The Cannonball Run

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Cannonball! World's Greatest Outlaw Road Race

As recounted by Dan Gurney

I was a fan of Cannon Ball Baker long before Brock contacted me with the offer to do the race. I used to fantasize about the days when you could venture off and do things the way Cannon Ball did. I remember a story about him being involved in a motorcycle relay race where riders were exchanged at certain spots but continued on with the same motorcycle. In a town out west somewhere, one rider was waiting on the appointed street corner for the change all dressed up in leather, helmets, goggles, scarf, and gloves. The local sheriff spotting him, did not believe him when told the reasons for his waiting there and just threw him in jail as some sort of weirdo.


When Brock asked me to do this race with him, I was not so afraid of being thrown in jail (though the thought occurred to me!) as I had reservations about what kind of message were we signaling to the regular drivers on the road. How could this be done in a responsible way, adhering to the traffic laws, not frightening someone else into trouble and winning the contest at the same time? I had retired from driving only a few months before, had a new four-month-old son, and was trying to establish my business. I did not need this! But the temptation was there and I could not quite get it out of my mind. I thought of the time when Cannon Ball was in his prime. The roads and the cars were quite a bit slower than today. There was less traffic, more freedom all around, the tires were not very good. I thought of my driving experience on regular European roads where they hardly had any speed limits at that time and tolerant police. There you could really concentrate on driving well and using good judgment in the process. Paris-Peking, New York-Los Angeles? I was pondering all this and came to the reluctant conclusion that I should not do it. If I got involved in a bad situation, it might put another black mark on racing.

And then fate intervened. My wife, Evi, was called to Germany, taking our baby boy with her, to be with her dad, who had been diagnosed with a virulent form of cancer and had only a short time to live. Sitting at her dad's bedside she told him about the planned Cannon-ball cross-country race. He encouraged her to tell me that he thought that was a splendid idea, that life is short. Carpe diem! Well it took only a phone call from overseas and I was on a plane to New York, determined that I was NOT going to RACE and would not drive any faster than was prudent under the existing conditions. I was going to be responsible and courteous at all times and concentrate on driving in a stealthy fashion. The latter, of course, was a little tough to do in a midnight blue Ferrari Daytona.

I arrived in New York just in time for a two-hour nap before the start at 11:30 P.M. at the Red Ball Garage in downtown Manhattan. I hardly met the other participants and knew nothing of their serious plans and hilarious schemes to get across the country. When Brock and I left, we did not really know what pace would be required to win this contest, so for a long time we went right at the speed limit. My own "human radar" was certainly turned on and tuned up to full sensitivity. There were no race regulations to the best route, but Brock had worked it out beforehand and was busy reading maps with a small flashlight giving me directions. We were heading across Jersey on to Pennsylvania. I fondly remembered a story my Dad told me long ago about driving on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in 1940. He was passing a State Patrol car going about 85 miles per hour. The troopers on board just waved hello, as there were no speed limits at that time. Meanwhile Brock was providing both of us with nuts and cookies, potato chips and water. My human radar started to get more finely tuned and I started to pick up the pace gradually. We were approaching Indianapolis. It was exciting and scary. Then we hit a violent rainstorm for about 300 miles! Through St. Louis and on and on. I drove the first 18 hours and then Brock took over. He did an excellent job! Neither one of us got tired. The constant state of full alert for police speed traps and other forms of traffic control had an intensity that kept us very much on edge. Our top speed was probably in the 95 to 110 miles per hour range and was dictated by our desire to remain stealthy. We had to make constant judgment calls as to how to proceed. Go too fast—go to jail! Go too slow—lose the Cannonball! Our scariest moment came when we hit a piece of black ice in Arizona. I saved it, but it was close. We had our feared encounter with the police finally.