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The Cannonball Run is celebrating its 40th anniversary ... The Cannonball Run is celebrating its 40th anniversary (Getty Images).
Why would anyone drive across the United States as fast as possible with no promise of a reward? I once did it, and I don't have a real answer.

We might ask Brock Yates, now almost 80, because he completed such a run four times and failed on a fifth try because of mechanical gremlins. Moreover, he convinced more than 300 co-conspirators to join him. Yates earned a large and loyal following during the decades he was a semi-outlaw columnist at Car and Driver, and was one of the talents that once made Car and Driver a synonym for erudite outrageousness.

Yates is less well known as a dedicated reader of history, which he is, but it was this facet of his many-sided personality that led him to discover a man named Erwin Baker.

Baker, who drove and finished the 1922 Indianapolis 500 and won the first motorcycle race ever held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, became famous for making non-stop trips across the country. His first, on an Indian motorcycle, came in 1914 and took 11 days. In 1915, he drove from Los Angeles to New York in a Stutz Bearcat, again taking about 11 days and helping him earn his nickname of "Cannonball."

In 1933, Baker drove a Model 57 Graham-Paige from New York to Los Angeles, taking 53 hours and 30 minutes. He did it by himself, taking one restorative 30-minute nap during the trip. This record, which had stood for 40 years, piqued Yates's interest.

Reasoning that records are made for breaking and that the new Interstate highway system would make Baker's record easy to best, Yates and three others set out from Manhattan in a Dodge van and drove into the Portofino Inn at Redondo Beach, California, 40 hours and 51 minutes later. This run, which began on May 3, 1971, became known as Cannonball I.

Never one to waste an opportunity for controversy, Yates wrote of the trip in Car and Driver. Not unexpectedly, he got mail, much of it from enthusiasts who wanted to try the run themselves. Accordingly, a second Cannonball was set for November 15, 1971.

Cannonball II attracted eight entries, including the Polish Racing Drivers of America. The PRDA, and a team from Little Rock, Arkansas, each fielded vans containing enough gasoline to blow up the Red Ball Garage, the starting point on Manhattan's East 31st Street.

Yates and racing driver Dan Gurney entered a dark blue Ferrari Daytona in the event, now formally named the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. In a bravura performance, the two won the race with a time of 35 hours and 54 minutes. A Cadillac finished third and would have won, had its team not paused during the event to deal with a half-dozen speeding tickets. The PRDA was second.

That Cannonball produced the famous single rule that governed the run: There are no rules.

A second Yates article in Car and Driver produced even more would-be Cannonballers. Never one to squander enthusiasm, Yates set Cannonball III for November 13, 1972, and it attracted 34 entrants.

In late 1972, the 55-mph national speed limit lay a year in the future, but the law enforcement establishment, as you might expect, took a dim view of a bunch of madmen (and madwomen) streaking across the U.S. on public roads and aggressively ignoring the speed limit.
Would you ever want to drive in the Cannonball Run?
Yes. Where can I sign up?! 6897 (84.9%)
No. That is way too much driving. 1231 (15.1%)


This heightened awareness led entrants to mount countermeasures. A team of three men in a Mercedes-Benz sedan dressed as priests who "were delivering the Monsignor's car to California." One team, carrying a container of animal eyeballs, pretended to be rushing to some unspecified "eye bank."

A team of three women drivers, led by the late Donna Mae Mimms, entered a Cadillac limousine equipped with a portable toilet. When one of her co-drivers went to sleep, the Cadillac went off the road and onto its roof. Mimms sustained a broken collar bone and the toilet was upended.

Steve Behr, Fred Olds and Bill Canfield won Cannonball III in a Cadillac Coupe de Ville, but did not break the record, finishing in 37 hours and 16 minutes. The Cadillac, like the Cadillac that finished third in 1972, was a "driveaway," meaning that yet a second unsuspecting owner's car arrived days earlier than expected.

Outside factors such as the 55-mph speed limit and the lingering effects of the OPEC embargo kept the Cannonball off the roads until April 23, 1975, when a field of 18 showed up at the Red Ball Garage for another try at the record. Well, 17 of them anyway. A 37-foot Travco motor home with its crew of six made its third Cannonball appearance but was never a factor in the record setting activity.

Cannonball IV ran without incident, if you didn't count tickets, and two Floridians, Jack May and Rick Cline, brought their Ferrari Dino home one minute faster than the Gurney/Yates record. The new time bogey stood at 35 hours and 53 minutes.

Yates drove a Dodge Challenger prepared by NASCAR great Cotton Owens in events II and IV, finishing second in 1972 and third in 1975.

A Time magazine article in May of 1975 gave the event the cachet of reality, if not respectability, and helped spawn at least two movies that effectively, and tastelessly, ripped off Yates's idea.

Yates had planned to end the Cannonball at that point, but the movies, continuing pressure from the automotive nut world, and his irrepressible sense of fun, led Yates to schedule what would be the last Cannonball for 1979. Among the pressures that encouraged Yates was film director Hal Needham's decision to do a movie about the "real" Cannonball.

The Needham/Yates combine conceived the idea of a fictitious paramedic firm, TransCon MediVac. The TransCon crew consisted of Yates and Needham as smartly uniformed drivers, a genuine MD named Lyle Royer, and Yates's wife, Pamela, serving as the patient, said to be a U.S. Senator's wife who could not fly to the West Coast because of a rare lung disease.

A massive field of 46 entries started in Darien, Connecticut, and headed west. The TransCon MediVac ruse worked perfectly, but the van itself didn't. Losing quart after quart of its fluids by the time the contingent reached California, the TransCon MediVac squad finished the last Cannonball aboard a flatbed.

The last Cannonball was also the best. Two Jaguar dealers, the late Dave Heinz and David Yarborough, drove a Jaguar XJS coupe to Redondo Beach in 32 hours and 51 minutes, well under the record.

The movie project became the infamous "Cannonball Run," starring Burt Reynolds, and critics Siskel and Ebert promptly named it one of the 10 worst movies in cinema history. But Yates and Needham won the race that counts in Hollywood: "Cannonball Run" was the second-highest ticket seller of 1981. Never mind that it, like the others, bore faint resemblance to its inspiration.

There were Cannonball imitators after 1979, but none achieved the public fascination or charming lunacy that the Cannonballers managed. It is worth mentioning that Donna Mae Mimms's broken collar bone was the sole injury to any Cannonball contestant, and her team's wreck was the only wreck.

An event called "The U.S. Express" ran for a few years in the early 1980s and produced a best time of 32 hours and 7 minutes. The current unofficial record is held by Alexander Roy and David Maher at 31 hours and 4 minutes. At least one of these accomplishments used a spotter plane, and none are recognized as official by Yates.

My own Cannonball, made in that 37-foot Travco, took 45 hours and 36 minutes. It was great sport but was not even the fastest time for a motor home. But I'm still glad I went.


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  • 127 Comments
      spentrkts
      • 4 Years Ago
      Cannonball Baker also drove an Oldsmobile Model 30 touring car locked in high gear across the US in 1923.The trip was from Oct 8th through Oct 26 because of promotional considerations on the way, but the acual driving time was 12.5 days and averaged 25 MPG over the 3600 mile route. There was reporters in the car with him to make sure the car was never shifted out of high gear, but the trans was modified so it couldn't be shifted anyway. It was a promotion by Oldsmobile for a new at the time 6 cyl engine.
      JOHN
      • 4 Years Ago
      The movie "Vanishing Point" was loosely based on this as well. A "Driveaway" going cross country, with people helping him avoid the speed traps.
      Greg
      • 4 Years Ago
      @Mouseskinner....Vanishing Point is a Movie about a guy who drove a 70s Challenger across the country.
      sseary
      • 4 Years Ago
      I'd like to juice up a Buick Grand National, and run it in the Cannonball!
      kenquito
      • 4 Years Ago
      My college class mates did this in 1965. Whats the big deal ?
      pahos3
      • 4 Years Ago
      I wouldn't consider ANYONE that is my friend, if they said they wouldn't do it! That is what this great experiment called Freedom is all about! We ran it in my youth in a Firebird Trans Am with a 454 CI Chevy Blueprinted motor, Doug Nash 5 Speed Transmission, and a 2 speed rear end and spare fuel cell... We kept it wound up past 120 in urban areas, and over 160 mph in the west... still only averaged about 95 mph. Radar detectors, radar jammers, CB;s, Police Radios, and Bino's kept us out of trouble. Did the 1000 miles on a bike several times in under 20 hours. Iron Butt Award. Made a 300 mile run for fun this summer in a Z0-6 Vette and it took WAY UNDER 3 Hours... and that was in Urban Areas... Too bad every do gooder without the balls or skills to drive fast has a cell phone and their jealous fingers have to report anyone driving a real american auto at real speeds...
      • 4 Years Ago
      Last year there was the " Gumball Rallye"..Maybe 70 cars..L.A to Miami.....I was working at Palm Beach International Raceway where they stopped for the afternoon to play on the drag strip and road track.. one guy rented an Aston Martin in LA..drove it cross country..and the put into the wall on our road course..no one hurt..but I bet he had some esplainin' to do.. There were Sheiks in Bentleys and RR..Tony Hawk..Dennis Rodman..the Playboy bunnies,..and some unbeliveable cars..some guys in a Bugatti were pulled over for doing 203 ..... Is this a great country or WHAT!..
      magicdog39
      • 4 Years Ago
      In 1979 I did it with my brother from Hayward, Ca. to Baltimore, Md. on 38 and a half hours. The car was a built up 71 MGB. The "new" engine was getting tired by the time we crossed the Mississippi river.
      Mr. Phelps
      • 4 Years Ago
      I did a run from NY to North Aurora Ill (west of chicago) in 12hrs 53 minutes. That was 50 minutes ahead of schedule. I'd bet we could have shaved off a lot more .
      • 4 Years Ago
      Are they still doing the Cannonball Run? I've run into these guys more than once while driving 'cross country by myself. Ran into them at The Cadillac Farm once. I've done the ALCAN 5000 from Seattle up thru Yellowknife and back. Something to look into. My last trip for a while now was from Anchorage, Alaska to NYC and back by myself. That one just about did me in. Good to see this article...stirs the juices again.
      Robert Pinto
      • 4 Years Ago
      In the early 60s, a fellow rode a BMW R69S 600CC motorcycle from New York to Los Angeles in a little more than 42 hours! I think it's a record that will never be broken.
        Carl Reese
        • 5 Days Ago
        @Robert Pinto
        George Egloff set the record with a 4 man team on Suzuki 850 Mortorcle in 1979.  This is well documented here  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cannonball_Baker_Sea-To-Shining-Sea_Memorial_Trophy_DashAlso documented is the current EV times coast to coast held by Carl Reese, Rodney Hawk and Deena Mastracci.

        EgloffGeorge543:3230Suzuki 850 Motorcycle1979
      paulcdj
      • 4 Years Ago
      BTW since we are talking cars. It's a shame Ford messed with the Mustang styling. They had it down. Great Retro. Now some silly curves. Anyhow, if these guys can pay the tickets and stay out of jail, they are going to do it. Just hope they live.
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