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The Cannonball is Dead, Long Live the Cannonball

Few events in American car culture are as famous, or infamous, as the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. The name itself is historically significant, yet resolutely tongue-in-cheek. For short, it’s known simply as the Cannonball. It is the epitome of the great American road trip. It has spawned other illegal events, multiple movies, and a seemingly infinite number of road rallies. But before the glamour and the parties, there was a single, simple idea.

Coast to coast.

New York City to Los Angeles by car or bike.

As fast as humanly possible.

Legalities be damned.

The concept itself is hopelessly romantic. You, your friend, and your car, against the world, just bombing through the desert in the middle of the night. It conjures up images of everything America loves. It’s an adventure. A way of proving yourself. A melding of man and machine. Racing engines and blurred lines. All while giving a defiant middle finger to the rest of society. But the reality is a bit more serious.

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Now, I’m not going to debate the validity or merits of this type of behavior. Is it legal? Oh, not in the slightest. Is it dangerous? Obviously. Am I encouraging anyone to try this? Certainly not. Will it happen again? Formerly, I would have said yes, but now I’m not so sure. As I said, I’m not here to debate the merit of these events, just to discuss the evolution of them. You do not have to condone a behavior to find it psychologically interesting. I love cars, and solving problems. This involves both. You are solving a problem with, and about, cars.

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As a point of clarification, I have never performed a cross country run, as I lack the financial and testicular fortitude to deal with the potential ramifications. But, as befits a man who works for free on the internet, I have many unfounded opinions that I stand behind. But, I am able to admit my own shortcomings. As any reader of my previous articles could agree, I occasionally play a bit fast and loose with facts. So in an attempt to lend some credibility and logic to this diatribe, I’ve turned to the undisputed experts of the subject: Ed Bolian and Alex Roy. Ed Bolian is the current world record holder, having made the trip in a staggering 28 hours and 50 minutes. Alex Roy quite literally wrote the book on cross country racing, and set a previous record of 31 hours and four minutes.

I’ll be honest, this article did not turn out how I initially envisioned. My initial plan was to discuss the strategy behind car selection and preparation. To me, this was the interesting conversation. I would shoot down some misconceptions while reinforcing other belief structures. Speaking to the last two record holders would merely allow me to validate my own opinions. But the longer I spoke to Bolian and Roy, the more my focus shifted. While the problem solving itself is still a fascinating endeavor that I will most likely tackle later, it was not the most interesting story. Instead, I’m going to try and figure out how we got to this point, and where it goes from here.

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Like America, and this article itself, the Cannonball has grown and evolved far beyond those innocent nascent days. In the beginning, it was a whimsical idea, a van, and a cheeky article. This whimsical slap in the face of conservatism spawned the birth of an honest to goodness time trial event, complete with stamped time cards. In the events of the early 1970s, the magic formula had yet to be determined. This lead to a level of innovation and experimentation not seen since. Many schools of thought were implemented and tested. Some worked, some didn’t.

Some, like Yates and Gurney operated on the principle that overwhelming performance trumped everything. Their run in a Ferrari Daytona remains the Holy Grail of Cannonball lore, even if their time was broken a mere four years later, and resolutely shattered four more years after that. The idea of a professional racer, in a purebred Italian sportscar, just streaking across the nation in the dead of night is a stirring image to be sure. But as poetic as that may be, it would never be repeated.

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Other methods were also tried in the original Cannonball series. Some ran vans full of giant fuel cells. Some wore disguises, with Yates even running a fake ambulance in 1979. Some just ran flat out, in cars with nowhere near the track pedigree of the more flashy contestants. Others still were just there for the adventure and the laughs, running in everything from RVs to limousines. It was an era of throwing things at the wall, just to see what would stick. In the days before GPS, strategies were built off of road maps and gut instinct. Everyone was hunting for that mystical clear route, and that perfect car that would ensure victory.

All of this was done more or less in the public eye. Each run was accompanied by an article in Car and Driver, and media glitterati were regular observers at the starting line. Because that’s the 70s. Flagrant disregard for law and order was very in. It was a political protest, in its own high octane way. It sought to show that adults could make their own decisions out on the road, and would travel at a speed relative to their own personal and mechanical abilities.

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But, just as the Cannonball was evolving, so was the political climate. As the race itself became more and more famous, public support was waning. While the earlier events occasionally had a mere semblance of discretion, the final Cannonball in 1979 had thousands of spectators at the start, and nearly 50 teams entered. It had finally managed to grow beyond all controllability. The mere idea of that many people trying to keep quiet about an illegal event is laughable. There are not that many routes across the nation, so if the police know your starting and ending points, plus the date of departure, all they have to do is post up and wait for you.

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This media circus caused the Cannonball to metamorphosize into the most secretive period in its long and storied history. The Cannonball was dead. The “US Express” was born. Now, while the Cannonball was split between serious competitors, adventure seekers, and anti-establishment rabble rousers, the US Express was all business. They took the lessons of their predecessors to heart. The successes were studied, as well as the failures. View it as an evolution. The routes were changed each year. The participants were thoroughly vetted. Even today, decades after the fact, almost no data exists. Even Roy, who has seen probably every second of footage of these events, and knows some of the participants personally, does not know all of the details.

But even these secretive men fell to the same complications as their forebearers. Their security was not airtight. On one of the last runs, police managed to get a list of cars, drivers, and license plates. Again, this combined with the limited number of fast routes, and a knowledge of departure dates made rounding up the racers an easy proposition. So this era too, fell away, and cross country racing disappeared for over two decades. The specifics of how the breakdown happened have been lost to the annals of history, but the lesson is clear: secrecy is paramount.

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After the US Express died off, serious coast to coast racing died off for over twenty years. When it resurfaced, it was a far cry from the formative days. This new breed of racer would be unrecognizable to Yates or Gurney. The brute force approach was no longer enough. So much had changed in the intervening years. Police were better equipped and better connected, traffic was heavier, and the legal system had lost most of its “oh you rascals, try to stay out of trouble” attitude.

When the concept of illegal transcontinental racing reentered the cultural mindset, it was in a vastly different form. Gone were the large fields of entries. Gone were the racecar drivers. Gone were the purebred sports cars. Instead there were spreadsheets, GPS satellites, and thermal cameras. Instead of crafting political statements, these new teams drafted mission statements. If you remove everything: the lore, the romance, the inspiration, you get down to the core idea. This new breed of driver viewed the race as a problem to be solved.

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All images courtesy Ed Bolian and Alex Roy.


Fails is a freelance photographer who sometimes pretends to be literate. You can follow him on Twitter or see his portfolio here. He is talking in third person because it makes him feel mysterious.

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