Surviving the Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run
A war of attrition, only the hardiest bikes survived the second running of the coast-to-coast Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run.
Made it: Cannonballer Dave Cafton and his 1927 H-D finished all 3,956 miles.
Photo By Mark Gardiner
I remember the youngest casualty. I came across him in the Black Hills of South Dakota, sitting a few yards off the road in the shade of a pine tree, his 1927 BSA single, seized up solid, ticking as it cooled on the side of the road.
“I think I must be about the last one,” he drawled. “This is the third time today. It doesn’t like these hills.”
He was Buck Carson, from Livingston, Texas. He told me that he’d turned 21 the day before; he’d enlisted in this thing with his daddy. We made small talk for another few minutes, but I had to press on to catch up to the main body of riders in the Pre-1930 Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run across the U.S.
Cannonball the man
In 1914, Erwin “Cannonball” Baker rode an Indian motorcycle coast-to-coast to set the first of many cross-country records. It took him 11 days. Today’s roads are far better than the ones Baker traversed, making a coast-to-coast run somewhat easier on the riders’ kidneys. But better roads are, if anything, harder on old motorcycles.
Back in Cannonball Baker’s day, when bikes like the Henderson Four, Harley-Davidson JD or Indian 101 Scout were new, asphalt was rare. There were only a few paved roads where riders could even reach 50mph, let alone sustain that speed. Yet on this Cannonball run, to reach checkpoints in time riders have to hammer along at 50mph for hours on end, putting strains on their machines that were inconceivable to engineers like Bill Henderson or William S. Harley. The challenges are even greater for smaller bikes like young Buck’s BSA, which are more suited to jaunts along English country lanes. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that if it couldn’t handle the Black Hills, it was never going to survive the Rocky Mountains.
Buck’s dad, Mike Carson, has about 70 British bikes back home in Texas. Maybe that’s why Mike offered the use of his 30-foot-long race trailer — which was outfitted with a complete machine shop, a refrigerated keg of beer and a 12-bottle wine cooler — to a couple of Rudge-riding Englishmen named Ken Ashton and Mike Wild. He even made up vinyl stickers proclaiming the “Roaring Rudges.”
“Roaring” was an overstatement where Ashton’s Rudge was concerned. All told, it completed less than 150 miles; Ashton was relegated to the role of young Buck’s mechanic. Mike Wild’s Rudge was really a “bitsa,” as in “bits of this and bits of that.” The front wheel, tank and seat are from 1924; the gearbox and engine date to 1928.
“It’s a 500cc 4-valve and it goes like a rocket, but it explodes like one, too,” Mike told me. “The mileage here is incredible; I had a bolt that came loose at the back of the engine, which caused a vibration, and slowly but surely, everything fell apart. I fixed it by the side of the road, but when you’re riding 300 miles, by the end of the day everything’s falling apart.”
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