How the Cannonball Race Became America’s Most Popular Illegal Street Race


If there’s one thing America is known for, it’s love of illegal street racing. Just look at the story. When the government introduced the ban, to reduce crime and increase the moral latitude of all good God-loving Americans, America decided to moonlight and moonlight races with it in tuned cars. The illegal alcohol-fueled street race against the authorities continued until the ban was finally lifted.

At the end of World War II, and a bunch of soldiers returned with no work and no money, to keep busy, they began to tinker with cars. Enter hot rods, tuned performances and, of course, illegal street racing. Then came the bikers, and not just the AMA ones, but the outlaw biker clubs, the one percent and their brand of illegal street races and long rides.

With the advent of the muscle car, the legend of illegal street racing has only grown. And even the sterilization of the muscle car from the oil crisis and emission controls hasn’t killed America’s love for, you guessed it, illegal street racing.

But there is one such race, the Cannonball race that has truly reached legendary proportions, because of its longevity. And not just for the number of years this illegal street race has been alive, but also because of its actual geographic route. So here’s what you need to know about the Cannonball Run, and how it became America’s most popular illegal street overboard race.

CannonBall Run started with the baker “Cannon Ball”

Erwin George 'Cannon Ball' Baker The American Racing Driver

Via: Pinterest

Erwin George “Cannon Ball” Baker was passionate about speed and a man who loved to ride, drive and set road records. He started in May 1914 on his Indian motorcycle, preparing to break the transcontinental record starting in San Diego and ending in New York. He rode on unpaved roads, had his routes planned and refueled ahead of time, and completed the race in 11 and a half days. It was pure planning and endurance.

In 1933 he set off again, this time en route from coast to coast in his Graham car, completing the journey in 53 hours and 30 minutes. Back then, it wasn’t an illegal street race, it wasn’t even a race. It was simply a beautiful ride from a man who knew his wheels and set a record that lasted 38 long years.

Related: Here’s The DL On The Mitsubishi Starion From Cannonball Run II

The Modern Cannonball: An Illegal Street Race

1981 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am in 1981 Cannonball Run movie

Via: IMCDb

38 years later, Brock Yates, editor-in-chief of CarandDriver magazine, decided to formalize it. He called it the “Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash” and ran it with his son, Brock Yates Jr.

Two other autophiles, Steve Smith and Jim Williams, joined them and the quartet set off from New York in a 1971 Dodge Custom Sportsman van, they called it “Moon Trash II”, to cross America.

The race still wasn’t a race, but soon Yates did, and the illegal and unauthorized street race sprang up, starting in New York City and ending at the Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach, California. Along with 1971, the Cannonball Race was held in 1972, 1975, and then 1979, and not only did it celebrate the greatness of America’s highways, but strangely, it also protested the top speed of 55 MPH.

What were the rules? According to Yates, this illegal street race only had rules for “All competitors will drive any vehicle of their choice, on any route, at any speed they deem convenient, between the starting point and destination. The competitor who finishes with the lowest elapsed time is the winner ”.

Related: Here’s How The Cannonball Running Record Has Improved Over The Years

Notable CannonBall Wins

Brock Yates and the cannonball race

Via: Twitter

On November 15, 1971, in the first unofficial illegal street race now known as the Cannon Ball, Dan Gurney and Brock Yates drove a Ferrari Daytona coupe and broke Baker’s record, finishing the race in 35 hours and 54 minutes. Finally, the last of the illegal street races Cannonball got the best record. Dave Heinz and Dave Yarborough drove a Jaguar XJS to victory in 32 hours and 51 minutes, averaging 97 mph. It was the only race to start in Darien, Connecticut.

Yates later stopped organizing the race, but the illegal street race continued, now called the US Express. Many new records saw the light of day, but things literally hit a roadblock in 1983, after the 1981 film was released, The cannonball race. Now the police knew, and the race was over, with the last 32 hour and 7 minute record held for 20 years.

So far, according to media reports, Fred Ashmore holds the record for the solo attempt, racing the race in a frightening 25 hours and 55 minutes, in a rented Mustang GT. To his credit, he filled the car with fuel tanks and stopped once to refuel. The COVID-19 lockdown has also worked in its favor, with roads cleared of all traffic.

Will the next record be closer to 24 hours? Time will tell what the future holds for America’s most popular illegal street race. But one thing is certain, the American love for good illegal street racing is not going to end anytime soon.

Sources: CarandDriver, Road & Track

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