Who In Their Right Mind Would Race Non-Stop From New York to L.A.?

Cannonball Run To Turn 40

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.

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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