Erwin "Cannonball" Baker aboard an Indian during on of his first cross-country endurance runs in the teens.
Remember those bad late 1970s/early 1980s movies featuring David Carradine and a host of B-grade actors bombing across the U.S. in a madcap coast-to-coast dash? Inspiration for those flicks came from auto editor Brock Yates' Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, a protest against Richard Nixon’s 55mph speed limit. Yates was inspired by the legendary endurance runs of Erwin “Cannonball” Baker, who made his first cross country dash in 1914 aboard an Indian twin. Today, Lonnie Isam, Jr., promoter and owner of Jurassic Racing in Sturgis, S.D., is adding to the Cannonball thread, making final preparations for a coast-to-coast endurance run for pre-1916 motorcycles, the Motorcycle Cannonball.
Unlike Cannonball Baker’s solitary runs, Isam’s September event will see some 70 classic bike fans working their way across the country. Taking off from historic Kitty Hawk, N.C., the 17-day event starts on Friday, September 10 and ends 3,325 miles later on Sunday, September 26 in Santa Monica, Calif. Eligible bikes are limited to machines built before 1916, and so far 38 of the 70 registered participants have said they’ll be riding 1914 or 1915 machines. Oldest registered machines a 1908 Thor and a 1908 Triumph.
Entrants will compete in one of three different classes including single-cylinder single-speed, multi-cylinder single-speed, and single or multi-cylinder with multi-speed machines. Riders will average 208 miles a day over the 16 days of riding, although there will be one 300-mile day and the start and finish days will be short days. Single-cylinder single-speed machines are expected to take the longest to finish, with the later multis expected to make the best time.
Course master John Classen has mapped out a route that avoids Interstate highways where possible, with only 100 miles mapped for the entire trip, all of it west of Albuquerque. In March, Classen will personally drive the shore-to-shore course for the Motorcycle Cannonball in the first of two pre-run trips to produce precise driving instructions for entrants and to smooth out any wrinkles along the way.
This is decidedly not a race, but an endurance run, which is an appropriate stance given the age of the competing machines. Fast as they may have seemed in their day, and in fact some of them were very fast at least for short bursts, there were few machines built in the early teens capable of sustaining speeds much over 40mph for any kind of duration with any kind of reliability. That said, we’re sure more than a few riders will be feeling their competitive oats.
Although the Motorcycle Cannonball is named after Baker, who set 143 driving records from 1910 through the 1930s, the top prize in the event, the Wyman Cup trophy, is named for George Wyman, who set the first trans-continental record in 1903 riding a single-cylinder California motorcycle.
The Wyman Cup will go to the best time of the single-speed, single-cylinder class, the class of machine that Wyman rode. The trophy is being crafted by renowned motorsports artist and sculpture Jeff Decker, who is sculpting a large bronze cup featuring George Wyman and his 1903 California. Decker promises the cup will be a one of a kind masterpiece, and knowing his work, we’re sure it will be.
Michael Lichter, best known for his Harley-Davidson and motorcycle lifestyle pics but also an extremely accomplished commercial photographer, will document the entire transcontinental trip.
Isam says that registration for the Motorcycle Cannonball is closed, with 70 official paid entrants and a small waiting list of riders who may be added later. Regardless, we’re hoping to catch up with riders during a planned rest day September 17 in Hot Springs, Ark., to see how they’re faring roughly half-way into the run. That should tell us a lot about how the western leg might go, although the potential for more extreme winds and higher temperatures will increase as they go west, ensuring a challenging ride. We’ll post more as we know it, in the meantime, you can keep abreast of developments at The Motorcycle Cannonball rally website. – Richard Backus