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A Brief History of the Cannonball Run

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cannonballToday, as usual, I was browsing CNN when I came across a list of the ‘10 best’ car chases on film.  I’m not sure if these really are the best 10, but one item that did catch my eye was the note attached to #10, the Cannonball run about George Baker.

I’d  heard of the Cannonball Run, but didn’t really know anything about it other than the casual reference to a movie by that name until last summer.  One day last summer I was browsing the new books section of my library and came across a book called The Driver, by Alexander Roy.  That provided me some background on the race, with which I’ll end this post.

Note:  I’m no expert on rally racing or it’s history, nor much of an expert on anything at all, but I’ve never let that stop me from writing anything else.  So, here’s a brief Cannonball history for those that like this sort of thing.

Mr. Cannonball Express:

In 1915, Erwin George Baker drove a Stutz Bearcat across the country in only 11+ days (this was one of 143 driving records of various kinds he set).  The next year he drove a Cadillac 8 from LA to NY in only 7 days.  This feat earned him the nickname (or a reference of) the Cannonball Express.

The Cannonball Express was a reference to the fastest train, at least at the turn of the century, that motored between Chicago and New Orleans.  It’s the same train that was operated by the immortalized Casey Jones, who would be killed at the reins of the train, attempting to slow it before it crashed into boxcars.

According to this page, in one of his final cross country attempts, in 1933 Baker would set his fastest cross country time of 53 hours and 30 minutes, a record that would stand for nearly forty years.  He averaged greater than 50 miles per hour.  Not bad considering the National Highway system hadn’t been built yet.

Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash:

Known as the Cannonball Baker or Cannonball Run, Car and Driver Editor Brock Yates created a ‘race’ to protest the implementation of a 55mph speed limit national highways in 1971.  It was more of a celebration race rather than an all out speed race and was run four times.   In their final attempt, Dave Heinz and Dave Yarborough in a Jaguar XJS in April 1979 set the official record for the Cannonballs of 32 hours and 51 minutes (about 87 mph on average).

The race’s start point was either in NYC or Darien CT and the end point was  at Redondo Beach.  You can read more about the specifics here.

Alexander Roy and David Maher set the unofficial record:

ff_cannonballrun_wIn about 2000, for several reasons, Alexander Roy decides he wants to start rally racing. You can learn more about his motivations and successes in his book The Driver, including his 20 minute record run on an early sunday morning around the island of Manhattan, which was inspired by an 8 minute run around Paris in 1976, which is a rally racing cult classic as I understand it (I watched the whole run on Youtube, but now I can only find the trailer).

In 2006, after gaining a ton of experience, Alexander and new partner David Maher decide to attempt to break the new unofficial cross country record, of 32 hours and 7 minutes. The most interesting part of the story is the meticulous planning involved.  This isn’t really about being flashy or driving fast.  It’s about planning, planning, planning and then sticking to the plan (check out a pic of his dash in this NY Times article).  It’s really much more of an intellectual exercise than an endurance race given the high number of crowded highways, potential weather issues, police speed traps, differing state laws, and other pitfalls (at least, that’s what Alexander Roy would have us believe).  For example, even after completing their run, they had to wait about a year before telling others so that statute of limitations on any laws they broke would expire.  It’s about being as non-descript and safe as you can be driving 150mph down the freeway.  You can read about the attempt in Wired Magazine, as a Wired writer went along for the ride.

At the end of their attempt, then reached their goal, setting a new record of 31 hours and 51 minutes.

The Vanishing Point

So, that’s my brief history of the Cannonball.  I’ll end where I began, with the list.  #6 on the list is a movie that I’ve never seen called the Vanishing Point.  After watching the trailer, I think I’m gonna rent that one (and I’m liking red motorcyles more, too, lol) 🙂


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