The true story of how an F1 driver won the world's greatest outlaw road race
In 2017 F1 drivers are at the mercy of their sponsors constantly. They rarely if ever step out of line off the track for fear of upsetting their many lucrative "brand partners".
A handful of F1 drivers have managed to get speeding tickets up and down the years. The most recent being Lewis Hamilton who was once caught doing 123mph on a French motorway before being prosecuted for ‘Hoon Driving’ in Australia a couple of years later.
So, aside from a bit of speeding and hooning, F1 drivers generally stay on the right side of the law (as they should) when behind the wheel - with one notable exception, the all-American racing legend that is Dan Gurney.
The All-American Driver
Gurney was a long established F1 driver who drove for the likes of Scuderia Ferrari and Brabham during his long career. He achieved American hero status in 1967 by winning the Belgian Grand Prix behind wheel of his Anglo American Racers Eagle-Westlake, setting a new lap record during the race for good measure. This remains the only time an American driver has ever claimed a Grand Prix victory in an American built car.
Earlier in 1967 Gurney was a part of the Le Mans winning Shelby-American Inc team who alongside teammate A.J. Foyt, took the victory at the Circuit de la Sarthe behind the wheel of a Ford GT40.
The world’s greatest outlaw road race
The year was 1971 and North America was in the firm grip of strict driving laws. The moving protest against these laws and the loss of American freedom was the Cannonball Baker Sea to Shining Sea Memorial Trophy Dash - or the Cannonball Run as it was more widely known.
The brainchild of renowned Car and Driver executive editor Brock Yates, the Cannonball Run was held five times between 1971 and 1979. It was inspired by Erwin G. “Cannonball” Baker (1882-1960), who set several coast to coast crossing records. This event went on to spawn two Cannonball films, the first of which featured a screenplay written by Yates himself.
New York City to California Non Stop
The Cannonball Run's route varied throughout the five events with the most frequent run being the timed distance between the Red Ball parking garage in Lower Manhattan to the finish point being some 2,800 miles away at the Portofino Inn, Redondo Beach, California.
The rules were simple; the team who covered the total distance in the shortest elapsed time from point to point would win. Traffic tickets were down to the drivers, get caught and any time lost in paying fines or being arrested was included in the team’s total running time.
All competitors were free to choose their own route, max speed and number of drivers. There was also a gentleman’s agreement amongst all teams that the vehicle entered would be driven the complete distance to the finish line.
The car and only one driver
In the initial Cannonball Run in May 1971, Yates ran a modified 1971 Dodge Custom Sportsvan dubbed “Moon Trash II”. For this second competitive effort though, he needed a far more serious piece of machinery to cover the distance.
Step forward exotic car dealer Kirk F. White who offered Yates the use of a Sunoco Blue Ferrari 365GTB/4 Daytona. It boasted a 4.4-litre V12, quad cam motor capable of 175mph.
With the car in place and the start of the first official Cannonball Run just a few short days away, Yates had already been turned down by Gurney and the likes of the 1961 Formula One world champion Phil Hill. Each driver had voiced the same concerns, pressure from sponsors along with the fear of jail time.
On the eve of the race start, Yates received the call he had been waiting for: Gurney had changed his mind and arrived in New York via a redeye flight just a few hours before the race start. Yates said that with Gurney on board he knew “the Ferrari would be used in the way ol’Enzo had intended.”
Yates and Gurney – The 1971 Cannonball Run
Shortly after midnight on 15 November 1971, the Sunoco blue Ferrari exited the Red Ball Garage on to the darkness of 31st Street with Gurney at the wheel for the first stint. The duo had only chocolate bars, Swiss cheese and Gatorade to keep them going for next day and a half. They also carried an array of maps, an average speed computer and flashlights to aid them as they blasted to California in the ultimate endurance race against the clock.
While most of the competitors had chosen the westward route to the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Yates decided on a more Northern route across Interstate 80, before cutting through to Columbus, Ohio.
This was a longer route, but the I-80 had less traffic and fewer Police patrols meaning higher cruising speeds which were essential in a race where average speed was everything.
With Gurney at the wheel, the Ferrari averaged 60 miles per hour in this early slow moving section. As the duo reached the I-80, Gurney cranked the Ferrari’s V12 to a steady cruising speed of 95mph. With Yates saying at this speed the Italian exotic was “at a virtual canter” and that it was “positively in contact with the road” while Gurney complained that it was “boring to drive” at such a low speed as it was capable of so much more.
Early on in the race, a Camaro sailed past the pair at 100mph. Gurney quickly decided this was unacceptable and cranked the big Ferrari’s twelve cylinders up to full chat. After passing the Camaro at some 150mph Gurney gleefully declared “that’s 150, just as steady as you please."
From here Gurney continued cruising at 120mph, all the while driving with one hand while sipping coffee with the other. The V12 engine was a thirsty one even by today’s standards. So stops were required every 300 miles or so with the pair whittling down refueling to a fine art of just five minutes with Yates filling the tank while handing over a wad of dollar bills to the sleeping gas station attendant, leaving Gurney to run a fluid check on the V12 engine.
In the first 12 hours with Gurney at the wheel, the pair reached St Louis some 1,000 miles away, all the while evading law enforcement and maintaining a high average speed. In the middle of Missouri, Yates took the wheel for his first stint some 14 hours since departing New York City.
In the next ten hours, the Ferrari covered some 900 miles reaching Albuquerque, New Mexico and keeping an average speed of 83.5mph across the distance with Gurney and Yates alternating between driving and rest.
Only 200 miles later upon reaching Gallup, New Mexico the duo encountered their worst fear: snow and ice. Just 100 miles later in Flagstaff disaster almost struck when after cruising at speeds of up to 125mph, Gurney spotted ‘glare ice’. With only a twitch of the steering wheel, he kept the big V12 under control with only a twitch of the tail with Yates saying “only he (Gurney) will ever know how far beyond the ragged edges we had travelled.”
After a sustained period of high-velocity where Yates admitted running the Ferrari up to speeds of 130mph to 140mph the pair had their first and only serious brush with the law. Having covered some 2,500 miles non-stop, they were caught at triple digit speeds by highway patrol close to the Arizona/California border on the Colorado River.
Despite being recognised, the patrolman issued Gurney with a $90 ticket while asking “Just how fast will that thing go?” Gurney quickly responded “C’mon out on the highway, and we’ll let you find out.” As they made their way back to the Interstate, Yates described ‘an evil smile’ from Gurney who said: “He was wondering how fast this thing will go. Let’s find out.”
He then piloted the Ferrari onto Interstate 10 in California blasting it all the way to an indicated 172mph saying in amazement “This son of a bitch really runs,” adding: “And it’s rock steady”. This was the moment that led to the legendary Los Angeles Times quote where Gurney testified that “we never exceeded 175 miles per hour.” At the time of course, everyone thought there was no way he was serious.
Yates and Gurney reached the Portofino Inn some 35 hours and 54 minutes after departing New York City, having covered 2,876 miles in the process. They achieved an average speed of 80.8mph while consuming fuel at 12.2 miles per gallon during their nine refueling stops. This elapsed time gave them the 1971 Cannonball win and set a new record for the coast to coast run.
The “Cannonball” Ferrari 365GTB/4 Daytona
Kirk F. White later offered the Daytona to Gurney for just $15,000 after the race. At the time Gurney couldn’t afford it with the car later becoming part of the Bruce McCaw collection. It is now worth several million dollars with Yates and Gurney's cross country run adding to its historic value.