Daytona coupe
—Drivers, Dan Gurney, Santa Ana, California, and Brock Yates. This team left at 12:32. Their Ferrari was entered by exotic-car impresario Kirk F. White, of Philadelphia. It was utterly stock (what could be modified?), and aside from a couple of sacks full of bread and cheese, peanuts, chocolate bars, Vitamin C tablets, Gatorade, a thermos of coffee and some extra spark plugs, etc., no extra equipment was carried. A dazzling blue paint job, complete with exquisite pinstriping plus a patchwork of sponsor decals, made the car about as inconspicuous as Hugh Hefner’s DC-9. Virtually everybody was convinced the car would be a wide favorite with law enforcement officers.

Moon Trash II: 1971 Dodge Van
—Drivers, Steve Behr, Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts, and Kim Chapin, New York City, stewardess, Miss Holly Morin, Boston, Massachusetts. Surely the sentimental favorite, Moon Trash II barely made the starting line. A crash on Manhattan’s West Side Drive several weeks earlier had wiped out its front end, and work had been carried on until a matter of hours before the start. It was painted a lethal-looking flat black, its headlights were unaimed and the heater was not operable as it left for Los Angeles.

Otherwise, it was the same machine that carried Yates, Steve Smith, Jim Williams, and Yates’s son, Brock Jr., to the first Cannonball Baker record of 40 hours and 51 minutes in May 1971. Job demands kept Smith and Williams from going this time, while young Yates was back in school, but the two former drivers were on hand at the Red Ball when Moon Trash II departed. At the wheel was Steve Behr, a highly competent SCCA racer who shared, with John Buffum, the honor of being the American to finish highest in the history of the Monte Carlo Rally (12th overall in 1969). In that competition Steve had noted ironically that the police had escorted the racers the entire distance. With him was Sports Illustrated and C/D writer Kim Chapin and Holly Morin, a friend and TWA stewardess who’d just arrived in New York on a flight from Los Angeles. The hope of avoiding morning rush-hour traffic in Columbus kept Moon Trash II from leaving before 1:53 a.m., making it the sixth entry to depart.

1966 Union 76 Travco Motor Home
—Drivers, Bill Broderick, Phil Pash, both of Chicago; Bob Carey, Arlington, Virginia; Joe Frasson, Golden Valley, Minnesota; and Pal Parker, Waynesville, North Carolina. After driving their aging (five years old, 38,000 miles) but eager motorhome nonstop from Lou Klug’s motorhome rentals in Cincinnati, Ohio, Broderick and Co. caught a few hours’ sleep and left the Red Ball at 5:56 a.m.

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While the 65-mph top speed of the old machine made it a long shot to win, Broderick, who is Union 76’s racing public relations man, hoped to set a cross-country record for motorhomes and bring some publicity to his company’s network of lavish truck stops along the way. Phil Pash, motorsports columnist for Chicago Today, planned to send daily dispatches on the journey. Pal Parker, a specialist in racing photography, and Bob Carey, Editor of Circle Track and Highway, intended coverage as well. Joe Frasson, an upcoming Grand National stock-car driver, was along to run fast, especially while drafting tractor-trailer rigs.

1969 AMX
—Drivers, Ed and Tom Bruerton, Oakland, California. This team of enthusiastic brothers, with their 90,000-mile-old AMX (veteran of a trip the full length of Baja, California, among other things), would have left with the rest, but they needed sleep. They had arrived in New York only hours before midnight, after a 44-hour, nonstop reconnaissance run from the Portofino Inn, and sought refuge in a hotel for some critically needed rest before starting out again. Ed, who is a supermarket manager, and Tom, a pharmacy student at Cal Tech, had made numerous long-distance runs, including a number of Memorial Day weekend jaunts from Oakland to Indy for the “500,” leaving a day before the race and running home the day following. When they left the Red Ball at 2:51 p.m. Monday afternoon, they carried a pair of binoculars, some snacks, a stopwatch, a fresh idea of the route, and a certain apprehension about the old AMX holding up for 3000 flat-out miles.

While the justification (or lack of it) for the Cannonball Baker will be debated for some time, a number of tangible conclusions were forthcoming regarding routes, type of vehicles, tactics, etc.

While the Ferrari won, it was not driven the fastest. The Cadillac’s over-the-road average (excluding stops) was faster and Moon Trash’s was equal to the winner. There is little question that the Ferrari won for other reasons: such as excellent mileage—the highest of the eight competitors at 12.2 mpg—combined with a 29-gallon gas tank that provided a range of 300 to 350 miles. This, coupled with its extraordinary high-performance capabilities in acceleration, braking, comfort, cornering, and cruising speed (plus Gurney), made the difference.

The Ferrari made nine stops for gas, consuming approximately 50 minutes. The PRDA van made one seven-minute stop. The Ferrari consumed 240 gallons of fuel averaging 80 mph; the PRDA van used 356 gallons while traveling a slightly shorter route and averaging about 3 mph less. On the other end of the scale, the Cadillac and Moon Trash, both with stock tanks, made 15 and 14 gas stops, respectively, but were in the thick of competition, if other factors like police and mechanical troubles are discounted. In sum, the extra weight, lower mileage, poorer handling, and general hazard of massive fuel loads produce strong limitations.

Big car or little car, van or Ferrari, sedan or sports car, economy car or monster machine—there is no clear-cut solution. When it is remembered that the first five finishers were separated by less than two hours, the difficulty of deciding on the perfect long-distance vehicle comes into fouls.

The problem of tactics provides a clearer answer. To run flat out or to cool it; that is the question, and the “cool it” school seems to be the way in any long-distance journey. Speeds in excess of 100 mph, regardless of how safe they might be on modern interstates, simply attract too many lawmen. The Cadillac, with five apprehensions that cost them several hours, is a perfect example of the limitations of this mode of travel. By contrast, the two fastest cars, the Ferrari and the PRDA, collected but one ticket between them, and both made the trip at carefully paced, ever watchful speeds in the 90-to-100-mph range. (The Ferrari was stopped during the period that rule was violated.) Sustained speed is the key to the Cannonball, and any time lost to the police is a disaster. Therefore a happy medium must be found without attracting attention. Sounds simple, what?

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Seven of the eight competitors used essentially the same route—the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Interstate 70, Interstate 40 network running through Columbus, Saint Louis, Oklahoma City, Flagstaff, etc. Only the Ferrari took a different course. Rather than run Interstate 78 from northern New Jersey to the intersection of the Pennsy Turnpike at Harrisburg, its crew cut northward across New Jersey’s Route 46, through Netcong and Hackettstown, to Interstate 80 due west across Pennsylvania.

From there they cut southwest across Ohio from Akron to Columbus, intersecting with the conventional route. This is a good choice if one leaves in the middle of the night. Otherwise Route 46 is clogged with traffic over much of its two-lane distance. It is unusable during daylight hours.

The Ferrari also used the Ash Fork cutoff west of Flagstaff, Arizona, heading south on Routes 89, 71, and 60 to reach Interstate 10. While good road, there are several mountainous sections on Route 89 that are extremely dangerous and should only be attempted by expert drivers in excellent cars.

The Ferrari traveled approximately 35 miles farther than its rivals, but the higher speeds attained over that extra distance helped to win. Yet the perfect route, especially with the constant addition of new interstate highways, is still unknown. (Nearly six hours was lopped off Moon Trash’s original record, set last May, primarily because of better route knowledge and the new four-lane sections that were opened this summer. If this trend continues, a 32-hour trip may be possible.)

There has been lengthy discussion of the so-called northern route, taking Interstate 80 westward across Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Utah, then cutting southwest across Nevada to take advantage of the absence of speed limits in that state. However, it is 200 miles longer, and winter comes early to Wyoming, making the trip in November extremely risky. The southern route, using Interstate 81 to Knoxville, Tennessee, then cutting west across the deep south to Texas, etc., has been studied, but it is again 200 miles farther. But then, if there were bad weather in the central states .

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One conclusion is clear: better roads in the eastern and central United States permit faster average speeds than in the far west. The slowest running comes in New Mexico and Arizona, mainly because many towns have to be safely traversed. And don’t forget, five of the 10 traffic tickets came near the Arizona/California border. It is ironic that here, in the vastness of the west, there is the heaviest concentration of police. Why? Because, given one-on-one situations in the desert, it’s easiest to make arrests. No competitor was even looked at in the heavy traffic of New York, Saint Louis, Oklahoma City, or Los Angeles, where the accident probability is highest.

That was the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. No one who ran, not Gurney, not Adamowicz, not anybody, got a dime for the race, making it some kind of milestone in modern automotive annals.