Finding Cannon Ball’s Trail: Reconstructing the Motorcycle Cannonball Run

Reader Contribution by The Motorcycle Classics Staff
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Chances are you’ve heard of cross-country endurance rider Erwin G. “Cannon Ball” Baker or you’re at least familiar with his famous “Cannon Ball” nickname, a moniker bestowed upon him by a New York City newspaper reporter after Baker successfully completed his epic 1914 cross-country ride aboard a 7 horsepower, two-speed, 1914 Indian Twin. Starting in San Diego, California, and ending in New York City 11 days, 12 hours and 10 minutes later, Baker smashed the previous record set by Volney Davis in 1911, also aboard a 7 horsepower Indian Twin, completing the trip nine days faster than Davis.

That ride made Baker famous, and his epic cross-country rides continue to inspire enthusiasts more than 100 years later. Ignoring the maybe funny but actually awful film, Cannonball Run, featuring Burt Reynolds, Dom DeLuise and a very young Jackie Chan, Baker’s rides are the direct inspiration behind today’s Race of the Century Motorcycle Cannonball, first run in 2010 and every two years since.

When 1972 Daytona 200 winner and AMA Hall of Famer Don Emde heard about that first 2010 retrospective race, it got him to thinking about the challenges Baker faced in 1914 and the effort it must have taken to ride cross-country at a time when, especially west of the Mississippi, good roads were essentially non-existent. That set Emde on a course to reconstruct Baker’s 1914 ride, which he did in 2014, leaving San Diego, California, at 9 a.m. on May 3, exactly 100 years to the minute from Baker’s 1914 start, and arriving in New York City on May 14 after an 11-day ride, just like Baker.

Surprisingly, the real story in Emde’s engaging book, Finding Cannon Ball’s Trail, isn’t his 2014 centennial ride, it’s the years leading up to the ride, particularly 2012 when he and fellow adventurer Joe Colombero started tracing Baker’s route, recreating and mapping it as best they could for the planned 2014 run. As Emde and Columbero mapped the route they explored and discovered the places Baker visited and the challenges he faced crossing the country. They learned about his troubles, his tactics and his victories, acquiring a new appreciation for Baker’s exploits a century ago. It was no easy ride then, and 100 years later Emde and his 2014 ride crew still had to fight poor roads and weather, just as Baker did, to make their way to New York City.

Rich in history and richly illustrated with period and contemporary photos and maps, Finding Cannon Ball’s Trail is far more than a simple recounting of Baker’s ride. It’s a full profile of Baker the man, the rider and the entrepreneur (Baker copyrighted his nickname and worked his rides to his best financial gain) and a must-read for anyone interested in the early days of motorcycling in general and the exploits of Erwin G. “Cannon Ball” Baker in particular as seen through the lenses of the past and present. Emde Books: 167 pages, $25. To order a copy, visit our store. MC

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