- The sun sets over the Coconino National Forest, along Interstate 40. Photo by Benjamin Preston

Club Cannonball: How Driving Fast For Hours and Hours Became a Cultural Movement

What started as a motorsports journalist's crazy idea sprouted its own demographic

It seems unlikely that a Welshman would have a big connection with an illegal race across the American continent, however oblique. But Ben Wilson, who grew up in Tredegar – a small industrial town in South Wales – caught the bug at an early age. A local guy with a souped-up Mustang gave him an old copy of the August, 1975 issue of Car and Driver magazine – the issue with a cover story chronicling the exploits of a wild bunch of American racers, sports car aficionados and madmen who participated in the fourth running of the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. The seeds were sown.

The 1971 Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash - Credit - Car and Driver

The 1971 Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash - Credit - Car and Driver

"I remember poring over the article and thinking how cool it would be to enter a race from coast to coast, to see all America in one trip – in one weekend in fact," Wilson said. "Around the same time, I watched 'The Gumball Rally,' then 'The Cannonball Run.' That sealed the deal for me – I just couldn't wait to get old enough to fly over and enter."

The Cannonball, as it's since become known, began as the brainchild of motorsports journalist Brock Yates. With nervous support from Car and Driver magazine, his employer.

Yates and two friends – joined by his then 14-year-old son, Brock Yates, Jr. – set out to break the standing New York-to-Los Angeles speed record. It had last been set in 1933 by Erwin "Cannon Ball" Baker, a motorcycle and car racer who had driven from coast to coast in 53 and a half hours behind the wheel of a Graham-Paige Model 57 Blue Streak 8. Thirty-eight years later, Yates and his cohort chose as their weapon of choice a 360-cubic-inch V8-powered 1971 Dodge Custom Sportsman van they dubbed Moon Trash II (in honor of B.F. "Moon" Mullins, a Chrysler public relations man they were fond of). They drove from the Red Ball Garage, on East 31st Street in Manhattan, to the Portofino Inn, in Redondo Beach, Calif. They covered 2,858 miles in 40 hours and 51 minutes, burning through an ungoldly 314.5 gallons of gasoline.

The route from the Red Ball Garage in Manhattan, to the Portofino Inn, in Redondo Beach, California - Credit - Car and Driver

The route from the Red Ball Garage in Manhattan, to the Portofino Inn, in Redondo Beach, California - Credit - Car and Driver

Yates wrote a column introducing the Cannonball in the August 1971 issue of Car and Driver, and the feedback was almost immediate. Enthusiastic letters – as well as correspondence chastising the new record holders for their brash trampling of traffic safety laws – poured in. Later that year, eight cars competed, with Yates and racer Dan Gurney taking the imaginary checkered flag in a Ferrari Daytona. They had set a new record – 35 hours, 54 minutes. In words now famous to Cannonball lore enthusiasts, Gurney said, "At no time did we exceed 170 miles per hour." More importantly, they had set in motion a mania for nonstop cross-country endurance drives that has stood the test of several decades.

By the time Wilson came of age, the fifth and final Cannonball, run in 1979, was ancient history. It had been a wild affair – replete with raucous parties at either end of the grueling, Atlantic-to-Pacific route – a 46-car melee that attracted the attention of law enforcement agencies all over the country. Somehow, 42 cars had managed to make the finish without their crews ending up in jail, and a new 32-hour, 51-minute record (topping records set in the 1972 and 1975 runnings of the Cannonball) had been set.

Law enforcement ire over the Cannonball was at fever pitch by then and Yates – beset by requests to check out one crazy-fast potential Cannonball car or other – saw the writing on the wall and called it quits. He orchestrated an evolving series of track-focused rallies – One Lap of America – that Brock, Jr. still runs today, but the Cannonball was dead. Or was it?

The US Express, a sort of spinoff rally, was run in 1983, with two of its participants – David Diem and Doug Turner – claiming a 32-hour, 7-minute record. More than two decades later, Alex Roy – one of many young men who had grown up reading about the original Cannonballers' exploits and dreaming of doing something similar – made a solo run in a heavily modified BMW M5. His 31-hour, 4-minute time set a new record. Only a few years later, in 2013, an exotic car dealer named Ed Bolian – another who had grown up Cannonball-dazzled – beat Roy's record, making the same Red Ball-to-Portofino trip in 28 hours, 50 minutes at the helm of a 2004 Mercedes-Benz CL55 AMG. To put things into perspective, Google maps says the trip should take more than 40 hours.

Not long before Bolian announced his new record, a group of San Francisco Bay Area aficionados had cobbled together a Cannonball-style New York-to-San Francisco run called The 2904. Named for the distance between the two coastal cities, it also stood as the budget for the entire race – purchase price of the car, fuel for the trip; everything. It became a mash-up between Cannonball and 24 Hours of Lemons.

"I read about Alex Roy’s solo trust fund moneybags attempt with his spotter planes and weapons grade electronics," John Ficarra, the 2904's founder, said. "After throwing up slightly in my mouth I knew from his example that going solo was pointless. So I called a few friends and challenged them to a Cannonball. Why the hell not? No one else was going to do it for me."

The final 2904 was run last autumn, a three-man team captained by Arne Toman piloting a 250,000-mile Ford Crown Victoria from Manhattan to Coit Tower in 31 hours and 45 minutes – a fresh New York-to-San Francisco record.

In 2015, Wilson – a movie car wrangler who has been living near Auckland, New Zealand for years – finally made a move to realize his Cannonball dream. He organized an event for pre-1980 cars – a homage to the original Cannonball – called the C2C Express. There have been three so far, with the last two setting times that met or bested times set in the original Cannonballs.

"From the first time I read about the Cannonball there was no going back – I devoured all Brock Yates' work and loved all of it," he said. "His writing woke up something inside of me that could never go back to sleep – the thought of crossing a continent by car in less than two days, to see the sun rise and set on both coasts, blasting through the center of the USA in some serious Detroit muscle. Man, it gives me goosebumps thinking of it."

In his farewell address to competitors in the final 2904, Ficarra expressed hope that a new generation of "idiots" would heed the call to pointless cross-country glory, extending the life of Yates' creation.

"Life isn’t just television and cruising the Internet," he said. "You have to go do something – something you can tell your grandkids, something that means something to your life and feeds your soul. Fulfilling dreams is what people should be striving for, not buying the latest iPhone. My dream was doing a Cannonball. Dream fulfilled. How many people can say that?"

* * *

Benjamin Preston has participated in four Cannonball-style races, winning the 2017 C2C Express in a 1974 Oldsmobile Omega he modified in a parking lot in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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Comments (9)

  • Top work sir, you really make me want to just jump in some old pre 1980 muscle and go coast to coast. Again ;)

      3 years ago
  • Glad I could be a part of the run with you . Great read.

      3 years ago
  • Nicely done Ben.

      3 years ago
  • Let me just add “cross country time attack” to my bucket list real quick.

      3 years ago
  • This was a great read!

      3 years ago