By now everyone pretty much knows what the Cannonball Run is, an illegal, underground race across the country from New York to Los Angeles that started 50 years ago by Brock Yates of Car & Driver Magazine. 2800~ miles from the Red Ball Garage in Manhattan to The Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach CA. The recent resurgence of this “event” has made quite a comeback over the past few years and gotten a ton of attention due to the calamity caused by COVID-19. With a team beating our time, we had to attempt to take back the Cannonball Run Record.
When I last left off, Angry Ursula, the 27:25 Cannonball Record E63 was hit by a truck, then 12 hours later someone in an Audi A8 broke our record. Doug bought a Corvette to make another run, scrapped that idea when I realized it was terrible and I bought a white Audi S6 that we turned into a fake Ford Taurus Police Interceptor.
Scavenging parts from all of my other Cannonball cars since supplies were scarce due to the COVID 19 pandemic, we threw the car together with 4 people working around the clock over the course of just a few days. It was now early May 2020 and the Country was already starting to open back up. If you need to get caught up on all of that and learn more about the car, go back and get up to speed!
While it wasn’t in the plans to make a run during this time of quarantine, it just didn’t sit right to watch our Cannonball Record slip away so soon.
The Last Minute Cannonball
To illustrate the spontaneity of COVID-era Cannonballing in contrast with the obsessive planning, just thirty minutes before our departure to New York to try to reclaim the record, our friend Mark Spence decided to catch a ride with us so that he could co-drive with Chris Clemens on a Coast-to-Coast-to-Coast record attempt. Chris and Mark ended up following us out of Manhattan which added a measure of excitement to our whole endeavor.
Quarantine No More
At this late juncture in the COVID lockdown, our only real advantage would be the ability to get out of Manhattan quickly at any time we wanted. Daily traffic had already picked up quite a bit in the rest of the country but out East it still offered an opportunity to try a time strategy that would not work under normal traffic conditions.
While I was building the car, Doug was building a spreadsheet. He chose a 6:00pm departure in order to have enough time to get through Denver before 8:00am and also avoid any potential trouble in New Jersey where they had an 8pm curfew on travel. (We had our doubts about the reality of enforcement on the interstate but didn’t want to take any chances). The Northern route was chosen again since it was fresh in our minds and we had a strong network of people who could help us along the way. We had contacted our spotter Berkley but he could not make it. A call to our friend Dunadel and we quickly had landed our 3rd person for the run.
The Cannonball Burden of Proof
If you are going to go through the effort of an endeavor like this, you need proof should you succeed on your mission. On the 27:25 record run in November 2019 with the Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG, on top of everything else, we had a private live video stream of the entire run. This had to have been the most well documented Cannonball Run Record of all time. Given the short time frame we were not able to add THAT layer of proof but we did have an undeniable arsenal at our disposal.
Ed Bolian of VINWIKI Car Stories and Benny Preston writer for Road and Track, media outlets who would cover the story, were both watching our Glympse GPS location on the whole run along with other members of the Cannonball community and our loved ones and friends who could watch our departure, progress and arrival. We added to that with a 3rd party GPS tracker, witnesses at the start and finish, 3 people monitoring our position working logistics for the 30+ scouts along the route taking pictures and video, unbroken video footage from 2 angles of the entire run and of course time and GPS data stamped pictures at the Red Ball, The Portofino and along the journey. It’s safe to say we would have the proof we needed should things go our way.
An Unclear Goal
An interesting thing about this early COVID Cannonball frenzy of people making runs was we were not sure what the actual fastest time was at the moment. Rumors of a high 25:XX run were circulating but we didn’t know the exact time to beat. Sub 26 hours was all we had to go off of. To hit our goal of sub-26 we knew we would need an overall average to Denver of 120mph. The myth of Cannonballing is that “you make up all your time out West”, which couldn’t be further from the truth unless you leave Manhattan in the morning and run the West at night. Our plan was to bank all of our time in the Midwest under cover of darkness so that we would have a good buffer for the delays caused by the Rockies, the traffic into California during the day, and of course the inevitable LA surface street traffic.
Just like the 27:25 run, Doug would drive the first shift while I managed the countermeasures, ensuring they were all functioning properly for the rest of our trip. In what has to be an all-time record, we made it to the tunnel in just over 4 minutes, getting stopped at only a single stoplight. We were in New Jersey at the 6 minute mark and off to a great start.
With light traffic New Jersey came and went in just 44 minutes. The car was running well and all the electronics were functioning properly. As we entered Pennsylvania we had high hopes of exceeding our nearly 130mph average we had across the state in the E63 on the previous run. However, after a little time in the mountains it became clear that the handling, braking, and acceleration were lacking comparatively. We also discovered a terrible whistling noise that appeared at 160mph and made it unbearable to drive faster as it was just too annoying. It was like the car had a bad case of tinnitus. This was especially frustrating given the E63 could cruise sedately at north of 180mph.
Two Troopers Slow Us Down
As we passed one of our scouts in his Porsche 911, we quickly found ourselves stuck behind a PA State Trooper. One thing Doug had told all of the scouts was if they took a ticket for us, we would pay it. A quick call back to the scout and he shot up and positioned himself to pass the Trooper and hopefully get pulled over so we could get back up to speed. Just as he was psyching himself up to make the move, the Trooper exited the highway.
Doug powered back up to speed and we were off. Not five minutes later we encountered another slow moving Trooper headed west. Another call and the Porsche was back up with us and ready to make his move. Just as the Porsche changed lanes to pass, the Trooper slowed and made a u-turn in the median. We blew by the dedicated scout a third time and thankfully didn’t have to pay anyone’s ticket.
When we got to our first gas stop in Ohio we were able to quantify the handling and braking deficiencies of this car compared to the E63, as despite the lack of traffic, we were nearly 3mph slower overall than we were on our first run. Yet what the Audi S6 lacked in performance, it made up for with its disguise. All the scouts we passed remarked how much it looked like a Ford Taurus Police Interceptor. Many of them didn’t even know what car we were driving as we had so little time to plan this run and were keeping details to a bare minimum. The car was seemingly very convincing, which made me very happy – my work had paid off.
The Midwest Time Attack
As I slipped behind the wheel for my first driving shift I knew I had to make some serious time across the Midwest to make up for the shortcomings of the Audi in the mountains in order to get the overall average up to 120mph. I made an all-out blitz across the next three states with multiple 125mph border-to-border averages. Traffic was minimal so I just held it around 160mph – right under the threshold of the crazy wind noise. On the straight and flat roads the car was doing just fine. Besides getting clocked at 85 just prior to getting off the Turnpike in Indiana and a Cop sighting in Iowa, police presence was at a minimum.
Are We Done For?
Somewhere between Iowa and Nebraska I decided to get a few minutes of sleep before my next driving shift. I woke up to Doug driving the speed limit – this must mean something’s terribly wrong – and trying to figure out what was wrong with the handling of the car. He seemed quite certain something was wrong with the tires because of the vague handling and odd vibrations when turning. “It’s like the car is driving itself!” he exclaimed.
As he was about to pull over to check out the tires and lower the tire pressure, I noticed from the back seat that he had engaged the “lane assist” function. A seven minute calamity of hilarity ensued as Dunadel and Doug attempted to defeat the nanny causing all the trouble, made especially hilarious when it turned out to be a single button that took all of one-half second to engage and disengage. The delay caused by this technological goof was not so funny but not the first hiccup to happen on a Cannonball Run. All the more reason you want to have some seat time in a vehicle before an endeavor like this.
Doug breathed a sigh of relief, and put the hammer down to finish out our almost-too-easy run through the midwest, coming into Colorado exactly where we needed to be with a 121mph moving and 120mph overall average.
Traffic Intensifies In The Mountains
While our first 1600 miles were pretty much unimpeded by traffic, we knew Colorado was lifting their quarantine restrictions and it seemed that many people with cabin fever were already out on the highways, taking advantage of their new freedom. As the morning went on we saw more and more cars on the road.
Our third fuel stop was outside of Denver, and it was here that we ran into a small problem that turned into a bigger problem later on. Our friend Schiller, who was the hero of the same gas stop on our 27:25 run, was waiting at the station for us. However, because of a miscommunication, he did not fill the factory tank, only the auxiliary tanks. Doug forgot to open the gas door after popping the trunk, and when the pumps displayed only 40 gallons used before clicking off, we all stood around scratching our heads, completely missing the obvious. This snafu would require us to make an unscheduled fifth gas stop for the extra twenty gallons, since our range was just enough to make the four planned gas stops.
The Northern Route Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be
The Vail pass was very slow, with a fair amount of Sunday morning traffic clogging the windy and mostly 2-lane highway. That, coupled with eight miles of single-lane construction, served to slow us down quite a bit. Colorado was our slowest state on our first run, mainly because of the mountainous terrain and it was certainly looking to be the case again. While it was frustrating, we had anticipated this with our need to average 120 mph to Denver so that we would have some buffer for the inevitable slowdowns.
We Weren’t Fooling Everyone
It was time to get that 20 gallons of fuel we missed in Denver. In Western Colorado while making my exit I made one last pass that might have been a little too aggressive. When we passed this vehicle again after the short fuel stop it prompted him to call the police, and boy did he ever call us out. Over the scanner we heard Dispatch call out a “White Audi made to look like a Police Car. 024A written on the back. Plate is obscured”. A State Trooper reported back his location in radio lingo and Doug frantically searched the maps, looking for an alternate route via surface streets. Thankfully He quickly figured out that we had already passed the area where the Cop was. He gave me the good news and I put the hammer down even harder with nothing between us and the Utah border.
“At no point did we exceed 175mph”
Earlier in the trip Doug and Dunadel noticed that the top speed on the GPS read 175mph, and Doug quipped that we shouldn’t go any faster than that, because then we could claim, just as Dan Gurney was so famously quoted as saying in the very first Cannonball: “At no time did we exceed 175mph.” Seeing we had a terrible howling noise as soon as we reached 160 mph this didn’t seem like it was going to be a problem as it was miserable to go any faster. In the first half of Utah however we got some open roads again and I put the hammer down. Ignoring the wind noise I kept my foot in it, 170 mph came and went, and I kept going until Doug yelled at me. I had no idea what he was up in arms about – but apparently he saw a ghost of 176 mph on one of the GPS screens. Thankfully he caught me just in time, because after I slowed down, the GPS max speed still displayed just 175 mph on the dash Garmin. Phew, that was close!
A Major Flaw in the Plan
When we made our plan to leave Saturday evening in order to have lighter traffic during the day Sunday. We had no idea what we would encounter out West. Almost as soon as we got on I-15 South, traffic got really heavy in Southern Utah and would continue all the way through California. It seemed that Californians were coming home from weekend trips to Utah which had no COVID restrictions. Innumerable RVs, off-road trucks, and vehicles with boats and ATVs on their trailers clogged the interstate. While Doug planned and researched LA Metro traffic well with scouts on the ground, this was certainly a big oversight, and it continued to eat away at our average speed, one aggravating mile-per-hour at a time.
Maybe The Cars Disguise IS Working
We had heard from our sources that the Las Vegas Metro PD as well as the Nevada Highway Patrol were out in full force due to wholesale disregard for speed limits during the early part of the quarantine. To combat this, Doug enlisted the help of multiple friends from the area, and one in particular who surprised us by running the entire state ahead of us in his pickup truck. More surprising, and maddening, was the fact that it took us the whole state to catch him given the density of the traffic.
While we were relying on communication via text message for most of the scouts, given the time of day and traffic we figured a call on speaker-phone would be most helpful. Between regaling us with tales of Vegas debauchery, he would call out mile-by-mile any hazards, or, more often than not, just “Clear!’. We must not have been communicating our own location very clearly because as we passed him he frantically shouted “Guys, a cop just blew my doors off heading toward California!” We quickly responded “No, don’t worry, that was us,” to which he replied “no, no, no, there is a COP flying towards California!” To which we replied again “NO, that was US!” Wow, this disguise was really working – we even fooled a seasoned car guy!
The End of More Than Just the Drive
On the 27:25 run we had a clear target, and once into California it was pretty apparent that we would beat the established and known record of 28:50 set by Ed Bolian in 2013. On this run we did not have that luxury, as we weren’t entirely sure what the fastest time was, or who had done a run without disclosing a time. With traffic increasing to pre-pandemic levels on the two lane sections of I-15, and entering Los Angeles during the day for the first time ever on a run, we were not sure what the outcome would be. However, we were able to pick our way through traffic fairly well even with a heavy presence by the CHP, and made it to our exit onto surface streets without any drastic delays.
The red lights were interminable and maddening, and we couldn’t blow them in the middle of the afternoon, so we crawled, one block at a time, toward the ocean. We finally, finally rounded the corner and saw the Portofino sign. The scene felt more like a real Cannonball in the 70’s this time around as we came in during daylight hours with many friends and scouts there to greet us. We came to a stop and took a photo of the GPS screen at 25 hours and 39 minutes, still showing an average speed of 110mph, and just hoped that was fast enough to be the fastest time ever, which we soon confirmed to be the new Cannonball Run Record.
The End Of My Cannonball Journey
But then it hit me like a semi truck in the back of a Mercedes: this was the end of my Cannonball journey, the last time I would ever be making a run like this. Nowadays the Cannonball has made a huge resurgence and I feel that I am at the point where it is time to close the book, much like Brock Yates probably felt after the final 1979 Cannonball. The spirit of Cannonball promotes safe drivers in good cars proving how ridiculous the interstate speed limits are, still similar to those made 50+ years ago. The risks now outweigh the rewards. In the now 50 years since the first event, the safety track record remains clean.
In the words of Brock Yates: “When Dan (Gurney) and I got to the Portofino, we agreed that the part of the Cannonball which we were proudest about was the fact that we had bothered no one—we hadn’t jeopardized the safety of anyone, including ourselves. We had driven very fast, but we had driven cleanly, efficiently, and safely.”
So what did we do next? There surely wasn’t anything to do in LA during a pandemic so we slept for 8 hours, turned around and dead headed back to Chicago. When I arrived back home we had traveled 6000 miles in just 4.5 days. All of which was far above the posted speed limit. Click here to view the Current Cannonball Run Record Holder article.
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