Cannonball

1971

I had first heard of the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash when Sports Illustrated reported that Brock Yates, Senior Editor of Car and Driver magazine, and Dan Gurney, famous racing driver, had established a world’s record driving time from New York City to Los Angeles in 35 hours 54 minutes in a Ferrari Daytona. Subsequent articles and even a book discussed the record. There were other races, but none could touch the record of Yates and Gurney. I almost routinely clipped the articles, filed them away, and went about my business as the germ of an idea grew in my mind.

Early 1975

In early 1975,  my plans began to crystallize. It was really possible to go for that record. One of the trade journals stated that Brock Yates was considering his “anti-establishment” Dash over again. He would again flout the law, break all the rules, evade the police, and run free. I excitedly dashed off a “Personal and Confidential” letter to Yates, advising him that I was prepared to join him. I, too, could be the best, the fastest!

A spring issue of Yates’ magazine, Car and Driver, carried a small cutout form.  When filled in and accompanied by five dollars, this might “possibly” get an official entry form for Cannonball ’75.

I had no way of knowing whether or not Yates would personally read my completed form. But I carefully cited my experience--a lifetime of driving at high speed, including some organized and legal racing with Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). I did not list a co-driver. I had mentioned to several potential co-drivers the possibility of the Dash but had not chosen or asked anyone.  Strangely, the entry fee was $250 of which $200 was payable to the charity of your choice.

I tried to get on with routine business, but the race possibility was never far from my mind.  What was Yates to think of my qualifications? Finally, I was notified by an acceptance letter from Yates, who could obviously drive better than he could type. Needed: A “prepared” Ferrari Dino. I happened to have one.

So, now to find a co-driver. It only took a word with my friend and fellow SCCA race driver, National Champion quality and National Racing Mechanic of the Year 1974, Rick Cline. “Yes, I’ll do it,” he said without hesitation.

We were committed and now ready to service and prepare the car for competition! First, we cannibalized a 15-gallon fuel cell from one of Rick’s racing cars, increasing our total capacity to 36 gallons. Next, we constructed and installed brackets on the front bumpers for the 100-watt Carello driving lights. Then we serviced the engine: new Shell oil, new air and oil filters, new Champion plugs. Finally, we mounted the best Goodyears on the road and installed a CB radio and a radar detector to warn of delays and cops. (Cops was a word that would come to dominate much of our conscious thought.) Then we assembled boxes of high energy candy, chewing gum, chewable Vitamin C tablets, Gatorade, raisins, junk-type munchies, first aid kit, flashlights, binoculars to scan far-off horizons for . . . cops, driving glasses, a couple of shirts each, driving gloves and shoes, and several road maps courtesy of AAA with a suggested route that didn’t grasp the basics of high-speed highway transit.

I never asked myself, “Why do it?” After all, it was illegal and dangerous as hell. Careful farmers turning off the road can block the damn lane long enough to carefully kill you. For a trophy? For the greasy handshake of a few men I didn’t even know very well? To be able to tell the story? To get laid? Or simply for myself?

April 21-23, 1975

Monday morning I left my home in Florida for NYC and a test run. To be checked: gas consumption, fuel cell arrangement and function, ideal tire pressure, CB radio function and technique, adequacy of night driving lights. I concluded that more driving lights would be necessary for the extremely fast nighttime speeds anticipated. Fuel consumption at projected speeds would be about 15+ mpg, allowing a safe 500+ miles between pit stops. All else seemed ready.

After averaging 73 miles per hour solo for 1,100 miles, New York City itself was agonizing motoring. There it was necessary to constantly dodge taxis, potholes, and pedestrians! The streets seemed dark and the car seemed out of place, but at last I located the famous Red Ball Garage! My spirits stumbled. It really looked rather drab, and there were certainly no banners proclaiming a welcome to Cannonballers: no band, not even a welcoming committee. However, the general manager, a nice Cuban fellow named Juan, directed me to the elevator beneath the harsh light of bare ceiling bulbs. It looked like a set for a B-grade movie about kids with acne.

I found a room and slept a black and oblivious sleep.  Once awake and refreshed, there were phone calls.  Most were envious, congratulatory, and wished us victory. The last, my great companion and attorney, was cautionary!

A drivers’ meeting was held in the nondescript headquarters of Car and Driver. What a collection we 20 or so entrants were! All were car nuts: many race drivers both amateur and professional, writers, pilots, business and professional men, doctors, lawyers, photographers, truckers, stockbrokers, an Army colonel. I didn’t know a soul, though I’d heard of many, and no one knew me either.

Lots of pictures were taken. If this race was “secret” except to all of the news media, maybe it would be equally “secret” to all the highway patrolmen out there.

Brock Yates was an interesting, real fellow. Gucci, modern-jeans-style outfit, straight shooter, his Car and Driver editorials reflected him accurately.  Yates made a little speech. The goal of the Cannonball, we were told, was to demonstrate to the authorities that skillful drivers in well-prepared machines could safely and economically travel at speeds in excess of the posted legal speed limits and that the then-current 55 mph limit was unenforceable. We meant to prove the point.

Regulations of the motor race were incredibly simple: “Entrants must drive a land-based vehicle of any configuration, with any size crew, 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.”

Again my mind drifted. “Why am I doing this?" "Other people aren’t doing this." There is a herd instinct in the world, but some people have less of it than others do. Those herders  are fond of telling stragglers that we are crazy.  Maybe we are and maybe we aren’t. Could it be that pure accomplishment and not public acceptance is the true measure of success? To some, only results count and style means nothing. I prefer to believe that style is also very important. The main thing is how you conduct yourself and your affairs. Style sets you apart. The Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash demands style. It is an adventure that allows individuals to rebel against a society that would make us all alike.

We would leave at different hours and run against time. Yates elected to depart first. “It’s not my preferred time of departure, but due to all the anticipated press coverage, I need to be at Redondo Beach (the finish point in California) first.” Who would dispute him? Besides, our limited experience indicated that 21:30 to 22:45 would be prime departure time, after the early evening rush and prior to the after-theater crowd. We agreed to leave after a steak and coffee.

Yates teamed with “Yogi” Behr, a well-known racer with the distinction of being the highest American finisher in the history of the Monte Carlo Rally. After snapping a few photos of Yates and Behr loading into their trick Dodge Challenger, Rick and I hailed a cab just as the Dodge, sporting small but neat Car and Driver labels on the sides, with chirping tires pulled away from the crowd gathered around the Red Ball Garage. “Hey Brock,” I yelled as our taxi pulled alongside Yates and Behr.  He said, “Yeah,” navigating and glancing over with one eye peeled on the still-red stoplight. I said, “Rick and I will save you a place at the breakfast table in Redondo.” We would meet Yates later.

Our nerves were jangled from too much coffee. It was our turn. I started the Ferrari and pulled onto 31st Street. With few stops, we needed this V6 engine to faultlessly revolve more than eight million times! The odometer registered 9,571 miles. Juan, the garage man, suggested we wait until the light at Lexington turned before punching our timing ticket.

Wednesday April 23

10:07 pm EDT - NYC

Driving lights on, chewing gum, driving gloves snug, we waited. The light turned green! Mark Jones, my longtime friend and blood brother NYC resident, stamped our official ticket on the Red Ball clock . . . 10:07 pm, EDT, Wednesday, 23 April.  With a wave from our well-wishers, we accelerated away, around potholes and taxis, under an ominous sky. Adrenaline was rushing as if driven by superchargers. The Lincoln Tunnel at high speed was psychedelic . . . zip.zip.zip . . . and then the rain. We discovered that we two seasoned race drivers had  failed to check our intentionally over-inflated tires and adjust pressures! No time. Press on. Third gear, fourth, fifth, fourth.

The responsive double overhead cam engine hummed its melody up and down the scale as I carefully but speedily maneuvered through the heavier than expected traffic: 90 mph . . . 100 mph. No cops, no problems, just more and more rain. My confidence grew. I relaxed and concentrated. Rick had the radio going, confirming directions and highway patrol locations. All was smooth. As we settled down to a day and a half of racing, we welcomed the monotony of the wipers and worshipped the happy response of the great, exciting work of the mechanical art: the 246GTS Dino Ferrari.

The rain stopped. We were listening now to our CB. “Tijuana Taxi moving east near exit number twelve.” There were all sorts of handles: South Georgia Whippoorwill, Shadow, Dirty Nick, Luna Belle. We changed our handle frequently. Also we soon learned to listen more and talk little!

Our selected route was ours alone as far as we knew. After avoiding six “Smokeys taking pictures” (patrolmen with radar) on the New Jersey Turnpike on my trip into NYC, I was certain the Turnpike should be bypassed. Thus, the more northern route across Pennsylvania on Interstate 80 was dictated. We would then cut south to Columbus and on to Dayton and Vandalia, all in Ohio. Then our route would lead us into Indiana on Interstate 70. Terre Haute was next, then to St. Louis and over the Mississippi River: Gateway to the West.

After St. Louis the choices became much less obvious. We accepted Robert Frost’s advice and took the road not taken. We decided to take some chances. In an attempt to motor as much as possible in the flat midland of our big country with our six Weber carbs well open, we marked on our map with yellow felt tip about 600 miles of two-lane roads, commencing in Kansas City, dropping down to Tucumcari, New Mexico, cutting through Oklahoma and Texas en route. At Tucumcari, we picked up another interstate, I-40. This would lead us through Albuquerque and midway into Arizona.  Past Flagstaff, we planned to cut south through the Prescott National Forest for several hundred miles and pick up Interstate 10, the southern and fastest-looking route to Los Angeles. Neither of us had visited Los Angeles so we were at the mercy of AAA maps showing only Redondo Beach. The whereabouts of the Portofino Inn we would worry about later . . . lots! 

Thursday April 24

3:07 am EDT - Pennsylvania

Five hours and 437 miles out of the Red Ball, still raining with speeds averaging 87.4 mph. Onward!

5:45 am EDT - Ohio

West of Dayton near Vandalia. Relaxed, with an average speed now approaching 90 mph, concentrating on the increasing traffic, we motored on to the harmony of truckers chatting on the CB and the . . . slap.whine.slap . . . of the wipers.

A trucker reported: “Smokey headed east, mile post fourteen.” “Rick, where are we?” I asked, not slowing our pace from 120+. “Mile post fifteen.” I lifted my foot from the accelerator.  Just then, in the opposite lane, the eastbound Smokey flashed by! As suddenly as he appeared, he disappeared in the rain and fog. I eased back to 120+. A trucker reports excitedly: “Smokey is turning around at mile post sixteen. He’s headed after that white Corvette!” Corvette, my ass. Mile post 12 flashed by us.  We were four miles in the lead so I poured more fuel to the willing V-6! About 135 mph.

“Wha-a-a-p-p-p!” The radar detector blasts off, leaving no doubt that we are under microwave surveillance. I lifted my foot at the same instant I saw the next Smokey. He obviously was radioed by our pursuer. Also travelling east, he pulled hastily to the median behind an underpass. As we flashed by in our white speedster, he turned on his twin gumball roof lights and pulled in after us.

I moved to about 140, passed a slow-moving trucker, and the crazily flashing lights faded from my rearview in the rain. Rick and I glanced at each other. What do we do now? Hold it on. No one was in sight. But the other truckers, sounding like excited parrots, carried on a commentary of the chase. We were several miles ahead and fast pulling away.

Where in the hell is an exit to dodge off and hide? One came up, but a trucker was inconveniently (purposely) in the way. A long gentle hill ahead. A truck signaled left to pass. Italian air horns and flashing lights to no avail. He eased before us (again purposefully), and I fell in tow. My eyes caught the rear view. This must be done quickly and your attention immediately refocused again while your brain assimilates what the eyes have seen. And what my eyes had seen were four wild blue flashing lights, closing fast. I signaled left, resigning the chase, and pulled into the median. Two more patrolmen, headed east, lights also on, pulled to our front. Two front, two rear. Eight flashing lights. Four Smokeys. Heavens!

What explanation can we use? “Shit, Rick, they got us.” “Yeah.” I took off my driving gloves and glasses and, in as cavalier a fashion as I could muster, ventured forth to meet our adversaries and determine our future. I sought inner calm and composure, but it was hopeless. Red-faced, obviously in command, Sergeant Wheeler charged over to me. “You'd better have a damn good story. And I want to hear it. Now!” Hesitation. Calm, calm. Politely, I said, “I’m sorry. I guess I was just over-exuberant!” License, registration, title, body search. “It is my car. I’m sober.” Things look a little better . . . but not much! “Come with us in the squad car. Leave your car here.” “Can my friend drive and follow along?” “Okay.”

Wheeler, Perry the driver, and I load in and head to the Courthouse-Police Station, Cline following. Twelve miles east! Goodness, not east!   Wait, Wheeler was a car buff! How did I like the Ferrari? How fast? Red line? Does the CB work? Radar? Why did I get caught? (Truckers didn’t advise us in time.) It must be fast, you were running away from us, but our plugs were dirty. (I didn’t even smirk.) And even so, this barge will only register 125 mph. Can your buddy drive the car okay? Is he really a national champion sports car racer, not to mention Mechanic of the Year? Wow! And you also race Triumphs? Interesting. If you’d been 15 minutes earlier, we’d have missed you.  All six cars of us were getting our coffee and just split from the same place (the other two were further west waiting). Fill your car? Over there. Easiest and shortest way back to the expressway is to cut through this road here. We’ll just write you up for one offense: Reckless Operation. But we could get you for seven. Please, guys, be careful, but I didn’t tell the others because I knew they weren’t really interested in hearing me say it.

The clerk in the station thumbed through her book. Perry wrote out the ticket, and then he gave me my license back. “Two hundred and fifty dollars.” I turned white. I looked at Wheeler. Even he looked pale. We had a little cash but Wheeler mumbled, “Wow, that’s a lot.” “No shit,” I said silently. Very silently.

I paid in cash, shook everybody’s hand and thanked them (mumble, mumble) and departed to the awaiting race car. Cline’s turn to drive. Had we lost our chance at winning? Had we lost? Press on as fast as safety and our frayed nerves would permit. The time was 06:35, mileage 10,239. We had been 668 miles and were far from the checkered flag at Portofino, but at least we weren’t in jail!

10:07 am EDT - St. Louis

Twelve hours and 961 miles from the Red Ball Garage, average 83.3 mph approaching St. Louis. We were gaining back our average speed and equally important, our confidence. Then, a navigational mistake took us into the center of St. Louis. Our average speed gain was partially lost. Time, our competitor, ticked on. Gas stops were handled with the urgency of the Indianapolis 500 race. The driver popped open the gas cap, trunk, and engine lids with the inside latches. The navigator pumped the gas with two pumps if they’d reach and then checked the oil. We usually cleaned the windshield and lights with our own bottle of Windex and paper towels and got out a wad of dollar bills. We took turns running in to whiz and grab an occasional soda, then stuffing rolls of dollars into the usually startled attendant’s hand. Without waiting for change, we leapt in and peeled away onto the “course.” Seldom did a stop take much as five minutes.

One stop in Kansas didn’t save us much time. It was the coffee station for the State Highway Patrol, and no fewer than seven cars pulled in. Our pit stop activities were viewed with interest by most everyone, particularly the Smokeys. We completed our pit procedures to form, except we pulled out at 55 mph followed by two Smokeys . . . for the next 20 miles! Were they really seeking to protect the citizenry or was this smug harassment by heavy-handed nondescripts toward the world’s “hotdogs?”

In our eighteenth hour we covered 40 miles. Forty whole miles! A serious blow to our average speed and to our spirits.

The heretofore perfectly performing spark plugs did not adapt to the sudden change in internal engine temperature and began to foul. We lost the tail at the outskirts of Wichita, exactly where we encountered a construction detour. The sweet Ferrari now began to run on five cylinders! Although it probably ran better on 5/6 power than other engines at 100 percent, it would have been frustrating and impractical to risk continuing without mechanical correction for fear that other plugs would collapse.

A serious pit stop was in order. A Western Auto loomed ahead in a shopping center. Screech! Stop! Rick dashed in to buy six Champion N6Y plugs. I assaulted the super-hot engine, extracting the near-glowing red plugs. Fast! Time is the race! Time is everything! Five plugs were okay, one was black. I screwed them in, replacing the bad one, burning myself without feeling it. Concurrently, we discovered the connection between gas tank and fuel cell leaking. Rick jacked up the car and crawled underneath with tools. Gas flooded on him, his clothes, my feet, and the parking lot. Hurry, hurry! Time is all! Old ladies with filled grocery buggies stopped with mouths agape! It’s fixed. We slammed down the engine lid and threw tools into the trunk. The engine fired up with a nice and new, yet familiar, clean roar. The old ladies stood back. The clutch engaged. The rear Goodyears spun in the puddle of gas, catch, and smoke. We fishtailed at full bore in low gear and back onto the course. We lost 43 miles this hour! Can we get it back? Have we lost all chance? Press on.

To comprehend the excellence and finesse of a Ferrari, it helps to understand and appreciate automobiles.  Ferrari loafs along at 140 mph, so positively in contact with the road, so responsive to driver input that it’s a cinch to pilot. The huge vented disk brakes and fantastic racing suspension endow it with deceleration, stopping power, in league with its speed. It’s comforting and extremely safe in the hands of an experienced, competent driver. Engine noise is slight in the cockpit, giving only a muted indication of the power and responsiveness under command. The contoured leather bucket seats are almost womblike in their comfort.

The comfort does not lull, however. Races are won by drivers who concentrate. Cannonballs are won with the help of co-drivers who navigate with concentration, which means Rick and I didn’t “visit” much on the trip. It is hard to describe one’s intense awareness of the presence of the other person, while at the same time being forced to almost totally ignore him. Concentration must be focused on the road and the machine. Corners are hugged tightly enough to threaten the paint. Adjust and adjust. Try to predict the movement of the traffic ahead. Adjust and think and concentrate. Put yourself through this simply for the game? For no reason, really? Yes! There is a reason. It symbolizes an approach to life, the ultimate game, which may well be without reason itself. But forget the philosophy. Concentrate.

9:37 pm EDT - Tucumcari, New Mexico

With the odometer registering 11,488 (1,916 miles from the Red Ball) and an average speed of 81.6 mph, Rick took over at a fuel stop. At “one day” (24 hours), we passed through Santa Rosa, New Mexico, 1,970 miles from Manhattan. Movin’ on! The machine was right. With almost no traffic we continued to cover nearly 100 miles each hour. We wondered, “Will those other drivers press on like we have? Will they be willing to put themselves through this? We think they will."

April 25

3:07-4:07 am EDT - Arizona

One trucker to another: “A little white car just zipped past me with the hammer down (Trucker-ese for wide open throttle). Darn near sucked off my belly pan! Wait 'til he hits one of these big jackrabbits. It’ll roll that little car up in a ball and they’ll never find it!”

Rabbit, ha! Who’s afraid of rabbits? The odometer advanced to 12,070 from 11,871: 99 miles covered during the hour. We left I-40 and cut south through Prescott National Forest, heading for the desert and the I-10 route to Los Angeles. This was the route taken by Yates and Gurney in their World Record run. It was supposed to be mountainous and slow, and it was. But between curves were frequent high-speed stretches, a nice two-laner. We zipped past a sign: Watch for Animals.

Punchy by now, we laughed that the animals better watch for us! They did a poor job. We had six-quart iodine bulbs aglow for our nighttime racing. This total of 490 watts seemed about the equivalent of the landing light for a 747 jumbo jet. Then, far in the distance, we saw a tiny shining light on the road. An eye. A rabbit’s eye.

Beep . beep . . . A couple of air horn toots to scare him away. Failed. He ran for the lights, and we took him to his greater glory. At 135 mph, his head popped like a watermelon.

Rick: “Wish we could call that trucker and tell him the rabbit lost!” But the rabbit war wasn’t over.

At 4:55 am we tore through Yarnell, Arizona, at an indicated 4,782 feet above sea level. It was cold, in the thirties.

Nineteen minutes later we were confronted with another jackrabbit. We’re not sure, but we guess his height at 4 feet 6 inches and weight at a little over 100 pounds! At least that’s what it seemed like at 140 mph! It sounded like hitting a coconut with a Louisville Slugger bat! Crunch! The car jolted. We knew the rabbits were beginning to score. The wiring for the driving lights was definitely “rabbit-fied.” The six lights flicked on . . . off . . . and on . . . randomly. The effect was confusing and, at our speed, very dangerous. Please, God, no more rabbits. “Thunk!” Listen to the car. A new rattle? What had been damaged? Then the road began to narrow, and we started up our first mountain.

Were we lost? Minutes, tens of minutes passed. We were still in the mountains, hairpin after hairpin, 25 mph speed limit signs, and on and on it went. Rick was driving now, and I watched in admiration as he smoothly and masterfully conducted the Ferrari from apex to apex. We might be falling below our average speed goal, but we were maintaining at least 70 mph. We were tired, but strangely swept with waves of exhilaration. Such motoring is a joy, an art, indescribable to those who have never tried it, and unlike anything else in my experience.

As we dropped from the mountains and the no-guardrail hairpin turns, the road began to straighten. Our speed moved up to our now-favorite 140. Suddenly we were into a right-handed sweeping turn without warning. Rick applied the brakes judiciously. The Ferrari responded like a true thoroughbred: smooth, controlled, no lean or sway. On the throttle, just before the apex and back to 140. No sweat.

I said, “Yates’ Dodge might be trick but if he had tried that we’d have to comb the desert for him.”  “No doubt,” Rick said. “This is a fantastic machine.” And a great driver, I added, to myself.

We were pleased to be doing what we were doing. We often sat in silence, listening to the hum of mechanical perfection. Then a sign: Aquila, Arizona. It was asleep. No lights, nobody, no cars, nothing. Another sign: Speed limit 35 mph. “Rick, what’s our speed?” “One thirty five.”  "One over" makes no difference if nobody is there to bother. “You know, I’d give a hundred bucks to pass Yates on this road,” I said, guessing that Brock most certainly had preceded us on the route.

The road was now level. We had descended to the desert floor. It was two-lane but had semi-paved shoulders for use in emergencies or to permit slower travelling traffic to give way.

Ahead were the red pin pricks of taillights and the oncoming lights of another car. A passing situation. It would be safer to avoid alarming the oncoming driver to zip by on the right. We did. At 135 mph.

To see what it was, I looked past Rick, who was concentrating intently on driving . Dodge Charger.  Car and Driver lettered on the door! Yates! It’s Brock Yates! Whoopee! We had not only passed him, but on the right. On a two-lane road! And at 135 mph! Hooray! And it didn’t even cost the 100 dollars we no longer had anyway! In radio contact, Yates (CB handle Silver Bullet) had little to say about our departure time of 10:07 pm, except to acknowledge we had a good shot at the record.

At Blythe, California, on the border just out of Arizona, we stopped for our last tank of petrol and prepared for the final leg. We knew the World’s Record was within our grasp. It was possible. As experienced race drivers, we were also aware that the race isn’t won until you get the checkered flag. What could delay us? The car was without fault, all gauges registering at optimum operating levels throughout our run. So only Smokey or bad navigation could foul us.

While we were tanking up, Brock and “Yogi” pulled in to get gas. We had coordinated on our CBs. It dawned on me that there was one small detail I should attend to. “Brock, how do we find Redondo Beach and Portofino Inn?” I asked. “Jack, the simplest route is to follow I-10 to San Diego Freeway, turn south, off at Western to 190th Street and straight in,” he said. The map showed that this was the least confusing route. But it was many miles further. We debated. We didn’t want to risk getting lost. We had time to spare . . . or so we thought. So we followed Yates’s directions. A mistake.

Cautious in the face of the awesome reputation of the California Highway Patrol, we headed across the desert in the eastern part of the Golden State, keeping our speed just over 100 mph. No cops, no traffic. Good progress. But we had lost radio contact with Yates. Apparently he was now out of range of our transmitter.

Tempus fugit. Where is Los Angeles? Roll on. A sign: Warning - Serious Sand Storm Ahead - Proceed With Extreme Caution. Suddenly, it descended with a fury. Reduced visibility and a horrendous side wind made us instant believers. Driving became incredibly difficult. We squinted ahead and the car surged about under the buffeting. Our speed dropped to about 60 mph, the maximum permitted by visibility. Sand hissed against windscreen and paint. Sand penetrated almost every crevice, lightly dusting the interior. Sand through the cold air ducts made mini-dunes on the black felt dash.  Well, you can replace glass and repaint the car, but it is seldom that a World Record is within grasp, so we held to the task at hand. Speed. Think. Concentrate.

Nature was against us. Sand turned to fog.  Our rabbit-damaged lights, improper for fog to begin with, were inadequate. Seventy-five to 80 mph was the best we could manage. On and on we went. I stared at the little mounds of desert dust on the dash. At last, after an interminable ride, the fog was gone . . . and replaced by a drizzling rain. Oh where, oh where was Los Angeles?

A sign. A recognizable suburb to our destination! New York time: 8:45 am. California time: 5:45 am. Our time limit to beat the existing record: 10:07 am New York EDT time, 7:07 am LA. We became cautiously elated. After all, one hour and 15 minutes to cover what looked like 45 or 50 miles on the map posed no problem to two guys who had an average from NYC of something like 84 or 85 mph. Onward!

9:07 am EDT - Los Angeles

Thirty-five hours and 2,9o8 miles from the Red Ball.  How much further? As if by black magic, traffic began to stream onto the six-lane highway. Each entry ramp seemed to be jammed with vehicles of all descriptions moving out to join us. We held to 80 mph as long as safe, then gradually our speed dropped as our maneuverability was lost. We fell in line reluctantly at 50 to 55 mph, anxiously looking for openings to dart in and gain even a precious 10 yards.

Was this really happening? We became choked with apprehension. So this was how we would lose it. This was the story we would have to tell. Speech was difficult. We were scared and now acutely aware that there was no room for error. One wrong turn and we could just lose our chance at fame. We grabbed at every opening in the traffic. Press ahead!

9:50 am EDT - San Diego Freeway, Los Angeles

Where was Western or 190th Street or whatever? An exit sign immediately to our right flashed: Redondo Beach. It was familiar looking . . . it was our destination, but it wasn’t the exit we were told to take. Maybe we had missed Western in the confusion. We zipped right and off the exit. Just as it was too late to change, we saw down the road an exit sign for Western Avenue. No problem. We’ll pull right back up on the expressway.

But we didn’t because we couldn’t because there was no re-entry ramp! Trying not to panic or cry, we headed toward the Pacific with rear tires smoking. No one to ask about directions at 6:55 am in the morning!

We slid into an open service station, windows down. Two wild-eyed, unshaven, apparently insane fellows in some very nasty beat-up sports car screamed simultaneous pleas for assistance to a startled attendant.

“We’ll give you ten bucks to ride with us to the Portofino Inn.”

“Can’t, nobody to watch the station.  But it’s only two minutes. Turn around, a couple of lights, then take a left.”

We must admit that in this last desperate search, we violated more traffic laws. We ran some red lights cautiously, went some distance the wrong way on a one-way, and tried successfully a “filmable for Hollywood” U-turn when we saw a fellow competitor in a Mercedes (who left hours ahead of us) slide around a curve and head toward a marina and pier marked plainly: Portofino Inn. Masts of sailing boats formed a gauntlet, but time was our enemy!

Full throttle, now or never. My trusty Rolex watch said 9:59 am EDT. It was always correct, but did the official punch-in clock agree? And where did I check in? And could I make it in a minute? I was out of the car long before it stopped and at full sprint. News reporters were everywhere. Cameras clicked with the staccato noise of machine gun fire. The odometer registered 12,522.

10:00 am EDT - Portofino Inn, Los Angeles

I slid to the deck with my official card in hand. It was taken and stamped by the bell clerk and handed back, along with the bottle of champagne due all finishers. The time punch said, in slightly smeared blue ink, 7:00 am. It fell from my shaking hand . . . I was speechless. The world’s record. The World’s Record! We had it! We made it! Whoopee! Rick, we did it! By damn!

Grinning at each other, speechless, we simply shook hands and were engulfed by questioning news reporters and photographers. It was late afternoon before our adrenaline level fell to a point where we could sleep. But what a day! (We would later darkly ask ourselves if we had purposely been given poor directions.) Nonetheless we had won. We had the bloody World’s Record!

Photo caption: (L to R) Jack May and Rick Cline, Cannonball winners, 1975, at finish.

It is nice knowing you hold a World’s Record. Rick and I had become the fastest men across America in a car. It was satisfying to better Yates and the great All-American racer Dan Gurney. It was nice knowing the great master Enzo Ferrari was proud of us and his car. It was super that we avoided most of the police. It was rewarding to make a social protest against the absurd 55-mph speed limit. It was interesting that our gas mileage was around 17 mpg. The Ferrari only burned one quart of oil in the entire 8,000 mile trip. It was extra special because we didn’t bother or disturb anybody else or drive foolishly or recklessly. 

We were sportsmen true to our sport and ourselves.

 

An earlier version of this story appeared in Car Collector, December 1981.