March 1, 2024 | Jamie Hayes

This Illegal, No-Rules Race Across America Could Never Happen Today


1. Based On A True Story

Movies like Cannonball Run and The Gumball Rally were based on a real event: The Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash.

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2. Two Men Had An Idea

The idea first came from Brock Yates, an auto racer and writer for Car and Driver, and the magazine's editor Steve Smith.

 Veteran motorsports journalist and CBS-TV broadcaster Brock Yates reports from the pits during the 1981 Daytona 500Robert Alexander, Getty Images

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3. They Named It After A Legend

The race was named after Erwin "Cannonball Baker," a famous turn-of-the-century auto racer who set many of the world's first long-distance driving records

Grayscale Photo of Erwin George Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

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4. They Rode In Moon Trash II

The first Cannonball Run wasn't a race—more of a proof of concept. Yates and Steve Smith, along with Yates's son Brock Jr.

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and their friend Jim Williams, ran the race alone in a custom Dodge Sportsman they called "Moon Trash II".

Close-up Photo of a green Dodge SportsmanAutoPhoto, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

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5. The Interstate System Was The Perfect Course

Yates and Smith wanted the run to promote the Interstate Highway System and to protest America's increasingly strict traffic laws.

Motorsports journalist Brock Yates (R) with driver LeeRoy Yarbrough on pit road at Daytona International SpeedwayRacingOne, Getty Images

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6. They Went And Did It

Moon Trash II began the inaugural Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash on May 3, 1971, crossing the finish line at the Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach, California in 40 hours and 51 minutes.

Aerial Photo of Redondo Beach MarinaDave Proffer, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

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7. They Wanted A Real Race

After the Moon Trash's voyage, Yates and Smith wanted to do a real race.

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By November 15, 1971, a motley crew of six vehicles gathered at the Red Ball Garage in Manhattan.

Red Ball Garage New York - Mapillarysmartmaper, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

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8. The Poles Had The Pole Position

The first to leave, just after midnight, was a heavily modified Chevrolet Sportvan driven by members of the Polish Racing Drivers of America: Oscar Koveleski, Tony Adamowicz, and Brad Niemcek. 

The PRDA laid obvious claim to the race's pole position.

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Cannonball Baker race cars and people from Car and DriverHumphrey Sutton, Car and Driver, March 1972

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9. We Don't Stop!

The crew of the Sportvan had a plan: By decking out their van with enormous gas tanks and a complex system of hoses—bringing their total carrying capacity up to 298 gallons—they would not need to stop, easily getting them the fastest time.

Chevrolet Sportvan 108 Deluxe from 1968Kecko, Flickr

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10. It Wasn't Exactly Safe

The Poles were confident, but Cannonball Baker veteran Steve Smith had his doubts they'd make it that far with the fuel they had—plus he pointed out that flying across the country non-stop with 298 gallons of gasoline maybe isn't the best idea.

Close-up Photo of 1968 red Chevrolet SportvanDon O'Brien, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

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11. Some Boys In A Cadillac

Next to go were Larry Opert, Nate Pritzker, Ron Herisko of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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The near-new 1971 Cadillac deVille sedan they drove stood out among the other vehicles—but it was their only option.

Close up Photo of1971 Cadillac Coupe DevilleThat Hartford Guy, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

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12. They Answered An Ad

The boys from Cambridge wanted in on the Cannoball Run, but they didn't have wheels—so they just answered a newspaper at from a New York businessman who needed his new car driven out to LA.

Close up Photo of1971 Cadillac Coupe DevilleGreg Gjerdinge, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

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13. They Had Specific Rules

The Cadillac owner's rules were simple:

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don't drive before 8am, don't drive after 9 pm, and don't exceed 75 mph. Opert, Pritzker, and Herisko crossed their fingers, nodded their heads, grabbed the keys, and screamed off to the Red Ball Garage.

Close up Photo of 1971 Cadillac Coupe DevilleSicnag, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

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14. They Had To Change Plans

A 1970 MGB/GT followed the Cadillac, driven by Bob Perlow and Wes Dawn. The duo originally planned to drive a Volvo P1800, but someone stole it not long before the race.

Close-up Photo of 1970 Volvo P1800EMic, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

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15. Quick Turnaround

Undeterred, Perlow bought a used MGB/GT and picked it up just a few days before driving it non-stop from the New York to California.

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Close-up Photo of 1970 orange MGB GTCars Down Under, Flickr

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16. The Vans Had Good Names

Next up was another van, this time a brand-new 1971 Dodge, custom-fitted with 190-gallon gas tanks. Tom Marbut, Randy Waters, and Becky Poston called themselves the Little Rock Tankers, and they called their van "Snoopy II".

Close-up Photo of Dodge Sportsman Royal (1971)Andrew Bone, Flickr

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17. The Clear Favorite

Steve Smith sat out the second Cannonball Baker, but Brock Yates took part—and he'd upgraded both his wheels and his team.

He was driving a blue 1971 Ferrari 365GTB/4 Daytona coupe alongside American racing legend Dan Gurney, who won the 1967 24 hours of Le Mans.

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Gurney after his accident at the 1960 Dutch Grand PrixHarry Pot / Anefo, Wikimedia Commons

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18. Moon Trash Still Kickin'

The Ferrari looked extra sleek next to the next competitor: the original Cannonball pioneer, Moon Trash II, which joined the caravan by the skin of its teeth. A crash just a few weeks earlier had required serious, last-minute repairs. 

By the time the race started, Moon Trash II rolled, but neither the headlights nor the heater worked.

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Cannonball Baker race cars and people from Car and DriverHumphrey Sutton, Car and Driver, March 1972

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19. The Biggest Of The Bunch

After Moon Trash II was a 1996 Union 76 Travco Motor Home, driven by Bill Broderick, Phil Pash, Bob Carey, Joe Frasson, and Pal Parker. 

They rented the beast in Cincinnati the day before, drove it to New York, got some sleep, then headed straight out on the Cannonball Run at 5:

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56 am.

Cannonball Baker race cars and people from Car and DriverHumphrey Sutton, Car and Driver, March 1972

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20. There And Back Again

The last car, a 1969 AMC driven by brothers Ed and Rom Bruerton left a little late, rolling out of the Red Ball at nearly 3:00 in the afternoon, but they had a good excuse: They'd just arrived in New York at midnight...after doing a full, 44-hour reverse Cannonball Run from Redondo beach for reconnaissance.

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1969 AMC Rebel, an intermediate-sized two-door hardtop carChristopher Ziemnowicz, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

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21. A Bunch Of Lunatics

All in all, 23 individuals ran the first Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. Brock Yates' Car and Driver article detailing the event affectionally called them all "lunatics".

Ferrari Dino 246 GTS Targa (1973) on the roadAlexander Migl, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

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22. They Were Fools And They Did It

The first line of Yates' article says it all: "Those damn fools, they went and did it".

Cannonball Baker race cars and people from Car and Driver

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23. There Was Only One Rule

Auto racing tends to be a discipline bogged down by rules and regulations.

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The Cannonball Baker had one: 

“All competitors will drive any vehicle of their choosing, over any route, at any speed they judge practical, between the starting point and destination. The competitor finishing with the lowest elapsed time is the winner".

Close-up 1971 Ferrari 365 GTB4 DaytonaJim Culp, Flickr

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24. The True Friends of Hernando de Soto

Unlike most auto races, the Cannonball Baker had no organizing body beyond a "shadowy" group dubbed "The True Friends of Hernando de Soto".

Close-up Photo of 1978 Jaguar XJ-SJeremy, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

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25. For The Glory

Most important of all:

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There would be no prize money for Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. Just pride. 

Oh, and one other thing.

A 1973 Ferrari Dino 246 GTS followed by a 1969 MGC at the 2014 Rallye des PrincessesBlood Destructor, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

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26. To The Victor Go The Nutmaster

The winner of the Cannonball Baker was to be awarded the S-K “Nutmaster” trophy, a sculpture made of various tools, created and donated by the S-K Tool company.

Close-up Photo of Ferrari 308 GTSKen Lane, Flickr

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27. Timing Is Everything

The Cannonball Baker started at midnight for a reason:

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The competitors could get out of New York before rush hour, and if everything went well, they would be cruising down Los Angeles's freeways in the middle of the day.

Close-up Photo of 1971 Ferrari 365 GTB 4 DaytonaAlexandre Prevot, Flickr

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28. The Checkered Flag

It shouldn't come as a surprise that the Ferrari driven by a Le Mans champion took home the checkered flag.

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Yates and Gurney finished in 35 hours and 54 minutes, travelling 2,963 miles at an average of 80 mph.

Dan Gurney at Zandvoort  Netherlands' Grand PrixJoost Evers / Anefo, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

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29. The Longest Was The Fastest

Funnily enough, the Ferrari was actually the only car to take a different route, but it was actually 35 miles longer than what the other teams drove.

Close-up Photo of 1971 Ferrari 365 GTB 4 DaytonaZANTAFIO56, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

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30. Put The Pedal To The Metal

The Ferrari wasn't the fastest car either:

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That title went to the overeager boys in the Cadillac, who clearly ignored the owner's requests to never exceed 75 mph.

Close-up Photo of 71 white Cadillac Sedan de VilleGreg Gjerdingen, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

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31. Twinsies

Funnily enough, the Moon Trash II ended up having the same average speed as the Ferrari.

Close-up Photo of 1971 Ferrari 365 GTB 4 DaytonaZANTAFIO56, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

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32. Don't Stop For Gas, Don't Get Caught Speeding

The Ferrari won for two simple reasons: It got the best gas mileage, was better designed, and they only had to stop for one speeding ticket.

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Close-up Photo of 1971 Ferrari 365 GTB 4 Daytonamangopulp2008, Flickr

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33. Big Surprise

For contrast, the Cadillac was busted for speeding five times during the cross-country trip, which cost it heavily.

Close up Photo of 1971 Cadillac Sedan de VilleJoost J. Bakker, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

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34. The Tortoise And The Hare

The Ferrari may have won, but both the PRDA tortoise wasn't far behind: The Chevy Sportvan only needed to stop for gas a single time while maintaining a steady speed in the 90-100 mph range, which helped the PDRA lay claim to second place.

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Close-up Photo of a 1971 CHEVY-VANDon...The UpNorth Memories Guy... Harrison, Flickr

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35. A Close Race

For such a chaotic, unsanctioned event, the first five competitors finished the near 3,000 mile journey all finished the Cannonball Baker within two hours of each other.

Close-up Photo of Yellow Dino 246 GTMarco 56, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

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36. Five Times Club

The Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash ran three more times, in 1972, 1975, and 1979.

Jaguar XJ-S (1978) at Weston ParkCharles01, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

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37. The Record

The official record time for the race is 32 hours 51 minutes, set by Dave Heinz and Dave Yarborough in a Jaguar XJ-S in the final run.

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XJ-S GT Coupe At XJ-S Pilot, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

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38. Nothing Lasts Forever

Though the outlaw spirit of the Cannonball Baker was part of its charm, as traffic enforcement grew more strict and the race gained more notoriety, it could not continue.

Photo of the best side view of an North American Version of the 1975 Ferrari Dino 308 GT4Robertgarven, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

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39. Unsanctioned Unsanctioned Races

Successor races inspired by the Cannonball Baker have popped up all over the world over the years, frequently using the Cannonball name without Yates's approval.

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Two sixth-gen Ford Mustangs, A fifth-gen Mustang, and a Honda with sponsors and stickers from the 2019 To Hell and Back Cannonball RunNoah Wulf, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

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40. Sounds Like A Good Movie

The madcap Cannonball Baker sounds like a perfect idea for a movie and Yates knew it. He started a screenplay—but he was too late.

Brock Yates poses at Daytona International SpeedwayRacingOne, Getty Images

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41. He Was Too Slow

By 1976, two unofficial films inspired by the Cannonball Baker, Cannonball and The Gumball Rally, had hit theatres, beating Yates to the punch.

Brock Yates of The Nashville Network interviews driver Stan FoxRacingOne, Getty Images

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42. Cannonball! 

Yates's official film, The Cannonball Run starring Burt Reynolds, finally came out in 1981. It was a huge hit, spawning two sequels and, many years later, a television spinoff.

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Burt Reynolds on the red carpet for the 43rd Annual Emmy Awards, looking to the rightAlan Light, Flickr

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