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.
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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.

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Mad enterprises seldom have cogent beginnings and I can't recall with any clarity why the idea for the Cannon-ball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Race rolled up in the first place. It came to me at the office, that much I remember, and the idea was met with general apathy, punctuated by isolated reactions of hostility. Still, I was delighted with the plan: a free-form race from New York to Los Angeles, a la the old open-road contests of the early days of motoring. In an age when every facet of our lives is being organized and codified it seemed that an all-out run from coast to coast might act as an appropriate protest in behalf of adventure and old-fashioned enterprise.

Unlike other motor races, which operate within a thicket of rules that would rival the postal service, the Cannonball Baker would be undertaken with a minimum of regulations. Its purposes could be articulated in a matter of a few words: "Entrants must drive a land-based vehicle of any configuration, with any size crew, over any route they choose, at any speed they deem practical, between New York and Los Angeles. The car covering the distance between the start and finish in the briefest time will be the winner. There are no other rules."

Naming the event after Cannonball Baker was appropriate. Cannonball was a great cross-country record setter in the early days, establishing numerous nonstop records that still stand. Perhaps his greatest feat was crossing the U.S. from Los Angeles to New York in 60 hours in the late 1920s. Driving a Franklin, Cannonball made the trip alone, on a network of two-lane highways that penetrated practically every city and town along the way. A remarkable accomplishment under any circumstances, but to pull it off within the relatively primitive travel environment of the Roaring Twenties placed Cannonball's trip in the realm of the miraculous. While the old gentleman had long since passed on, it seemed to me that he would have been amused and perhaps a mite pleased to find another effort at cross-country record-setting being undertaken in his memory.

Because of the tightening noose of traffic laws, flat-out travel on the public roads in the United States is a sub-rosa, antisocial endeavor, much like cockfighting and crap shooting. In fact, nobody had made any serious attempt to set a coast-to-coast record in years, although several automotive journalists, public-relations men and such prone-to-exaggerate, untrustworthy types laid informal claim to having made the trip in the neighborhood of 44 hours. With the ever-expanding Interstate system, I knew this time could be reduced sharply through some serious, nonstop running.

While a number of my friends reacted with predictions that the participants would spend the rest of their days rotting in an Oklahoma jail, a substantial number of lunatics within the sport rose up to say they would like to take part. It suddenly became a serious idea. Why not do it? In addition to the obvious challenge of driving, tactics, route choice and type of vehicle to be used, it seemed that the Cannonball Baker offered an opportunity to make some interesting symbolic statements about the general state of driving in the United States. If a group of good drivers could run coast to coast in really brisk time, it might serve notice that our laws needed radical updating in the face of modern realities.

The first Cannonball Race was a private coast-to-coast test: two friends, my son and I drove a Dodge Sportsman van with 360 cubic-inch engine, air conditioning, radar detector and one small refrigerator. We left Manhattan one midnight in May and pulled into the Portofino Inn at Redondo Beach 40 hours and 51 minutes later. We were convinced that this was the outright record.

And so began the ultimate, serious Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Race. The first challenge came in a telegram from the Polish Racing Drivers of America, a tongue-in-cheek collection of car freaks that had been formed by Brad Niemcek, a New York public-relations man, and Oscar Koveleski, a well-known amateur sports-car racer and auto accessory marketer. The wire read, "This constitutes formal entry by the Polish Racing Drivers of America in the next official Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Race. The drivers are Oscar Koveleski, Brad Niemcek and Tony Adamowicz. If we can find California, we'll beat you fair and square."

That was it. We had a race. While they refused to take anything with complete seriousness, the PRDA weren't fooling about the Cannonball. Their third driver, Tony Adamowicz, was one of the best young professional prospects in the nation. What's more, a follow-up phone call by Niemcek indicated that they were building a specially modified Chevrolet van with enough auxiliary gas tanks to make the trip nonstop. We had made 15 stops for fuel in our van, which had kept us sidelined for a total of one hour and 15 minutes, and their plan to go the distance made sense.

We decided to go on Nov. 15, after the racing season had ended and the roads had cleared of vacation traffic. The first order was getting a faster car. While our test-run van, nicknamed Moon Trash, had been a marvelous machine, its limited top speed—perhaps 105 mph—and stock fuel tank presented severe handicaps in the face of the PRDA challenge. Car collector Kirk White of Philadelphia offered a solution. Within his stable was a 4.4-liter Ferrari Daytona, a slippery, ground-hugging coupe with a V-12, four-cam engine and five forward speeds—considered to be the fastest road automobile built. Its top speed was in the neighborhood of 175 mph, and with a large gasoline tank cruising ranges of 300 to 350 miles could be expected. My only problem was finding a co-driver.

Why not get a real, honest-to-God racer? I called Dan Gurney. He loved the idea and I could hear him chuckling as I explained the Cannonball to him. He accepted. Then he called back a day later to decline. He mumbled about pressures from sponsors and how a man in his position shouldn't be out roaring around on the public highways. I understood. I called Phil Hill. A perfect choice. After all, Phil was America's only world champion, a title he had won at the wheel of a Ferrari back in 1961, and he was an excellent highway driver. Phil said it sounded like fun, but he was simply too busy to go.

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