How Did the Cannonball Run Record Start? (Cannonball History Part 1)

You may have heard about the Cannonball Run Challenge that drives underground racers to blast across the country in one day and one night. But where did this motor racing tradition begin? The Cannonball Run record is nearly ninety years old, and was even more popular in the 1970s than it is now. Here is the true story behind the Cannonball Run record.

A Legacy of Speed

DAYTONA BEACH, FL — February 1966:  Motorsports journalist Brock Yates (R) with driver LeeRoy Yarbrough on pit road at Daytona International Speedway.  Yarbrough drove Jon Thorne’s Dodge Charger to an eighth place finish in the Daytona 500 NASCAR Cup race.  (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images) How Did the Cannonball Run Record Start?
Brock Yates with Daytona 500 driver LeeRoy Yarbrough | Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images

In 1933 competitive driver, Erwin “Cannon Ball” Baker drove from New York to LA in 53.5 hours. His record would stand for forty years. 

In the 1970s, a journalist named Brock Yates wanted to protest stricter traffic laws. So he decided to recreate “Cannon Ball” Bakers famous run. In 1971, he and his team drove from Manhattan’s Red Ball Garage to the Portofino Hotel and Marina in Redondo Beach, California. 

His record won the public’s imagination, so Yates hosted four multi-team rallies: the first was also in 1971, and they continued in 1972, 1975, and 1979. This race was officially named the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. But, everyone called it the Cannonball Run.

In the Fall 1971 Cannonball Run, Yates co-drove Le Mans winner Dan Gurney’s Ferrari. The Gurney-Yates pairing won that first race with a time of 35 hours and 54 minutes. The four 1970s races boasted a colorful cast of characters from journalists to race car drivers to a retired Army Ranger. The strategies varied with the cars, including Ferraris, a Jaguar, a winning Cadillac, and even a van full of fuel tanks. In the 1979 race, the winning team set a final Cannonball Run record of 32:51.

People Loved The Cannonball Run Record

The cast of 'The Cannonball Run', directed by Hal Needham, 1981. Back row, left to right: Alfie Wise, Jack Elam (hidden), unknown, Joe Klecko, Jamie Farr, Mel Tillis, Bert Convy, Adrienne Barbeau, Michael Hui, Rick Aviles, and Warren Berlinger. Centre (in orange) Dom DeLuise. Front row, left to right: Tara Buckman, Dean Martin, Farrah Fawcett, Burt Reynolds, Roger Moore, Jackie Chan and Sammy Davis, Jr. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images) How Did the Cannonball Run Record Start?
The cast of 1981’s ‘The Cannonball Run’ | Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Yates also covered the rallies for Car and Driver magazine. Public interest in the races ignited, exploding into two 1976 movies: Cannonball and The Gumball Rally. But as the speeds increased, both Yates and Car and Driver withdrew their blessing. After the 1979 race, Yates turned to screenwriting and penned 1981’s Burt Reynolds film: The Cannonball Run, drawing heavily on his own experience. As a Cannonball Run replacement, Yates founded One Lap of America.

Veterans of the 1970s rallies organized a series of races in the 1980s known as the US Express. The 1980s course was longer (ending in the Bay Area instead of the LA area). Even so, the winners of the 1983 race set a “cross country” record of 32:07. This time would prove untouchable for the rest of the century.

Birth of the Modern Record: The Cannonball Run Record

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 17: Dmitry Cherkassky, 40, of Philadelphia pulls out of the Red Ball Garage in a Mercedes 1983 300 D just after 6 am as his partner Bert Potts of New Jersey waits September 17, 2016 in New York, New York.  The two were part of the 2016 C2C Express - an homage to the Cannonball Runs of the 1970's - trying to make it from NY to CA as quickly as possible. (Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
The Red Ball Garage | Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Countless drivers dream of holding a transcontinental record, now known as the Cannonball Run Challenge. But to break the 32:07 time, a new generation of competitors would need to revolutionize the race. Passed were the decades of records won with just a fast car, extra gas tanks, and a CB radio. Modern attempts still trace the Cannonball Run route: from the Red Ball Garage to the Portofino Hotel. But today, crowded rallies draw too much attention from interconnected police forces.  

Alex Roy pioneered a technological, single-team method built on avoiding police and banking hours with high-speed night driving. In his BMW M5, Roy leveraged radar and laser detectors and jammers, a police scanner, gyroscope stabilized binoculars, and a thermal camera. Roy is a master of preparation who arranged mountains of data as a series of spreadsheets. He used these documents to calculate on-the-road course adjustments based on weather and construction–all years before reliable GPS app route suggestions. 

Roy executed several attempts with different co-drivers. Finally, in 2006 Roy and David Maher shattered the 1980s record, maintaining an average transcontinental speed of 91 miles per hour to clock in at 31:04.

Roy is the grandfather of all modern records; much of his technology and strategy became standard on future record attempts. But for seven more years, the many teams attempting to break Roy’s record all came up short. It would take a so-called, ‘fraternity of lunatics’ to set a new record, find out how in Cannonball History Part 2.

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