On Sept. 10, 2010, 45 riders roared off from Kitty Hawk, N.C., on vintage Harleys, Indians and other historic pre-1916 motorcycles. Destination: California. Sixteen days later they rolled onto the Santa Monica Pier, 10 of them having completed the entire 3,294 mile route in the 2010 Pre-1916 Motorcycle Cannonball.
Spearheaded by Lonnie Isam of Jurassic Racing in Sturgis, S.D., the 2010 Motorcycle Cannonball was inspired by the historic cross-country endurance runs made by Erwin “Cannonball” Baker before and after World War I. Challenging riders on 95-plus-year-old motorcycles to cover almost 3,300 miles, from Kitty Hawk, N.C., on the Atlantic Coast to Santa Monica, Calif., on the Pacific Coast, it was an idea that bordered on insanity. Yet that didn’t seem to slow anyone down. If anything, it simply inspired them.
Preparing for the Cannonball
Although inspired by Cannonball Baker, the 2010 Motorcycle Cannonball was modeled after the Great Race, a coast-to-coast rally open to all vehicles 45-years or older that ran for many years through 2007; except the Cannonball would run mostly on secondary two-lane roads, and it would be an endurance race rather than a timed race.
Matt Olsen, who helped organize the ride, made the whole thing sound even more unbelievable when, before the race, he explained he would build a 9hp single-cylinder, single-speed 1913 Sears — from scratch, hand-fabricating most of the bike. Were people really crazy enough — and were there enough of them — to take valuable, almost 100-year-old bikes (and one 100-year-old-plus bike) and attempt such a feat? The answer, it turns out, was yes.
As the bikes all had to be of pre-1916 vintage, that brought up the question of what, exactly, does that mean? The rules explained: “The machine must be powered by an original engine. Many things could be changed on a machine, and updates made for safety sake, but the core of the motorcycle must be 95 years old or older.” The rules recommended updated brakes and even adding a front brake if not so equipped, and suggested that for safety reasons riders may choose not to run old-school “clincher” tires. Also, everyone would have modern lighting, not the carbides of the day. The bikes were divided into three classes: Class 1 for single-cylinder, single-speed bikes, Class 2 for multi-cylinder, single-speed bikes, and the more open Class 3 for multi-cylinder and multi-speed bikes that were becoming popular by 1915.
Support “teams” ranged from friends who came along to lend a hand to professional mechanics, but they were not allowed to accompany riders. Instead, they had to follow more direct, alternate routes to the day’s destination. If their bike did break down, riders were expected to have enough tools to fix it themselves, to get help from other riders, or to wait for one of the four pick-up sidecars that were following.
The riders ranged from 79-year-old John Hollansworth to 24-year-old Matt Olsen. Some were veterans of the road, while others had very little motorcycle experience. Californian Paul Watts had less than 2,000 miles under his belt, but joined the Cannonball because it seemed like a fun idea. Although he rode slowly the first day, he picked up his pace and kept it up all the way to the Santa Monica Pier, rivaling everyone else.
With just 1,500 miles to his credit, Alan Travis had even less experience, but boy, did he have drive. Alan signed up with a 1914 Excelsior factory board track racer he purchased several years ago. The bike had been run just two or three times by its first owner, and then it was stored until it was purchased by its second owner, who never even started the Excelsior. To get ready, Alan took the engine apart only to find it was in perfect condition. To get a bit more experience he put 500 miles on the bike. And to be sure he would be OK if it ran out of gas, he pedaled it under his own power almost 10 miles. Now that’s preparation.
Not surprisingly, some riders were more prepared than others. Pete Young had put in a few thousand miles on his 1913 Premier around his hometown of San Francisco and seemed very relaxed. Katrin Boehner and Dieter Eckel came all the way from Bavaria, Katrin with her 1907 JAP “Flying Broomstick” and Dieter with his 1913 BSA. They had ridden their bikes from the Baltic to the Mediterranean as well as through England and all over Ireland.
The ride also drew its share of luminaries from the motorcycle world, like world-class custom builder Shinya Kimura of Japan, Motorcycle Hall of Famer Cris Simmons, motorcycle sculptor Jeff Decker, American Iron Magazine publisher Buzz Kanter, premier antique motorcycle restorer Steve Huntzinger, Harley-Davidson dealership owner and stuntman Buddy Stubbs (whose work has included Then Came Bronsonand Electraglide in Blue), along with Wheels Through Time owner Dale Walksler and Harley-Davidson Museum staff restorer Bill Rodencal. Sixty-eight riders signed up, and 45 bikes made it to the start.
Marking the spot where brothers Wilbur and Orville flew their Wright Flier 120 feet in 1903, the Wright Brothers Memorial, was an appropriate starting line for the Motorcycle Cannonball, as these riders were also setting out to do something never before accomplished — crossing the U.S. en masse on century-old machines.
You could feel the excitement as cameras snapped and riders got ready, some of them looking confident, others clearly carrying a sense of trepidation. As the Cannonballers prepared for the start, throngs of people milled about ogling their bikes, among them familiar names like Harley-Davidson, Indian, Excelsior, and BSA, and less familiar ones like Calthorpe, Premier, Pope and Militaire.
After a black and white group panorama photo, reminiscent of period photographs from when these bikes were new, the riders took off, one at a time. Although some were a little wobbly as they rode off, still novices with a rocker-style clutch, it wouldn’t be long before they would be experts.
The road calls
Thus began an epic journey across America, from North Carolina to Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California. As the miles rolled by the landscape changed from the fertile soils of the east to the parched desert lands of the west. It was a ride of diversity and beauty, and one that also showed how America has changed.
This wasn’t a picture-postcard view seen from the distance on interstate highways at 75mph — this was up close and personal. It was a view that showed the blemishes of the country, of businesses closing and small towns dying, houses boarded up and roads in disrepair. It showed the surface scars, the mom and pop restaurants that have been replaced with the mind-numbing sameness of McDonalds, Burger Kings and Wendys. The five-and-dime shops are gone, too, replaced by Dollar General, Target and Walmart.
Close friendships developed with every mile and every day that passed. Everyone chipped in to help everyone else, and you can bet each person needed help of one sort or another. There were overnights like the one at Dale Walksler’s Wheels Through Time Museum, where after a fabulous reception and a fantastic hosted dinner, Dale’s workshop drew all of the bikes and riders in like a magnet. As toolbox lids sprung open everyone set to work, tools and parts flying, either on their own bikes or helping others. Three bikes were taken down to split cases. While many never saw a bed that night, by 7 a.m. the bikes were buttoned up and everyone was ready to set out in the crisp morning air into the beautiful Smoky Mountains.
While organizers preferred giving riders the daily route each morning, an option to get several days worth of routing was made after the race was underway. Riders were checked out onto the “course” each morning and could ride by themselves or in small groups. At the end of a day, which covered anywhere from 143 to 293 miles (the final day into Santa Monica was only 110 miles), riders were checked in and questioned as to whether they stayed on-course and abided by the rules.Wrench. Ride. Repeat.
Naturally, bikes this old needed attending of one sort or another every night. On rare nights it may have been just maintenance, but typically they needed more love than that. This mostly took place in parking lots, which didn’t stop Shinya Kimura from pulling out his engine during an overnight in New Mexico.
The one rest day of the trip was spent in Hot Springs, Ark., where riders took advantage of air-conditioned comfort while tending to their bikes. Riders also got to work on their bikes during a stop at Coker Tires headquarters in Chattanooga, Tenn. After a lavish banquet served up in the Coker Museum, the Coker crew announced they would take care of any tire needs for any of the bikes. As if that wasn’t enough, Coker then opened their shop doors to the riders — with Coker’s own mechanics at the ready to give any needed help.
The end of the road
By the time the riders reached California, the long days and lack of sleep had taken their toll, and everyone was exhausted. Yet there was excitement that the end was in sight. Family members were waiting on the Santa Monica Pier to greet their loved ones, and a celebration was clearly in order.
As a whole, the ride went remarkably well. Matt Olsen suffered an unfortunate wreck when a pothole sent his Sears into a tank slapper, but his was the only accident with any injuries. The weather was nearly perfect, and the only bad storms — fortunately very brief — were in Arizona. While it was originally thought no one bike would make it all 3,294 miles, 10 bikes completed the entire trip, and 17 bikes rode more than 3,000 miles. And one way or another, most of them found their way to Santa Monica to ride out onto the pier.
Class 3 had the most riders complete every mile, and these were on the popular and very dependable three-speed 1915 Harley-Davidson. Rick McMaken took top honors in the class after breaking a tie for miles ridden and year of bike, based on the age of the rider (the older rider wins). Alan Travis’ training almost paid off in Class 2, as he rode every single mile on his 1914 board-tracker, yet was beat out in the end in a tie (based on age of the bike) won by Brad Wilmarth on his 1913 Excelsior. Class 1 went to Katrin Boehner, who rode 3,002 miles on her 1907 JAP. She captured the hearts of every Cannonballer every time she ran along side her bike to push-start it, as she did hundreds of times along the way.
The Cannonball was a journey of unprecedented magnitude by a group of amazingly talented riders. Not surprisingly, there is chatter already of a future Cannonball with different years of bikes included and some other possible changes. You can bet it will be a ride to remember. MC
Extra: Photographing the Cannonball
When Matt Olsen called to ask if I would be interested in photographing a 16-day cross country ride, I don’t think I took him seriously. A 16-day ride sounded reasonable enough, but a 16-day ride on pre-1916 motorcycles over 3,000-plus miles just sounded looney.
While the odds seemed stacked against Matt and the ride as a whole, I so wanted to be a part of it that I did what any sane person would do: I signed up. Making the event more enticing, Matt offered up his dad, Carl (founder and owner of Knucklehead specialists Carl’s Cycle Supply in Aberdeen, S.D.), to ride me coast-to-coast on the back of his 1953 Harley-Davidson Panhead — backwards, as it’s easier to take photographs that way.
If another Cannonball does come together in the future, I hope to see more riders from the custom bike world sign up, as Shinya Kimura did. There is, I think, much to be learned from getting these old, essentially hand-fabricated machines out on the roads, much that can be applied to today’s custom bike world.
And if another rally does happen, even if you can’t get a machine entered, consider volunteering with a team just to help out and be part of the experience. It took photographing the event for me to be part of it, and I’m glad I was. It was an experience I’ll never forget, and I hope my photographs convey some of the excitement we all shared. Cannonball! - Michael Lichter
Read more about the motorcycles mentioned in this article:
• Then Came Bronson Replica Harley-Davidson Sportster