World Record Cannonball Run
In the 1920s, a driver named Erwin George "Cannonball" Baker drove across the continent, sea-to-sea, in 60 hours. In memory of that fabled driver, Brock Yates, the Senior Editor of Car and Driver magazine, founded the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shinning-Sea Memorial Dash. In the spirit of that early adventurer, the Cannonball is a no-rules, no-holds barred, open dash for glory. Each team selects their own route to reach the finish line. There are no check points, neither are there sponsors or or a purse. There is, however, the challenge of the task, the thrills, the risks, the fatigue and tension, the satisfaction in completing the run, and the excitement of the competition... in other words -- true motor sport in every sense of the word.
The first Memorial Dash was conducted in 1971. The race was run again in 1972, but not in '73 or '74. In the Spring of 1975, Yates again invited drivers, through his magazine, to join him in yet another Cannonball Run. At that time, Brock Yates and co-driver Dan Gurney held the world's record in a Ferrari Daytona. They drove from sea-to-sea, nearly 3,000 miles, in 35 hours and 54 minutes.
Later, Hollywood gave the American public a view of the Cannonball Run in the movie of the same name. It was a blockbuster, and is today a classic comedy and adventure film staring Burt Reynolds, Sammy Davis, Jr., Farrah Fawcett, Dean Martin, and Roger Martin. Most adult American's recognize the Cannonball Run, but few know the true story. This web site, and specifically this page, tells the story, as lived by the men who raced, and won, and yet hold the world's record.
by Jack May
Of course I knew all along that there was an element of risk, of sheer insanity, in what I was about to do. The unbelievability of it was underscored by the airlines reservation clerk when I was arranging for airplane tickets to New York and from Los Angeles.
"How are you getting from New York City to Los Angeles?" asked the clerk.
"Driving," I answered.
"You can't possibly be in Los Angeles in two days. We can't make fictitious reservations sir!"
She didn't believe me. And who could blame her? She had no way to know that we were after the world's record, driving an automobile sea-to-shining-sea in less that two days. To me, is seemed possible.
I had first heard of the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea memorial Dash when it was reported in Sports Illustrated that Brock Yates, senior editor of Car and Driver magazine, and Dan Gurney, famous racing driver, had established a world's record time driving from New York City to Los Angeles in 35 hours 54 minutes in a Ferrari Daytona. There were subsequent articles and even a book about the record that was set. There were also 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.
In early 1975, it all began to crystallize. It was possible, 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 which, when filled in and accompanied by $5, would "possibly" get an entry blank for the Cannonball '75. I risked the money and, in due course, received an entry form.
I had no way of knowing whether Yates would personally read my completed form. But I carefully cited my experience, which involved a lifetime of driving at high speed, including some organized and legal racing with the Sports Car Club of America. I did not list my co-driver. I didn't have one. Strangely, the entry fee was $250 ($200 of which was payable to the charity of your choice).
I had mentioned to several potential co-drivers the possibility of the Dash, but had not chosen nor asked anyone...besides, submission of an entry form was no guarantee of acceptance, as was stated in bold print of the form itself.
I left my home in Gainesville, Florida, for almost a week and tried to get on with routine business -- but what was Yates to think of my qualifications? Finally, I was notified. An acceptance 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, fellow SCCA race driver (National Champion quality), "National Racing Mechanic of the Year 1974," Rick Cline.
Yes, I'll do it." he said without hesitation.
We were committed. Now 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 -- a word that would come to dominate much of our conscious thought.) Then the boxes of high energy candy, chewing gum, chewable Vitamin C tablets, Gatorade, raisins, and other junk-type munchies, first aid kit, flashlights, binoculars (to scan far-off horizons for...cops) driving glasses, a couple shirts each, driving gloves and shoes, and a complete set of road maps courtesy of AAA (they tried to help us by marking a route but really didn't seem to 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?
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. Conclusion: More driving lights would be necessary for the great 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.
New York City itself, after averaging 73 miles per hour solo for 1,100 miles, 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 garage 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: awake, refreshed, a phone call for me, the first of several. Of the 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 of twenty or so entrants were! Car nuts all, lots of race drivers (amateur and professional), writers, pilots, business and professional men; doctors, lawyers, photographers, truckers, stockbrokers, and 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 is an interesting, real fellow. Gucci, modern-jeans-style outfit, straight shooter: his Car and Driver editorials reflect him accurately. (Because of this Dash, Yates was subsequently canned at Car and Driver and now has is own publication.) Yates made a little speech: The goal of the Cannonball, we were told, is 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 current 55mph limit is unenforceable. We meant to prove that 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 others are fond of telling us 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: style means nothing. But I prefer to believe that style is 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 and uniform.
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 was to 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 too much 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, Gainesville's Cannonball entrants hailed a cab...just as the Dodge, sporting small but neat Car and Driver labels on the sides, pulled away with chirping tires from the crowd gathered around the Red Ball Garage. Our taxi pulled alongside Yates and Behr.
I yelled, "Hey, Brock."
Yates, navigating, glances over, but with one eye peeled on the still red stoplight, "Yeah?"
I chorlted, "Rick and I will save you a place at the breakfast table in Redondo."
The light turned green. We would meet Yates later.
Our nerves ajangle from too much coffee, it was our turn. I was to drive the first shift. I started the Ferrari and pulled onto 31st Street. The V6 engine was to hardly stop until it had faultlessly revolved more than eight million times! The odometer registered 9,571 miles. Juan, the garageman, suggested we wait until the light at Lexington turned before punching our timing ticket.
Driving lights on, chewing gum a-gogo, driving gloves snug. The light turned green! Mark Jones, my long-time friend and "blood brother" New York City resident, stamped our official ticket on the Red Ball Clock...10:07pm. EDT, Wednesday, 23 April, and with a wave from 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, along with the sad discovery 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: 90mph...100mph. No cops, no problems, just more and more rain. My confidence grew; I relaxed, concentrated. Rick had the radio going, confirming directions, highway patrol locations, etc. All was smooth, and as we settled down to a day-and-a-half of racing, we welcomed the monotony of the wipers and we worshipped the happy response of the great, exciting work of mechanical art, the 246 GTS Dino Ferrari.
The rain stopped. We were listening now to our CB. ("Tijuana Taxi moving east near Exit No. 12".) Your "handle" is your call or name. There ware all sorts: South Georgia Whipoorwill: Shadow Dirty Nick: Lula Belle (a female). We changed our handle frequently. Also we learned soon to listen lots and talk little!
Our selected route was ours alone so 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. Tere 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 a yellow felt tip about six hundred miles of two-lane roads, commencing in Kansas. We would stay on I-70 to Kansas City, drop 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 mid-way into Arizona, where, 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. In LA, where neither of us had visited, we were at the mercy of an AAA map which showed only "Redondo Beach." The whereabouts of the Portofino Inn we would worry about later...lots! The tragedy of human nature would enter at this point.
3:07am EDT -- 24 April 1975
Five hours and 437 miles out of the Red Ball, still raining: average speed 87.4mph. Onward!
5:45 EDT -- 24 April 1975
West of Dayton, Ohio, near Vandalia
Relaxed, with an average now approaching 90mph (that's an average speed, folks) concentrating on the increasing traffic west of Dayton, we motored on to the harmony of truckers chatting on the CB and slap/whine/slap of the wipers.
A trucker report: "Smokey headed east, mile post fourteen."
"Rick, where are we?" I asked, not slowing our pace from 120-plus.
"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 had appeared, he disappeared in the rain and fog. I eased back to 120-plus.
A trucker reports excitedly: "Smokey is turning around at mile post sixteen. He's headed after that white Corvette!"
Corvette, my ass. Mile post twelve flashed by us -- we were four miles in the lead -- so I poured more fuel to the willing V-6! About 135mph.
"Wha-a-a-p-p-p!" the radar detector blasts off, leaving no doubt that we are under "microwave surveillance." I lift my foot at the same instant I see the next "bandit" who obviously was radioed by our pursuer and, also travelling east, 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 after us.
I moved to about 140, passed a slow-moving trucker, and the crazily flashing lights faded from my rear view 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 a commentary of the chase. We were several miles ahead and obviously fast pulling away.
Where the hell is an exit to dodge off and hide? One came up, but a trucker was inconveniently -- purposefully? -- in the way. A long gentle hill ahead. A truck signals left to pass. Italian air horns and flashing lights to no avail. He eases before us -- again purposefully -- and I fall in tow.
My eyes catch 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 signal left, resigning the chase, and pull onto the median. Two more patrolmen, headed east, lights also on, pull to our front. Two front, two rear. Eight flashing lights. Four Smokeys. Heavens!
What explanation can we use?
"Shit, Rick, they got us."
I take off my driving gloves and glasses and, in a cavalier a fashion as I can muster, venture forth to meet our adversaries and determine our future. I seek inner calm and composure, but it is hopeless.
Red-faced, obviously in command, Sergeant Wheeler charged over to me. "You better have a damn good story, and I want to hear it. Now!"
Hesitation. Calm, calm. Politely, I say, "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?"
Wheeler, Perry, the driver, and I load in and head to the court house police station. Cline following. Twelve miles - east!! Goodness, not east!
Wheeler, to our great fortune, helped establish, inadvertently, our place in auto racing history. He 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 125mph. 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. (I was being careful, but I didn't tell them since I know they weren't really interested in hearing me say it.)
The clerk in the station thumbed through her book. Perry wrote out the ticket, then 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. [see a related article -- Cannonball: Of Cops and Rubbers]
10:07 EDT -- Thursday morning, 24 April 1975
Twelve hours and 962 miles from the Red Ball Garage, average 83.3mph, approaching St. Louis. We are gaining back our average speed and, equally important, our confidence. Then, a navigational mistake takes us into the center of St. Louis. Our average speed gain is partially lost. Time, our competitor, ticks 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 would pump the gas -- with two pumps if they'd reach, then check the oil (the Ferrari only burned one quart in the entire 3,000 mile trip!) 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 to grab an occasional soda, then stuffing rolls of dollars into the usually startled attendant's hand, and, without waiting for change, we leapt in and peeled away onto the "course." Seldom did a stop take as 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 less than seven cars were pulled in. Our "pit stop" activities were viewed with interest by most everyone, particularly the Smokeys. We did everything to form, except we pulled out at 55mph followed by two Smokeys...for the next twenty miles! Were they really seeking to protect the citizenry or was it the smug harassment of heavy-handed nondescripts toward the world's "hotdogs?"
In our eighteenth hour we covered forty 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: they began to foul. We lost the tail at the outskirts of Wichita -- exactly were we encountered a construction detour. The sweet Ferrari now began to run on five cylinders! While it probably runs better on 5/6 power that other engines at 100%, it would have been frustrating and impractical to risk continuing without mechanical correction for fear that other plugs would collapse.
A serious pit stop is in order. A Western Auto looms ahead in a shopping center. Screech! Stop! Rick dashes in to buy six Champion N6Y plugs. I assault the super hot engine, extracting the near glowing-red plugs. Fast! Time is the race! Time is everything! Five plugs are okay -- one is black. I screw them in, replacing the bad one, burning myself without feeling it. Concurrently, we discover the connection between gas tank and fuel cell leaking. Rick jacks up the car, craws underneath, with tools. Gas floods on him, his clothes, my feet, the parking lot. Hurry, hurry! Time is all! Old ladies with filled grocery buggies stop with mouths agape! It's fixed. We slam down the engine lid, throw tools into the trunk. The engine fires with a nice, new, yet familiar, clean roar. The old ladies stand back. The clutch is engaged. The rear Goodyears spin in the puddle of gas, catch, smoke, and we fishtail at full bore in a low gear and back on course. We lost forty-three 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. A Ferrari loafs along at 140mph, 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 ventilated leather bucket seats are almost womb-like in their comfort.
The comfort does not lull, however. Races are won by drivers who concentrate. And 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 focussed on the road and the machine. Corners are hugged tight enough to threaten the paint. Adjust; adjust; try to predict the movement of the traffic ahead; adjust; think, 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.
9:37pm EDT -- Thursday, 24 April 1975
Tucumcari, New Mexico
With the odometer registering 11,488 (1,916 miles from Red Ball) and an average speed of 81.6mph, Rick takes over at a fuel stop. At "one day" -- 24hours-- we pass through Santa Rosa, New Mexico, 1,970 miles from Manhattan. Moving on!
The machine is right and with almost no traffic we continue to cover nearly 100 miles in each hour. We wonder. "Will those other drivers press on like we have?" Will they be willing to put themselves through this? We think they will.
3:07am until 4:07am EDT -- Friday, 25 April 1975
A trucker talks to another on his CB. "A little white car just zipped past me with the hammer down (truckerese for 'wide open throttle'). Darn near sucked off my belly pan! Wait till he hits one of these big jackrabbits. It'll roll that little car up in a ball and they'll never find it!" Rabbits. Ha! Who's afraid of rabbits?
The odometer advances to 12,070 from 11,871: 99 miles covered during the hour. We leave 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 zip past a sign. "Watch for Animals."
Punchy by now, we laugh that the animals had better watch for us! They did a poor job.
We had six quartz-iodine bulbs algow 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 135mph his head popped like a watermelon.
Rick: "Wish we could call that trucker and tell him that the rabbit lost!" But the rabbit war wasn't over.
At 4:55 we tear through Yarnell, Arizona, at an indicated 4,782 feet above seal level. It's cold, in the thirties.
Nineteen minutes later we were confronted with another jackrabbit. We're not sure, but we guess his height at four feet six inches, and weight at a little over one hundred pounds! At least that's what it seemed like at 140mph! It sounded like hitting a coconut with a Louisville slugger bat! Crunch! The car jolted. We know the rabbits were beginning to score. The wiring for the driving lights was definitely "rabbitfied". The six lights flickered on...and 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, and we were still in the mountains, hairpin after hairpin, "25mph" 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 70mph. 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-hand sweeping turn without warning. Rick applied 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.
"Yates' Dodge might be 'trick', but if he tried that we'd have to comb the desert for him," I said.
"No doubt," responded Rick. "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: Aqula, Arizona. It's asleep. No lights, nobody, no cars, nothing. Anther sign: Speed Limit 35mph.
"Rick, what's our speed?"
Oh well, "1 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 certainly had preceded us on this 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: the red pin pricks of taillights, and further, the oncoming lights of another car. A passing situation. It will be safer, to prevent alarming the oncoming driver to zip by on the right. We do. At 135mph.
I look past Rick, who was concentrating intently on driving, to see what it was. 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 135mph! Hooray! And it didn't even cost the hundred we no longer had anyway!
In the radio contact, Yates (CB handle "Silver Bullet") had little to say about our departure time of 10:07 except to acknowledge we had a good shot at the record.
At Blythe, California, on the border just past 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. But, 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 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 replied.
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, and we had time to spare. Or so we thought. So we followed Yates' 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 100mph.
No cops, no traffic. Good progress. We lose 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 60mph, the maximum permitted by visibility. The sand hissed against windscreen and paint; it penetrated almost every crevice, lightly dusted the interior. The black felt dash actually had several small mini-dunes where the sand had entered through the cold-air ducts. Well, you can replace glass and repaint the car, but world records are within grasp very seldom, so we held to the task at hand. Speed. Think. Concentrate.
But Nature was against us. The sand turned to fog. Our rabbit-inflicted lights, improper for fog to begin with, were inadequate. Seventy-five to 80mph was the best we could manage. On and on we went. I stared at the little mounds of desert dust nestled on the dash. At last, after an interminable ride, the fog was gone...and replaced by a drizzling rain. Oh where, oh where is LA?
A sign. A recognizable suburb of our destination! New York time: 8:45. California time: 5:45. Our time limit to beat the existing record: 10:07am New York -- 7:07am LA. We became cautiously elated. After all, an hour and fifteen 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 85mph. Onward!
9:07am EDT -- Friday, 25 April 1975
Los Angeles, California
Two thousand, nine hundred and eight miles and 35 hours from the Red Ball. How much further? As if by magic -- black magic -- traffic began to stream onto the six-lane highway. Each entry ramp seemed to be jammed with vehicles of all description, 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 55mph, anxiously looking for openings to dart into and gain even a precious ten yards.
Was this really happening? We became choked with apprehension. So this is how we would lose it. This is 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!
9:50am EDT -- Friday, 25 April 1975
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 sounding; 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...and 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 asmoke. No one to ask about directions at 6:55 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 Portfolio Inn."
"Can't, nobody to watch the station, but it's only two minutes: turn around, a couple of lights, then left."
We must admit that in this last, desperate search, we violated some more traffic laws: that is, we ran some red lights, albeit 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 9:59am EDT -- it's 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 a full sprint. News reporters were everywhere. Cameras clicked with the staccato noise of machine-gun fire. The odometer registered 12,522.
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 a bottle of champagne due all finishers.
The time punch said, in slightly smeared blue ink, 7:00am. It fell from my shaking hand...I was speechless. 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!
It is nice knowing you hold a world's record. Rick and I had become the fastest men across America in a car. It's satisfying to better Yates and the great All-American racer Dan Gurney. It's nice knowing the great master Enzo Ferrari was proud of us and his car. It's super avoiding most of the police. It's rewarding making a social protest against the absurd 55mph speed limit. It's interesting that our gas mileage was around 17mpg. And it's extra special because we didn't bother or disturb anybody else or drive foolishly or recklessly.
I am not much of an artist, and will leave little of beauty: only a few utilitarian developments assembled mostly for economic gain, and the satisfaction that accompanies making dreams materialize. I'll move no mountains, expect to bridge no rivers. But maybe I will be a gentleman, a sportsman, true to my own self, and with some style prove again what cannot be too often proved: if anything at all is meant to live life, and there is no fool like he who does not face life: a dead lion is a much greater thing than a live mouse: and eagles do not catch flies.
This article first appeared in the December 1981 issue of Car Collector
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