SI Vault
 
From Sea To Speeding Sea
Brock Yates
October 23, 1972
The Cannonball was an out law auto race—unsanctioned and definitely unwise—but off they went, roaring their way toward L.A.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
October 23, 1972

From Sea To Speeding Sea

The Cannonball was an out law auto race—unsanctioned and definitely unwise—but off they went, roaring their way toward L.A.

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

I might as well have talked to the Highway Patrol in Honolulu. The lights of Gallup still winked in the valley below when the highway became sheathed in a thick layer of slush, punctuated by long stretches of hard ice. First came the fog, then fat lumps of wet snow flung into our headlights, cutting visibility to zero. The Ferrari was slewing all over the road. It was nearly uncontrollable and we couldn't understand why our wonderful machine had become so inept in the face of this nasty, but hardly unusual, squall. Dan figured it out. He recalled that the crew had increased the tire pressure to 40 pounds for added safety and efficiency in the high-speed dry stretches. Surely they hadn't anticipated snow. The tires, of course! As we were debating whether or not to stop and cut the pressures to perhaps 26 pounds—which would mean a double penalty with more time lost when we hit the desert to reinflate—a quartet of headlights blazed in my mirrors. A car was overtaking us at high speed, seemingly navigating the ice without difficulty. It disappeared in a patch of fog, then surged alongside and swept past. It was a cream-colored Cadillac. Gurney and I paid it little attention, still engrossed in strategy talk about what to do with our slipping tires.

"Wait a minute!" I yelled as Dan was in midsentence. "That Cadillac. That thing had New York plates! That couldn't be those three guys from Boston!" Or could it? Stunned, horrified that any other competitor could be that close, we pressed on, trying to narrow the distance between us and the fleeing Coupe deVille. "If those guys are with us, where are the PRDA and some of the others that left earlier?" Gurney wondered. "In the lead, hell. We may be dead last!" I said bitterly.

The lights of the agricultural inspection station on the New Mexico-Arizona border loomed out of the fog and snow. A car was stopped under the canopy. Its trunk was up. A smiling man with a heavy shock of black hair was standing beside the machine—a cream-colored Cadillac with New York plates—'while a uniformed official probed through the luggage.

"Oh no, that's Larry Opert," I moaned. "Those are the guys, and they're blowing our doors off!" They squirted away into the night as we stopped for our inspection. Realizing there was precious little room for any dangerous quantities of wormy peaches or infected chickens to be stowed on board the Ferrari, the officer let us pass after a few routine questions. Our cockiness of a few miles back had given way to shocked despair. Our only comfort lay in the knowledge that the Caddy had started about 20 minutes earlier, and was therefore still behind us on elapsed time. But what about the others? Surely somebody was in front of the Caddy. We rushed through the night. Fortunately the roads were improving and, while they remained wet, the ice was disappearing. The fog lifted for a minute and we saw their taillights, perhaps a mile in front. As the road and visibility cleared, we began to gnaw at their advantage, although the Cadillac seemed to be running in the neighborhood of 100 mph on the straight stretches. Mile after mile we traveled, losing them for long periods in the gloom, then catching tantalizing glints of red up ahead. We had them in sight by the outskirts of Winslow, Ariz.

They pulled into a gas station. As the team leaped out under the brightly lit canopy, I gave them a blast of the Ferrari's air horns. They waved wildly as we accelerated past, no doubt figuring we would have to stop soon ourselves. We had chased them for more than 100 miles in a frantic period that had seemed to have been condensed into minutes. Most of the road between Winslow and Flagstaff, 58 miles away, was deserted, dry Interstate, and I kept the Ferrari humming along at a steady 125 mph—a speed that could not be exceeded without overrunning the range of our headlights.

We were fully awake now, vibrating with the idea of the newfound competition. We had not sought it out; in fact we would have been perfectly content lo putter on toward California at a leisurely pace. But now that the Cadillac was surely thundering down the road behind us, its gas tank lopped off and set to run for hours, we readied ourselves to play our trump cards. That meant Dan would lake over at Flagstaff in preparation for a run down our secret shortcut—a pair of moves that might put us back into the lead. My earlier run with Moon Trash had revealed that by taking Arizona Route 89 south to Prescott, then cutting toward the desert and Interstate 10 we could trim at least half an hour off the trip. To our knowledge, everyone else would take the conventional old Route 66-Interstate 40 network that was slightly shorter but more congested. Admittedly, our route was more dangerous. It involved negotiating the endless switchbacks on the 15-mile stretch of Route 89 through the Prescott National Forest and the murderous plunge down a mountainside south of Yarnell, where the road featured minimal guardrails and thousand-foot drop-offs.

Our stop for gas in Flagstaff was slow, and, when we got under way again, with Dan driving, the Cadillac had caught up. We immediately passed it alter returning to the Interstate. Opert and Co. were running the big crock at its maximum, perhaps 115 mph, and it was easy to see how they had not lost any time with their stop. Their tank was smaller, and therefore more quickly filled, and their top speed at night was only a few miles per hour less than ours.

Gurney was opening gobs of distance on the Caddy as we rushed down the winding, pine-bordered, four-lane. It was a lovely stretch of road, made even more beautiful by the thick layer of snow that had fallen on the trees earlier in the night. But the highway surface seemed clear, and Dan was running 125 mph when we sailed onto a bridge that was part of a long, downhill bend to the left. Then, suddenly, Gurney was jabbering and his hands began a series of blinding twists of the wheel. "This is glare ice! Glare Ice! This is BLEEDING GLARE ICE!" he repealed with increasing volume as he slashed at the steering wheel. I had been in the middle of a statement about something (I cannot recall the exact subject) and I remember that I kept on blathering throughout the trip across the bridge, as if my brain had decided that if I did not acknowledge Gurney's alarms, perhaps the ice would go away. Thanks only to the talents of Gurney, we traversed the bridge with just a slight twitch of the Ferrari's tail. Because he so skillfully maintained control of the car, only he will ever know how far beyond the ragged edge we had traveled.

"That's enough of that," said Gurney as he slowed down. "Race or no race, we aren't going to wipe ourselves out on ice like that. Man, that was scary, and I don't mind telling you I didn't like it one bit!"

We cruised onward, our speed reduced to a modest 70 mph, and I was relieved to see the Caddy's lights pop up behind us. They had slowed, indicating they also had encountered a few thrills on the bridge.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9