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.
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.
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.
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.