Obsession. It’s a word defined as “the domination of one’s thoughts or feelings by a persistent idea, image, desire, etc.” While I don’t know what’s included within that etcetera, the other parts perfectly describe how I pursue my hobbies. As my wife would say, either I’m all in or I couldn’t care less. For me, there is no in-between. And so it was on a cold Sunday evening as my colleague and I blasted down the barren highways of America’s Midwest enroute to a conference in the Twin Cities, that I discovered a new obsession; my latest endeavor of learning, the thing that has dominated my thoughts, feelings, and desires for over two years now.
As we had been traveling northwest for almost 9 hours, I began to look through my Facebook feed desperate for anything that would stimulate my brain as I rode shotgun across Wisconsin. At the time my interests— and the posts dominating my feed— included family, friends, food (I love to cook; what can I say?), firearms, and fast cars. Maybe I just have a fascination with things beginning with the letter “F”. Maybe not. Who knows? What I do know is that eventually I came across an article posted on an automotive journalism website recounting the story and details of a man and his team who had barreled their way across the country from New York to California.
Ed Bolian had recently become the fastest man to cross the United States from Manhattan to Los Angeles by automobile, and here was an article detailing the data while linking to the original story with all the details and photos. I was enthralled as I couldn’t believe that people were doing things like this. It grabbed my imagination and has held on with an ironclad grip ever since. I mean, the great American road trip is part of what life is all about for car guys, and here was a team taking it the ultimate level by pouring mind, body, and money into an effort that netted them a time of 28 hours, 50 minutes. That seemed insane! But I loved it. Here I thought the movies I’d seen in the 80’s as a kid were purely fictional. You mean people actually do this… this… “Cannonball” thing? Yes. By God YES!
So, like a dog who finally latches on to the bumper of the car he’s been chasing, I became unsatisfied with that little bit of knowledge. I began pursuing other angles, stories, and personalities within this community of drivers. I came across Alex Roy and his previous record from 2006 of 31 hours, 4 minutes.
Then I came across articles about a prank he pulled where he claimed to have broken Bolian’s record in a custom Infinity with an R35 driveline and two steering wheels.
I learned of Richard Rawlings and an attempt he made following Alex’s run where he came in at 32 hours, 51 minutes. And through all of this, I witnessed the many arguments over routes, data recording, verification, etc. There was no shortage of sides one could take regarding whose attempt was legit and who didn’t abide by the understood-yet-not-spelled-out rules. Besides these many online sources, I came to invest in copies of books written by those who had been there and done that. First up was Alex Roy’s The Driver, followed by Ed Bolian’s later release For the Record 28:50. Both were page turners that I wasted no time devouring, and you should waste no time in ordering.
Throughout it all, I came to learn of the original Cannonball runs, or as properly named: The Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash’s of the 1970’s. Brock Yates of Car and Driver magazine became my hero. His rebellion against the established 55 mile per hour national speed limit, and his ability to organize a coast-to-coast outlaw road race, connected with something deep within me on a level that civilized society just couldn’t understand. Soon I had a copy of his memoir Cannonball! in my hands keeping me up late at night.
Having exhausted much of the written works on the subject, I found myself home alone one weekend thinking back to Alex Roy’s book and how he mentioned the footage recorded during his run would be made into a movie. In short order I had found 32 Hours, 7 Minutes and was feverishly entering my credit card number. After firing up my Roku and loading the appropriate app, I was up and running, enjoying one of the most compelling documentaries I’ve ever witnessed. The title is a reference to the 1983 U.S. Express run of Doug Turner and David Diem. The U.S. Express was the successor to the Cannonball races of the 70’s after Yates had discontinued the original events. Rick Doherty, a former Cannonball participant himself, carried the torch into the early 80’s with races over the course of four years. This movie was an attempt to quell speculation that Turner and Diem’s run was not legitimate by recording Alex Roy’s attempt and verifying if, in fact, it could be done. Fantastic! That is all there is to it. Director Cory Welles and Alex Roy, along with co-driver Dave Maher, did a masterful job of telling a story that you won’t soon forget.
But still all of this did nothing to satisfy my desire to become a part of this community and add my name to the list. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy. In fact, it remains elusive even to this day. Being a husband and a father of three, while working two— sometimes three— jobs to make ends meet didn’t leave much room for project cars, extended cross-country road trips, or the possibility of steep fines while seeking the thrill of adventure. But, then again, it gave me more of an appreciation of those who have done it. And what I’ve found to be most interesting is that those who have accomplished such feats are some of the humblest and most genuine people you will ever get to know.
Enter Steve Stander. Who, you ask? Steve Stander is not a figure many people have heard of. His name doesn’t dominate headlines, and when searched online he is fairly difficult to track down. However, I came to know Steve this past fall when I discovered he had participated in two of the U.S. Express races. He was also present at the launch party of Alex Roy’s 2006 attempt, and can be seen in 32 Hours 7 Minutes.
Steve got his start in motorsports during the 1970’s racing road courses throughout America. This was at the height of the muscle car era. While everyone else was concerned with going as fast as possible in a straight line, Steve was more concerned with making his stay planted in the bends. It was towards the end of this decade that while working as a salesman at a local Mazda dealership that the RX-7 was introduced. Steve quickly realized the potential of this lightweight sports car. Soon he found himself tuning the engine, upgrading the suspension, and slapping on better wheels and tires for a car that, as he put it, “goes well around corners”. It was the beginning of a long relationship with the little import from Japan that would see records set, races won, and a new career launched in the form of the first East Coast-based RX-7 tuner shop.
So when Rick Doherty called upon Steve to open up his shop as the official start for the 1982 running of the U.S. Express, Steve obliged. It was a decision with consequences that he hadn’t foreseen. As the race drew near, one team found themselves in trouble. It was only an hour and a half before departure when Bob Goldsmith found himself without a co-driver as his had become ill, unable to make the trip. Having invested so much into the venture, he pleaded for someone to make the run with him. Steve, having compassion for the situation, stepped in with only moments to spare and began what would be his first U.S. Express. With his racing background and desire to win it all, Steve joined Bob as they pushed across the United States at a blistering pace. They tore past several competitors who had left before them, never to be passed themselves. Arriving on the Left Coast confident of their victory, they proceeded to the finish point and found that one team had arrived prior to them under suspicious circumstances. Let’s just say that there’s speculation involving a helicopter, a duplicate car, and switched plates. Can you imagine!
The following year Steve participated again, only this time in an RX-7 with co-driver Mac Howard. Having learned from the previous year’s run, Steve and Mac were well prepared. Having outfitted the car with an auxiliary fuel tank, racing shocks, stiffer sway bars, upgraded brakes, and Pirelli P Zero tires, as well as a newly swapped 13b rotary, the pair knew they had a winner. In fact, they were confident that a top speed of 150-155 miles per hour was well within reason. Yet, for all anyone else knew, they didn’t stand a chance. Seeing this compact sports car amidst larger, higher-powered variants the other contenders laughed at their chances.
Steve shared with me how for most of the trip they cruised between 120-130 mph, averaging 15 miles per gallon. This was good enough for the pair to get out ahead of the competition for the entire race while setting what was likely to become one of the fastest times recorded even by today’s standards. That would all change, however, towards the latter part of their trip. In his own words: “Thought we had the race won, in the lead crossing the California border, turned it over to my co-driver for the final leg. I finally closed my eyes with a smile on my face, thought we cruising [sic] to a win. A bit later I was suddenly awakened; I discovered my co-driver fell asleep at wheel doing 60MPH, Mike DiGonis came screaming by us at 150MPH+, I shouted to my co-driver to stand on it!” And stand on it he did causing the alternator belt to snap; their dreams of victory literally going up in smoke. By the time they replaced the belt, DiGonis had the race won. It would be Steve’s last U.S. Express, but he remains a vital part of the community to this day.
DiGonis’ victory didn’t come without its consequences, however. Along the 3013 mile escapade stretching from Freeport, New York to San Francisco, California the thirsty DeTomaso Pantera required seven planned fuel stops. What couldn’t be planned for, unfortunately, were the conversations with seven of the nation’s finest state highway patrolmen along the way. In all, between the top end runs around 185 miles per hour and the unexpected delays – including an ignition system that required maintenance while at speeds in excess of 100 miles per- Mike rode his gas pedal to an impressive time enroute of 34 hours 18 minutes. “Next to my 500-pound marlin,” says Michael, comparing the joy of driving at such extremes to his other passion, deep sea fishing, “it is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever done.”
And while many will tell you that times have changed and anything resembling a Cannonball type run today doesn’t face the same challenges as the original races and subsequent U.S. Express, there are those who still seek the same spirit of adventure and camaraderie that only comes from pursuing such an endeavor.
So on a particular Saturday evening, I was thrilled to receive a message that would allow me to witness three grown men having the time of their lives while seeking their place within the history of the greatest American road trip. “We are an hour away” the message read. With no time to waste, I grabbed my son and put him to work. We threw together a makeshift sign complete with flashing lights from my mountain bike. I was not going to miss this. The 2904 was underway, co-organized with the C2C Express this year, and I had a front row seat.
“Message me when you pass Exit 209. We’ll be on the right after Exit 187.” The messages continued back and forth, keeping each other apprised of our progress: My son and I in making it to the side of the road in time, and an enthusiastic Chris Hays and his team as they approached my location at a rapid pace. See, while I still had not been able to make a run like this myself, I had the privilege of living in a neighborhood bordering the roadway that had brought these guys from Manhattan just five and a half hours earlier, and would take them all the way to San Francisco within the next day and a half.
My Messenger app dinged again, it was Chris: “Exit 209 now.”
“Getting into position momentarily,” I replied. The military would’ve been proud of the precision. Well, not really, but for me and my son it sure felt like we were accomplishing a mission.
“Mile Marker 200”. They were getting close, fast. And by fast, I mean, fast for a 28 year old V6 powered, front-wheel drive Buick.
“Almost there. 190 can’t miss us. Light package will be on.” And he wasn’t lying. As my son and I stood by the side of the road – sign and cell phone at the ready – we could make out the blazing inferno on the front end of the Buick at about a mile and half out. My son began to wave the large sign we made as I began filming on my cell phone. Seconds later, Chris his motley crew of outlaw drivers flew by in the slow lane so that we could get a good shot. As they passed us, honking the horn with arms flailing out of the passenger-side window, a rebel cry was heard fading into the sunset… well, not exactly a rebel cry. But it was the glorious sound of someone having way too much fun. My video recorded Chris’s brother letting out a “WOOOOO!” until they passed, disappearing towards the horizon.
I have to be honest. This was one of the dumbest things I had ever done. Racing to the side of a roadway to wave at someone who I had never met, but who was doing something I had only dreamed of. But, you know what? It was worth it. My son and I laughed as we made our way back home to post the video for Chris and crew to see. Not only was it fun for us, but Chris later tells me that it was a real boost to all of them as they made their way west. Awesome.
I got to know Chris a little better after this event as we spoke on the phone about his recent run and what brought him to that point. For him, a fire captain in Florida, the idea of driving across the country began in April of 2016 when he participated in the Big Bend Open Road Race in west Texas, finishing 2nd in his class. He returned this year and took home 1st place. His wife, ever supportive of his motorsport endeavor, later participated with him in the Rally North America where the couple finished 3rd overall.
It all started in spring of this year when Chris began researching the same obsession that had taken hold of me. He wanted to make a run from New York to California as Stander and DiGonis had done so many years ago. He searched the web, sent email after email, and finally began finding answers. While still unsure of how to fully participate in an event that doesn’t officially exist, he dug into the depths of Craigslist until he found the right car: a 1989 Buick Riviera. Not exactly the sports cars of previous attempts, yet exactly what would be needed to achieve their goal. Of course modifications were made and electronics were outfitted. Similar to Steve’s vehicle, Chris had installed an auxiliary fuel tank to increase range and decrease the number of stops needed. But what was most impressive was not the physical modifications to the vehicle itself, but the preparations made regarding the route and drive plan. Chris tells me he had thirty-four pages of route planning that included construction zones, projected weather, alternate routes, traffic patterns, and even highway patrol shift changes.
With his brother Josh and their co-driver Travis – a record setting endurance driver himself – the trio set out from Manhattan’s famous Red Ball Garage, the previous start point of the original Cannonball races, toward their goal of arriving at Coit Tower in San Francisco within 38 hours. As they made their journey, they were only stopped once for speeding but were let off with a warning and only three minutes wasted. Maintaining constant communication with his wife back in Florida as she monitored traffic and weather, as well as a contact in Oakland keeping them apprised of Monday morning traffic congestion, Chris, Josh, and Travis sped on towards California. As Travis took up driving the final leg, he was battling not only an understandable fatigue and traffic but also a strong allergic reaction. Regardless, the team pushed through and not only achieved their goal of 38 hours, but surpassing it by almost an hour and a half! They stopped their watches with a time of 36 hours, 34 minutes. Wow! A record? Well, that depends on who you ask, but it was an achievement to mark off the bucket list for sure.
It is the stories of men and women who have participated in these great adventures that keep the rest of us going: people like Brock Yates and Rick Doherty, Alex Roy and Ed Bolian, Steve Stander, Michael DiGonis, and Chris Hays. They’re ordinary men who set out and do extraordinary things. I don’t think most people would understand the fascination or desires that would drive someone to such an extent. They couldn’t fathom breaking societal norms to satisfy the persistence of the dreams that we carry within us. But for those who have crossed that line, they know it all too well. It’s that dominating drive to live a life free of regret. It’s to never have to wonder about risks never taken. It’s the need to stretch the limits. It’s pushing it to the extreme to satisfy our obsession.