The Cannonball is Dead, Long Live the Cannonball

Yates Gurney Cannonball Run

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.

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.

Cannonball Run

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.

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.

This is where I become fascinated with the subject. It becomes a thought problem. If you need to transport a four wheeled vehicle, under its own power, from New York to Los Angeles in the shortest amount of time, how do you do that? You need to examine every facet, and remove as many variables as possible. This is where Alex Roy enters the picture. Love him or hate him, the man applied fanatical levels of focus to solving this equation. Whereas former events had featured multiple cars setting off at staggered intervals, running against the clock to aim for the shortest elapsed time, the next few attempts would be cars running solo, just each team versus the clock.