CANNONBALL: OF COPS AND RUBBERS
By Jack May
That old black and white photo has yellowed now, but you can still see the rabbit-damaged grill as prominent as a busted lip. Younger editions of Rick Cline and me smile wanly at the camera, self-satisfied and exhausted. Around us crowd other racers in congratulatory poses. Rick and I sit on a fender of the dirty white Ferrari. A tacky victory wreath in our hands.
Jack May and Rick Cline, The Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, 23-25 April 1975. The world's record time from New York City to Los Angeles on wheels --35 hours, 53 minutes. Average speed, 83 mph.
The picture hangs in a silver frame on the far wall of my office. It's a trophy, of course. But it also reminds me to meet challenge and face risk. As we try ourselves, we find our talents. Win or fail, a great challenge is its own reward. It is nice to win, though. Then the moments you thought you might fail become stories for grandchildren. Like the one I call "Cops and Rubbers."
Rick and I were numb and a bit spacey from many hours of high-speed driving through the rainy night. That speedometer registered just past 130 mph. All gauges indicated engine conditions were optimum. The instruments glowed softly on the multitude of dials, knobs and switches. The V-6 hummed. We, in our red bucket seats, reflected dimly in the windshield. Raindrops streaked white toward us. We could be traveling at warp speed through a galaxy, I thought.
We were nearly half way in our attempt to set a new world's record for the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. The record was 82 mph. We were averaging 90-some. I was at the wheel of the white Ferrari Dino 246 GTS (S/N 05984). After many hours of the wipers' slap-whine-slap, I was looking forward to dawn. Rick tried to relax, listening to the Citizens Band radio.
A man's voice reported, "Smokey headed east, mile post fourteen." "Rick, where are we?" I didn't back down from 130. "Mile post fifteen." I lifted my foot from the accelerator. In the opposite lane, the Highway Patrol flashed by. As suddenly as he had appeared, he disappeared in the rain and fog. I eased back to 130-plus, feeling invisible. Snug, smug. An excited voice cracked on the CB. "Smokey turnin' round at mile post sixteen. He's headed after that white Corvette."
Corvette, bull hockey. I glanced at Rick, who rolled his eyes. Mile post twelve flashed by. We were four miles ahead and close to the state line. I poured on more fuel. We reached 140 mph. The radar detector announced microwave surveillance. I lifted my driving shoe from the pedal as I saw the next "bandit." Apparently he had been eastbound when he was radioed by our pursuer. We whisked through an underpass and he pulled out, blue lights flashing. I accelerated past 150 mph and passed a trucker. The crazy blue flashes faded in the drizzle. "What now ?" Rick asked, a smile in his voice. I was concentrating too much to answer. The six Weber carburetors were wide open. No one was in sight. The engine strained and wailed like a banshee as we hurtled into the wet tunnel of night, rain blurring the edges. For a moment, I felt like a space traveler again. Then taillights ahead reminded me that we're just on Earth, hauling ass in the rain.
Road cowboys' commentary on the race sounded like excited parrots on the CB. The good news was that we were miles ahead and pulling away. The bad news was that six of them were after us, coming from both directions. Where the hell was an exit? I saw one, but a trucker blocked our way. Intentionally? We held our speed as a long gentle hill rose ahead. Taillights appeared ahead in the downpour and a semi signaled to pass. I blasted the air horns and flicked my bright lights to no avail. He pulled into the left lane, side by side with another eighteen wheeler in the right lane. We had no choice but to fall in tow. ''Damn," said Rick. 'He did that on purpose." CB Conversations confirmed that the truckers were delivering "the fleeing sports car" to the police as a present. Favors would he expected. Tar-dark raindrops beat down on us as we crawled along at 50. Psychedelic blue lights closed fast in my rearview mirror. We had been done in. Defeat tasted like dust. But in my mind, I heard Dad's voice say, "It ain't over 'till it's over." It was the only time the highly cultured man would stoop to saying "ain't."
I sat up straight and resolved to he cooperative and polite with the police. Maybe manners would work where speed had failed. I signaled left and pulled onto the soggy median. Two patrol cars pulled up in front of us. Four pulled up behind. A dozen throbbing sapphire beams created a Star Trek vision of hell.
We were in dark unfathomable yogurt. I had a lot of explaining to do and I couldn't think of any excuses. "Hello, officer. I'm just trying to average better than 82mph from coast to coast. May I go now?" probably wouldn't work. I looked at Rick. "Donkey dung, Rick. They got us. Yeah." He looked unhappy. I took off my driving gloves, trying to act casual, and opened the car door. As I climbed out, I looked down at police regulation rubbers on two of the biggest feet I had ever seen. What did this giant in the rubbers have in store for us?
The patrolman stood over me, red-faced, in command and without a trace of humor or goodwill. His ample gut strained the zipper on his rain jacket. The pocket name tag read "Sergeant Wheeler." Wheeler's bellow was a big as he was. ''You'd better have a damn good story, and I want to hear it. Now!" I said, "I'm sorry, officer. I guess I was just over exuberant." Wheeler was visibly unimpressed. I was getting wet in the rain and began to shiver. It looked like a convention for the Highway Patrol. Uniforms were everywhere. Body search, license, registration, title, insurance ... Bureaucratic details must he fulfilled, even in the freezing rain. The papers were in order. It was my car. I was sober. Things could be worse, but not much. Again the bellow, "Get in the squad car. Leave your car. Move."
I asked, "Can my friend bring the car in?" "Okay." he opened the back door of the squad car. I loaded in, thinking about jail. Jail? Me? Cline followed. We headed east, away from Los Angeles toward what? Breaking rocks in a prison? "Be calm," I reminded myself. "Be polite." It seemed to work on Wheeler better than it worked on me. "Where you from?" he asked. "Sir, I'm from Kentucky." A little Southern courtesy never hurts. "A great place, the Bluegrass State. I'm a briar-hopper myself." "How about that? A fellow Kentuckian!" I said, trying not to overdo the hail-fellow-well-met bit. After a couple minutes of silence, he volunteered, "I know a little about cars and I read car magazines." He turned to look at me, "And I know that Ferrari is supposed to be one of the greatest cars ever built. How do you like it?" I answered him. Respectfully. More questions. "How fast? Horsepower? Red line? Does the CB work? How about the radar detector? Why'd you get caught?"
I was feeling better. Here we were, talking like good 'ole boys, fellow Kentuckians interested in fast cars. Separated by steel mesh, it's true, but he could change that. More questions, more comments. "That I-talian car is fast. You were running away from us. 'Course our spark plugs were dirty. '' I didn't even smirk. He went on, "Even so, this barge will only register 125 at best. Where were you headed ? Can your buddy drive the car okay?"
I told him Rick is a national champion sports car racer and last year was Mechanic of the Year. His friendly chatter went on. "If you'd been fifteen minutes earlier, we'd have missed you. You'd been away clean. All six cars of us were getting our coffee and just split from the same place." Better and better. This guy liked race drivers and quick cars. In a flash of fear I realized a car nut who read all the magazines would know about the nefarious Cannonball race. But it had not been mentioned by either of us. The 35-minute ride to the police station seemed like all night. I stepped from the steel-enclosed rear compartment onto a garish parking lot. Wheeler walked up to me with a wicked smile, and said, "well, there are seven counts I can write up on you." Our camaraderie seemed to have vanished. There was no joy in my heart as I was escorted in. Rick parked the 246 GTS and followed. His face looked yellow in the lights. In the station, a heavy-set clerk looked up as we trooped in. Behind her gray hair loomed foreboding gray bars. I couldn't take my eyes off them. Wheeler sidled up to the clerk's cage to give his instructions. "Write these boys up on one count. Reckless speed."
My eyes closed as my spirits soared. I had guessed right -- Wheeler wished he were my co-driver. The clerk thumbed through a dog-eared book. Time froze. She wrote the ticket. "Three hundred and fifty dollars." Wheeler said, "Wow, that's a lot!" "Not for this," I said softly. Extraordinarily soft. Inaudibly, in fact. I paid in cash and my driver's license was returned. I shook hands with everybody saying, thanks." I kept my face serious, but felt like a condemned man whose death sentence had been lifted. The point that we were in the middle of a highly illegal cross-country car race had never been mentioned.
My fellow Kentuckian followed us out to the parking lot, eyeing the fast white machine with her racing stripes of road grime. He grinned. "Take that road over there for a shortcut back to the interstate. Be careful on your way to Los Angeles. And good luck."
He turned and walked back to the station, his big rubbers squishing. The rain had stopped and there was only a mist in the cold morning air. From behind a cloud, the rising sun played yellow rays across a magenta sky. We got in and fastened our belts. Rick said, "God bless Sergeant Wheeler." Then I started the car. It was a long way to LA. It took another 27 hours and 24 minutes, actually. Then we were the fastest men on wheels between our largest cities. We still are. The photograph reminds me every day. And the rabbit-damaged grill? Well, that's another story.
Originally published in the FERRARI MARKET LETTER Volume 15 Number 5 3 March 1990
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