The Cannonball in Covid

The Cotton Owens Challenger on the roof of the Redbull Garage, New York City

You have probably heard of the Cannonball run. The event is named after Earl Cannonball Baker, a pioneer American motorcyclist. He raced trains and rode cross country before there were proper roads. As the war in Vietnam soured, emissions legislation strangled muscle cars and the US entered the malaise era of the seventies, Brock Yates, Editor of Car & Driver magazine rebelled. He would organize a cross-country race. It would prove you could drive at autobahn speeds across America safely. It would respond to the era of safety bumpers and federally mandated 80mph speedometers with a throwback: a real road race, no rules, run what you brung, whoever gets from New York to Los Angeles in the shortest time is the winner road race. The Cannonball Sea to Sea Memorial Trophy was born. 

Brock Yates, and the Cotton Owens Challenger

Given the starting point and finishing line – the Redbull Parking Garage in New York and the Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach – are well known, anyone can try to beat the time. Since the Yates era, the record time of the Cannonball has decreased significantly, due to better planning, better electronic countermeasures (to spot/avoid speed traps), and faster, stronger cars. AMG Benz’s similar to my own have set numerous record times. Indeed, the name most closely associated with the modern iteration of the Cannonball, Ed Bolian of VINWiki used an S55 and an SL55 to set different records, and these two both have the same drivetrain as my E55. More recently Arne Toman, Doug Tabbutt, and Berkeley Chadwick set a record in a modified E63, the contemporary successor to my E55, although this one was taped up to look like a Honda Accord.

Toman and Tabbutt set another record in an Audi S6 in May 2020, and at the time of writing the internet tells me they are still the record holders, with a time of 25 hours and 39 minutes, an average of 110mph.

The fact that the roads were so quiet during the lockdown phase of the pandemic attracted me to venture out in a curtailed form, but for Cannonballers this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If you were ever going to make a run, now would be the time. The two main issues in setting good Cannonball times are other traffic crippling your average speed, and Highway Patrol sitting at the roadside looking for people speeding. Lockdown removed both those things.

It should be said, of course, that to attempt to set a Cannonball record during the pandemic is irresponsible and dangerous. Yet the Cannonball was all that anyway, so it could be argued the point is moot. The original event was no rules, just get there, Cannonball Baker style. The Covid “New Rules” created an amazing opportunity for those brave/dumb/irresponsible enough to try. Apparently, there were lots of takers.

Many people went out, and many people set records. The first one which crossed my consciousness was “Captain Chaos” in an Audi A8. Bolian refers to an earlier video and fundamentally says this time was illegitimate, it doesn’t really count, because the two main challenges – traffic and cops – were absent. This made me chuckle:  in the seventies, you just went out, drove fast, and hoped you didn’t end up in jail. The difference of the Bolian era is the plethora of electronic countermeasures available: radar detectors, radar jammers, Waze, to name three, and an infrastructure of spotters warning Cannonballers of hazards on social media or by text message, even supporters driving fast ahead of you specifically to draw out and occupy any speed traps. With this Attack of the Nerds, the application of modern technology, planning and organization, the game changed. Now, in Covid, the game had changed again, yet somehow we were, to quote Ed Bolian to “set aside” these times ? Watching these videos one can’t help but feel the real issue here is that these Audi A8 guys weren’t in Bolian’s little club of people who do these kinds of road races, and indeed he even admits that he has the attitude he has due to his desire to keep the spirit of the Cannonball alive. Watch for yourself as the rules of an outlaw event are discussed:

As might be expected in today’s era of responsibility not freedom, pearl-clutching not audacity, the general tone even in the automotive media was pretty negative, with even Car & Driver, the very magazine Yates edited being against the notion of Cannonballing in the pandemic.

I remain of the opinion that times set during the pandemic absolutely should stand.

I thought this new Cannonball story couldn’t get any better, until this absolute legend entered the picture. He rented a Mustang, a 5.0 with a 10 speed automatic, fitted a large fuel cell, and just went out and set the time. Tabbutt and Toman used eighteen spotter cars to run ahead of them – eighteen – and had three people in the car. Fred Ashmore, he just went out and drove, seventies style, all on his own. 

It is worth watching interviews with him about how he did it. Apparently, he has “always found it easy to stay awake.”

My favorite part of the story is that by the time the story of his record time broke, not only had he had removed the fuel cell, put the interior of the car back together, and returned it to the rental company, but they in turn had sold it. VINwiki viewers discovered it on a used car lot in Las Vegas.