It's a Cannonball at the Box Office, but the World's Wildest Race Has Been Junked
He needn't have worried; the men in the "official vehicle" were really participants in the very unofficial Cannonball Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, a no-holds-barred New York-to-Los Angeles road race that has been run five times in the last decade. This highly illegal event has produced dozens of similar anecdotes, 100 arrests—and, remarkably, not a single injury. But its most memorable offshoot is a good-natured fender-bender called The Cannonball Run, this season's Burt Reynolds starrer, which has grossed $57 million since it opened in June.
The real-life Cannonball Run is the brainchild of writer-racer Brock Yates, 47, who dreamed it up "during a lapse in public conscience" in 1971. "I felt we were inundated by too many rules," he says, so he set out to devise a race with no rules whatsoever. Named for Erwin "Cannonball" Baker, a daredevil endurance driver of the '20s and '30s, the mad cross-country dash began in May 1971 with only one entry—Brock Yates. "Word of mouth hadn't gotten round," he deadpans. Yates hurtled from a Manhattan garage to a restaurant in Redondo Beach, Calif, in 40 hours 51 minutes—unimpeded by a single traffic cop—then wrote a column about his trip in Car and Driver magazine. That prompted a challenge from the improbably named Polish Racing Drivers of America, who cabled Yates: "If we can find California, we'll beat you fair and square." Yates drummed up six other entries for Cannonball II in November of that same year. The Polish team arrived in a van with a 300-gallon fuel capacity, designed to eliminate time-consuming stops. Still, they lost—to the team of Yates and professional driver Dan Gurney.
"Of course it's crazy," Yates concedes. "I can't defend the Cannonball on a rational basis. I only defend it as an adventure, a challenge." Over the years Cannonballers have met the challenge with increasingly sophisticated equipment, strategy and cover stories. Two doctors from Reno carried a jar of pigs' eyes so that they could tell state troopers they were rushing to the nearest eye bank. A pair of Hollywood stunt men, one wearing a blond wig and falsies, roared across the country on a motorcycle with a "Just Married" sign affixed to the rear.
By 1979 Yates instituted a $750 entry fee "to scare away the goofballs" and cover expenses, but the race still grew to a 46-car rally, not all of them out to win. With a chauffeur at the wheel of their 1948 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith, the English team of Stephen Kendall-Lane and his wife, Fiona, traveled across the country "the British way." Dressed for Ascot, they motored along at a stately 55 to 65 miles per hour and got tips via CB from friendly truckers: "I kept telling them, 'You chaps have really got to speak a lot more clearly,' " Kendall-Lane recalls. There will be no more races for the Kendall-Lanes; they went broke as theatrical producers this year and lost their fleet of luxury cars.
Yates ran the 1979 race mainly to collect material for his Cannonball Run movie script—and nowadays he spends much of his time in a rambling 14-room Colonial house in Wyoming, N.Y. Near there, in his childhood home in Lockport, he caught the racing bug at age 13, when he came upon a copy of a now defunct magazine called Speed Age. Before the Cannonball he raced professionally off and on for eight years, and he has been writing about cars ever since. For the past four years Yates has covered auto racing for CBS Sports. Ironically, the tremendous success of the movie has only heightened his concern that the Cannonball must never roll again. "I'm terrified that somebody might get hurt," Yates explains. "You can only bait the lion so many times. If there's another race, somebody else will have to organize it. The idea started out as a lark, but it has lost its innocence."