Greatest Outlaw RaceHide Text
Cannonball! World's Greatest Outlaw Road Race, 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.
Around 6:15 A.M. we were approaching the California border, cruising at about 110 miles per hour when an officer spotted us. He was just stepping off the porch of a ranch style restaurant about 100 yards from the highway and immediately jumped in his Dodge highway patrol car. Brock yelled, "He is coming after us!" and I thought, OK let's not panic, I'll take it up about 130 to 135 miles per hour, and I don't think his Dodge will go that fast. There was another problem: We needed fuel and the next town was 15 miles down the road. We would have to stop, because unlike some of our competitors, we did not have an extra fuel tank in the car. Brock was looking back and said, "I don't think we are getting away from him—he may even be gaining a little." The Ferrari was not straining at all, still loping along, but I was unsure of the tires' ability to withstand sustained high speed. As luck would have it, the gas station had automatic gas pumps that served you without help by accepting dollar bills in a slot.
I just got the nozzle into the tank, and here came the Dodge with a very red-faced officer behind the wheel. I was at a loss for words, as was my eloquent writer- co-driver. I kept pumping gas and the not too friendly officer started writing a ticket. I had the sinking feeling that our race effort was now in serious trouble, especially if he were to take us to see a judge, as is often the case. After I signed the ticket, the officer showed the first sign of being a little bit more friendly.
He finally asked how fast our car would go. Well, I was not in the mood for conversation at this time. I saw our possible victory disappear in the waves of the Pacific Ocean, and wanted desperately to get going. I felt my anger rising about our failed effort and naturally toward this officer. "It goes a lot faster than the thing you are driving." (Such mature behavior on my part!) I do not recall his reaction; I may have blocked it out. But I do know that in subsequent years our AAR race team trucks were sometimes subject to harassment by the authorities when they came through Arizona... The officer's question of how fast our car would really go was ringing in my ears once we hit the open road again and Brock and I decided to find out. We took her up to 172 miles per hour without a problem.
We were the first to punch the time clock at the Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach, California, where we received a great welcome. We had crossed the country in 35 hours, 54 minutes, which was the fastest time by a very narrow margin and made us the winner of the first Cannonball cross-country race. Kirk White, owner of the Ferrari Daytona offered me the car at a price of $15,000—I could not afford it! Now 30 years later, the car is a priceless vintage piece in Bruce McCaw's car collection.
At the time Brock and I and the other participants had no idea that the Cannonball adventure would spawn countless caper movies and fire up the imagination of enthusiasts everywhere in the world. I knew only a few years after our win that this whole adventure resonated big-time with young and old. In kindergarten my kids were asked whether their Dad had "really run the Cannonball." Spa? LeMans? Indy? Never heard of them! The things one becomes famous for!