Coast to Coast: The History of Transcontinental Travel, Part 4: The New Record Setters

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Throughout the history of American transportation, cross-country migration had been based on three things, imperialism — to conquer new lands and expand the country’s boundaries; on necessity — to farm land and achieve prosperity; and on recreation and education — to see the sights and explore new vistas. Late in the 20th century, a new aspect of cross-country travel emerged: racing, not just getting there, but going faster and getting there quicker.

The Cannonball Run

Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash

Dan Gurney and Brock Yates

Known officially as the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, the unofficial race was run five times in the 1970s and was the subject of several movies in the following decade. Car and Driver editor Steve Smith and magazine writer and racer Brock Yates devised the event as a celebration of Erwin George “Cannon Ball’ Baker’s previous record setting trips, as well as a protest against the National Maximum Speed Law being enacted in 1974 (which Yates and Smith argued was slower than the average speed of Baker’s 1933 New York City to Los Angeles trek). Yates and Smith were also inspired by various “road movies” of the late 1960s and early 1970s, specifically Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop and Richard C. Sarafian’s Vanishing Point (both released in 1971).

1971 Dodge Custom Sportsman Moon Trash II

Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash vehicle: a 1971 Dodge Custom Sportsman, called “Moon Trash II”

The object of the race was simple: Leave the Red Ball Garage in New York City and be the first person to reach the Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach in the shortest time possible. There were no other rules.

The first race began on May 3, 1971, using a 1971 Dodge Custom Sportsman van called the “Moon Trash II.” The race was run four more times over the next few years. In the 1975 running, Jack May and Rick Cline drove a Ferrari Dino in a record time of 35 hours and 53 minutes, averaging 83 mph. The second race was won by American racing legend Dan Gurney (winner of the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans) in a Ferrari Daytona. Dan later remarked, tongue in cheek: “At no time did we exceed 175 mph.”

After five runs, the official record for the Cannonball was 32 hours and 51 minutes (about 87 mph), set in the final run by Dave Heinz and Dave Yarborough in a Jaguar XJS in April 1979. Over 250 racers participated in the Cannonball Run races in anything from a Travco Motorhome (44:42) and a Honda 600 (DNF) to a Ferrari 308 (35:58) and a Mercedes Benz 450 SEL (32:59).

The race entered mainstream consciousness after a series of movies depicting the Cannonball Run debuted, all featuring illegal coast-to-coast races. Cannonball was directed by Paul Bartel and released in 1976, the same year as Charles Bail’s Gumball Rally, a more accurate depiction of the event. In 1981, Burt Reynolds joined an all-star cast in the movie Cannonball Run, based on the exploits of the original race. Cannonball Run was followed up in 1984 with a less-than-successful sequel. Both movies were written by Yates and directed by fellow car enthusiast and career stuntman Hal Needham. The movie uses the actual ambulance they both drove in the 1979 Cannonball Run (complete with a “doctor”). Speed Zone, considered the final installment of the Cannonball Run series of movies was released in 1989, and has a completely different cast (with the sole exception of Jamie Farr).

Tire Rack One Lap of America, May 2014

At Tire Rack One Lap of America, May 2014, via Tire Rack

After Car and Driver succumbed to the risks of sponsoring an illegal event, the editors chose to abandon any further attempts and started a successor race, the “Tire Rack One Lap of America.” Instead of a coast-to-coast straight shot, racers must compete various time trials on public roads and/or racetracks around the country. Started in 1984, the length of a typical race can be up to 10,000 miles. The 2015 event features 7 days of competition over 3245 miles and begins in South Bend, Indiana on Saturday, May 2nd.

Further Attempts

With the Cannonball Run as its inspiration, one of its former racers, Rick Doherty, organized the U.S. Express with similar aims. The only difference is that the U.S. Express terminated at the beach in Santa Monica, making it slightly longer than the Cannonball Run. The results of the 1983 race broke the previous record, clocking in 32 hours, 7 minutes by David Diem and Doug Turner at the wheel of a Mazda RX-7.

Alexander Roy

Alexander Roy

Though the U.S. Express record was never official nor was it documented or confirmed, it was still regarded as the record. Alexander Roy is an American rally driver and winner of the very Cannonball-esque Gumball 3000 around-the-world rally from England. A not-too-serious event, Roy regularly attends the rally in various police livery (in 2003 he was dressed as a Canadian Mounted Police driving a 2000 BMW M5). Roy meticulously prepares for rallies with the goal of avoiding police stops by using maps, GPS navigation, and spreadsheets. During the 2004 rally, he impersonated a police officer complete with mounted lights that he used to perform traffic stops against his competitors during the rally.

After hearing about the U.S. Express record from 1983, Roy set out to break its record in 2006. A practice run in December 2005 yielded a finishing time of 34 hours and 46 minutes, and the addition of a spotter plane. The following April ended in a fuel pump failure. The successful run took place over Columbus Day weekend in 2006 with co-driver David Maher (another Gumball rally driver). He traveled 2,794 miles in 31 hours and four minutes with an average speed of 90.1 miles. From New York to Santa Monica, he only encountered four traffic lights and four toll booths.

Dave Black, Ed Bolian, and Dan Huang cross-country Cannonball run ecord

Dave Black, Ed Bolian, and Dan Huang

A three-man team led by Ed Bolian claims to have driven the 2,813.7 mile route from the Red Ball Garage in New York to the Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach on October 19-20, 2013, in 28 hours and 50 minutes, averaging 98 miles per hour, including the 15 minutes it took to get out of Manhattan. Driving a 2004 Mercedes-Benz CL55 AMG, and stopping only three times for fuel because the car was equipped with two specially installed 22-gallon auxiliary fuel tanks in addition to its standard 23-gallon tank, Bolian offered GPS logs as proof of his accomplishment (read more about it here: Doug DeMuro, “Meet The Guy Who Drove Across The U.S. In A Record 28 Hours 50 Minutes,” Jalopnik, 30 October 2013, Web.)

It is interesting to note that Brock Yates, the original founder of the Cannonball Run doesn’t acknowledge any further attempts, claiming, “Someone was going to get killed.”

Up next: Coast to Coast. The History of Transcontinental Travel, Part 5: The Future of Car Travel

Previous: Coast to Coast. The History of Transcontinental Travel, Part 3: Better Roads, Please

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