It’s 1971, and America looks like it’s getting, well, boring. Yeah, yeah, we were in the thick of anti-Vietnam protesting, Black Power movements, feminist resistance, and the drug craze. The music was great and the cars looked incredible. But for automotive enthusiasts, things weren’t quite so great. Ralph Nader was calling for safety behind the wheel, and it looked like the Jack Kerouac road trip adventure dream was about to be a thing of the past. Enter: the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash.
(Welcome back to the Jalopnik Race Car Book Club, where we all get together to read books about racing and you send in all your spicy hot takes. This month, we’re looking at Cannonball!: World’s Greatest Outlaw Race by Brock Yates, the frenetic history of the cross-country mad dash that captured the fantasy of America.)
The beauty of Cannonball! is that this is a book straight from the source. We’re not getting some third-hand account of something that a few people threw together based on research. Nah: this is an account of how this incredible race came to exist straight from Brock Yates (the guy who brainstormed the whole thing), alongside accounts of the various participants over the years.
This book recaptures a very specific moment in time, when America was in the midst of social, political, cultural, and economic change. It’s inevitable that you’re going to get people looking back on the good ol’ days with a pair of rose-tinted glasses. In Yates’ case, that was the freedom of the open road.
As interstate highways were carving asphalt veins across the country and car technology was improving, people started to feel that, y’know, maybe we should legislating this stuff a little bit more. Ralph Nader was highlighting how dangerous cars could be, the 55 mph speed limit was a nationally enforced law, and plenty of car enthusiasts started wondering, is this it? Is this how the freedom and innovation of the auto industry dies? Life was looking a lot different than it did back when Jack Kerouac ambled across the country, or when Erwin “Cannon Ball” Baker rode coast-to-coast on his motorcycle to break records on pre-highway America’s roads.
So, Brock Yates and Car and Driver editor Steve Smith figured, what the hell. Let’s get out there, see if we can’t set the first official coast-to-coast time. How fast can we do it in a Dodge Custom Sportsman van nicknamed Moon Trash II?
As the book relates, the whole idea captured the fantasy of plenty of readers after Yates published an article about it. Throughout its five runs, the Cannonball remained an unofficial, unsanctioned race—but people loved it. They wanted to figure out how to they could join.
Before long, the race was transformed. It wasn’t quite the ambling cross-country road trip in a van. People were entering Ferraris, Porsches, limousines—you name it. You start at the Red Ball Garage in New York City and finish at the Portofino Inn at Redondo Beach in the shortest time possible. As for rules? There are none. Race at your own risk.
Yates does a great job not only recapping each running of the race, but also describing all the things going on in between—his job swaps, book releases, gasoline restrictions, and movies being made about the whole Cannonball affair. It offers a sense of a very specific context regarding what was happening in the automotive world—as well as the automotive journalism world—at the time, and how everything was being affected by politics and legislation.
The chapters detailing the first two runnings in 1971 were easily the highlights of the book. Personally, it gave me the same yearning to get behind the wheel and start cruising across the country that I got from reading On The Road. It felt like a rediscovery of what the road could be. It’s not necessarily just an easy way to get from Point A to Point B. It’s a vehicle for imagination, for pushing boundaries and seeing what the hell you can come up with.
I loved the initial freshness of the Cannonball, when it was in its teething stages. Yates’ drive with Dan Gurney in the Ferrari Daytona was an incredible read. There was a beauty in the way Yates describes Gurney’s skills behind the wheel, the almost hypnotically smooth way he was able to command a car at up to 170 mph and still make it feel like they were under the speed limit.
As the novel progresses, the Cannonball comes across as slightly less fun, at least on Yates’ end. It wasn’t quite the underground adventure that it had initially been. Car enthusiasts loved the concept, and suddenly everyone wanted to join. The media started getting involved and police knew what was going on. It came across more as an obligation than the adventure that it had been in 1971.
That said, it’s still an incredibly entertaining read—especially when it comes to the participants’ recollection of their own mishaps and adventures. There was the Right Bra-sponsored limo that crashed in Texas, a motorhome loaded with enough pasta to put an Italian restaurant to shame, and the hilarious strategies people attempted to avoid police attention.
My biggest qualm with the book was that it did get a little repetitive. There’s a certain sense of ennui that creeps up on you when you’re making a long drive, and after the first few in-depth accounts of the drive from New York to California, I felt like I kind of knew what to expect. Especially when it came to some of the accounts of the participants. Yates summarizes each race with plenty of detail—so when he rounds out the chapter with an extended account from, say, that year’s winner, you already know what happened.
But that’s my most picky critique (I’m in the midst of two graduate writing programs—all I do is bitch about words all day). This book is just fun. If you haven’t picked it up yet, go hunt down a copy immediately. It’s probably going to do to you what it did to me: get me so itchy and antsy that I fantasize a whole coast-to-coast elopement adventure. Well, it might not be exactly that for you. But, still.
And that’s all we have for this month’s Jalopnik Race Car Book Club! Make sure you tune in again on December 1, 2018. We’re going to be reading Racing to the Finish: My Story by Dale Earnhardt Jr.. And don’t forget to drop those hot takes (and recommendations) in the comments or at ewerth [at] jalopnik [dot] com!