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In 1914, Erwin “Cannon Ball” Baker crossed the United States on a motorcycle in 11 and a half days.
Fifty-seven years later, a writer and editor for Car and Driver magazine set out to honor his trip by driving from Manhattan to Los Angels.
Ever since, people have been trying to replicate their journey in ever shorter times.
Learn more about the Cannonball Run and the highly illegal quest to drive across the United States on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
The United States is a pretty big country. The distance as the crow flies from New York to Los Angeles is 3,944 kilometers or 2,451 miles.
If you traveled by horse, that trip could take you the better part of a year. If you traveled by early steam locomotives, the trip from coast to coast might take you a few weeks.
Once automobiles were developed, the desire for individuals to attempt this crossing in a few days became irresistible.
The first documented attempt at trying to set a transcontinental land record was by Erwin George “Cannon Ball” Baker.
Baker was a factory worker who went into Vaudeville and then into the new field of motor racing. He used his Indian Motorcycle and set out from San Diego, California, for New York City.
In 1914, he completed the trip in 11 ½ days on a route that didn’t include a single paved road.
To put this into perspective, just five years later, the US Army set out on a motorized transcontinental trip on the nation’s first true coast-to-coast road, the Lincoln Highway. The Army group, which included a young Dwight Eisenhower, took 58 days.
In 1933, Baker made the same trip, this time on much better roads, with a 1932 Graham-Paige Blue Streak automobile. This time he made the trip in 53 hours and five minutes.
Baker later was very influential in the world of auto racing and later was the first commissioner for a racing organization known as NASCAR.
Records for cost-to-coast trips across the United States were never formally kept, but as automobiles became more popular and accessible after WWII and with the development of the Interstate Highway System, more people began driving, and the automobile became a central part of the culture.
With that, there began more efforts to regulate driving. Speed limits were implemented, single-class driver licenses were imposed on most drivers, and the automobile industry began focusing more on comfort and safety than raw power.
One man who stood against these trends was the Editor of Car and Driver Magazine, Brock Yates. He felt that the United States interstate system should be regulated like the German autobahn, and graduated drivers’ licenses should be issued based on a driver’s skill and experience.
On May 3, 1971, he set out with one of his writers, Steve Smith, and his son, Brock Jr., to drive across the country to prove his point.
They began their journey at the Red Ball Garage on East 31st street in Manhattan. It is literally just a parking ramp whose only distinction is that it is open 24 hours a day.
From there, the team drove their Dodge van they named Moon Trash II across the United States to the Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach, California.
They made the trip in 40 hours and 51 minutes.
Just six months later, they decided to do it again. This time, however, they weren’t alone. Instead of just driving across the country by themselves, they decided to turn it into a race.
Dubbed the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, the route was the same as their first trip six months earlier: From the Red Ball Garage in Manhattan to the Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach.
There was no specified route that anyone had to take.
This first race was won by Brock Yates and his new partner Dan Gurney. They shaved a full five hours off of the previous 1971 attempt and completed it in 35 hours, 54 minutes.
They did it in a Ferrari.
This very unofficial and highly illegal race was held again in 1972, 1975, and 1979.
The 1979 event was the last official unofficial Cannonball Run. The concern was that the speeds were getting too high, and too much attention was now being brought to the race.
The winner of the 1979 race won with a time of 32 hours and 51 minutes, which was a new record.
Yates drove in the 1979 race with the Hollywood stuntman turned director Hal Needham. Needham had recently directed the hit movie Smokey and the Bandit with Burt Reynolds.
Yates and Needham competed in the race with a converted van that was painted to look like an ambulance.
If that sounds familiar, it is because Needham and Yates took their experience and wrote a screenplay, which resulted in the 1981 film: The Cannonball Run, directed by Hal Needham, written by Brock Yates, and starring Burt Reynolds and a very large supporting cast.
I guess that the vast majority of you thought immediately of the movie when you saw the title of this episode. I’d further guess that many of you might not have even known that the movie was based on an actual race of the same name.
While the Cannonball Run as an official unofficial event might have been over, the movie only increased the interest in cross country racing.
There was a spate of similar races in the next few years, including the US Express, the C2C Express, and the Lap Around America.
In 1983, a new record was set by drivers Doug Turner and David Diem, who drove the route in a red Ferrari 308 GTE in 32 hours and 7 minutes.
After 1983, the excitement from the movie wore off, and there weren’t really any more big races or improvements in the record. Despite significant improvements in cars and technology, the 1983 record stood for over 20 years.
However, in the 21st century, a small group of enthusiasts began to take a new approach to the cross-country record.
Before I get into these new record attempts, I want to go through exactly what goes into such a record attempt.
The 1983 record of 32 hours and 7 minutes requires an average speed of 90 miles per hour or 145 kilometers per hour.
There is nowhere in the United States where that speed is legal. That means your first big concern is the police.
To set a record, you need conditions to be almost perfect. This means if you get pulled over even once, that might be enough to ruin a record attempt. Given the speeds you might be going, you might even get arrested.
Assuming you can avoid the police, you will need an efficient route. This means not only reducing your distance but also avoiding rush hours and construction zones. If you don’t plan ahead, you could hit a giant construction zone outside of Kansas City where you sit in a line of cars for hours.
Also, because the route starts in Manhattan, which is one of the worst places in America to drive a car, you are going to probably want to start around 2-3 in the morning to avoid traffic. Likewise, you will want to avoid traffic when you arrive in Los Angeles, which would be just as difficult.
Finally, you need to address the issue of fuel. You want to reduce the number of fuel stops to as few as possible, and when you stop, you want to spend as little time refueling as possible.
The first serious attempt at breaking the 1983 record took place in 2006.
Alex Roy and David Maher took a customized BMW M5 and set out to break the record. This wasn’t part of a race with other cars, this was just a race against the clock.
They broke the record with a time of 31 hours and 4 minutes. Their car was filled with electronics to get updates on traffic conditions and to avoid the police. Their cover story, if they were to have been pulled over, was that they were storm chasers.
They didn’t release details of their record for over a year when the statute of limitations for speeding expired in most states. They hit a top speed of 157 miles per hour and even recruited spotter aircraft in some areas.
That record was smashed in 2013 by the team of Ed Bolian, Dave Black, and Dan Huang. They a 2004 Mercedes-Benz CL55 AMG from the start to finish in 28 hours, 50 minutes, taking more than 2 hours off of the record.
They averaged a speed of 98 miles per hour and hit a peak speed of 182 miles per hour or 290 kilometers per hour.
They had a total of 67 gallons or 254 liters of fuel capacity with two extra fuel tanks built into the trunk.
That record was then shattered on December 10, 2019, by a three-man team of Arne Toman, Doug Tabutt, and Berkeley Chadwick. They drove a 2015 Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG sedan and punched a time of 27 hours 25 minutes, again taking another hour and a half off the record.
They had an average speed of 103 miles per hour or 166 kilometers per hour and reached a top speed of 193 miles per hour. They only spent a total of 22 minutes on four fuel stops.
Their car was again filled with electronics, including an infrared camera to spot police cars from a distance, as well as an extra large fuel tank.
When 2020 came around, the pandemic offered a once-in-a-lifetime chance at record attempts. The lockdowns resulted in a dramatic reduction in cars on the highways as well as police.
In April 2020, an anonymous team who hasn’t released their names, but did provide corroborating GPS data, clocked a new record time of 26 hours 38 minutes, again knocking almost another hour off of the record.
In just the next month, the team of Arne Toman, Doug Tabbutt, and spotter Dunadel Daryoush set a new record, which still stands, of 25 hours, 39 minutes.
They did this in a modified 2016 Audi S6. They actually changed the front of the car to make it look like a Ford Taurus police car. The average speed for the entire trip was 110 miles per hour, with a moving speed, not including stops of 112 miles per hour.
In June 2020, there was supposedly a solo run made in 25 hours and 55 minutes, but there it has been called into question as there is little in the way of supporting evidence, and it was supposedly done in a rental car.
Also, in May, the team of Chris Clemens and Mark Spence drove a modified Mercedes SL500 to the Portofino Inn…. and then drove all the way back in 74 hours and 5 minutes.
That double transcontinental record was broken in April 2022 by a team of Nik Krueger, Mark Spence, and Wesley Vigh, who did it in 65 hours and 28 minutes, knocking almost 8 hours off the record.
By this point, many of you might be thinking, “Gary, this isn’t just illegal this is dangerous!”. To which I would say, “Yes, you are correct. This is dangerous, not just to the drivers, but everyone else on the road.”
Many people in this very small community think that the period of record attempts might have ended. It isn’t a function of the car’s speed, the fuel tanks’ size, or the police avoiding electronics.
There simply will probably never be conditions again like there were from March to May 2020. If the record can’t be broken, most people simply won’t try.
One area of new Cannonball Run record attempts will probably come from electric vehicles. The biggest difference between an electric attempt from a traditional fuel attempt would be recharging. You can put gasoline in a tank quickly. Charging a battery, however, would take more time.
The current electronic vehicle record is 42 hours and 52 minutes, set in October 2021 by Ryan Levenson and Will Wood, driving a 2021 Tesla Model S Long Range. The only modification they made to the car was the tires.
I guess that someone will modify an electric car with a massive extra battery such that it can go the entire distance without charging, and that will shatter the current record, even if it were to go the speed limit.
My interest in this story actually came from planning I did for a similar coast-to-coast record attempt. However, for this attempt, it wasn’t driving from New York to Los Angeles.
It would be driving the 5,490 miles or 8,835 kilometers from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, on the shore of the Arctic Ocean, to Key West, Floria.
This would be a totally different sort of record. It isn’t just about fast cars, as much of this trip would take place in remote areas, including several hundred miles of the Dalton Highway in Alaska, which is nothing but gravel.
The current record basically consists of going the speed limit the entire way.
I don’t know if I’ll ever do this, but it has been fun to think about and plan.
The people who attempt Cannonball Run records are known as the ‘Fraternity of Lunatics.’ I can’t say I really can argue with that description. They invest thousands of dollars into something where official records aren’t even kept, and if you brag too much about your accomplishments, you could get arrested.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The executive producer is Darcy Adams.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
Today’s review comes from listener mccabe1965 over on Instagram. They write,
After much searching through the vast sea of podcasts, I found Everything Everywhere (EE), and I really enjoy it. I’ve gone through trying out several history podcasts, and with the exception of yours, it was frustrating. Many had hosts had too much banter, goofing around, or their voices were monotone and sounded like the teacher from Ferris Bueller. Your voice kinda sounds like the late Kasey Kasem. I’m in my car about 6 hours a day for work, and EE is always on. I started a couple of weeks ago and am currently on ep 622.
I strive to be a member of the completionist club and await to earn the key to the Executive Washroom. I couldn’t find where on EE’s webpage to give the star rating. But now it’s a solid five. And I am searching with the help of Benedictine Monks and using ancient scrolls to find the fabled sixth star. Your topics are great, the knowledge, the presentation…all of it are great.
Thank you, Kevin! To find the sixth star, you need to go on a National Treasure-like search through the estates of George Washington and John Pershing. Only they knew the secret of the sixth star. I think it might be located in the capstone of the Washington Monument or something.
As for my voice, remember if you leave a review or send in a long-distance dedication, you too can have it read on the show.