Surviving the Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run
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.”
The Motorcycle Cannonball is the brainchild of Lonnie Isam Jr., a second-generation motorcycle restorer in Sturgis, S.D. In 2010, Lonnie promoted his first Cannonball, for bikes made before 1916. It was a success, but a proposed 2011 run was cancelled for lack of entries. To attract more riders, Lonnie extended eligibility to any bike manufactured before 1930. That opened the event to more robust and technically advanced machines. This year’s route was hundreds of miles longer than 2010’s, however, so it was no easier.
Although the nominal entry fee was only $1,500, the average competitor spent at least 10 times that much on hotels, food and support. Not surprisingly, Cannonball riders tend to be older and well-off.
The run meanders along, off the beaten track, passing through small towns that have hardly changed since the bikes were new. These are places where nothing much happens, and the arrival of dozens of old ‘sickles is likely to bring out the mayor to toast the riders, and the ladies’ auxiliary to lay on a lunch of fried chicken and potato salad. (After a few days on the Cannonball diet, I realized that coronary disease, not accidents, was the main risk taken by participants.)
The riders are warmly welcomed out in the flyover states. Chris Knoop, an Aussie who traveled the farthest for the event and ran on the tightest budget, rode into a small town in the middle of nowhere after being caught out in a rainstorm. His feet wet and cold, he tried to buy a pair of dry socks in the town’s lone store. The proprietor explained he didn’t sell socks, but then ran home to get Chris a pair from his own drawer.
The highest point on this year’s route was Wyoming’s Granite Pass in the Bighorn Mountains, at 9,033 feet. That tested the machines, but it was sleep deprivation that tested the riders, as the end of each day’s ride was just the beginning of the night’s repairs. Hotel parking lots looked like Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow (if, that is, the French emperor’s army had traveled by motorcycle.)
It was nothing to see a bike completely torn down at midnight — in a condition that, if it was in your friend’s garage, you’d think, “Well, he’ll be busy all winter” — and then find the exhausted rider at the start the next morning, after finishing the job in the wee hours with help — and the loan of spares — from his rivals. When I asked Sean Duggan what he’d learned on the ride he told me, “I’ve learned that I was capable of falling asleep on a motorcycle.”
Despite the cooperative spirit, a bunch of these guys have competitive streaks a mile wide. American Iron publisher Buzz Kanter, riding a rare two-cam Harley JDH, told me, “It’s heartbreaking when you’re on a perfect score and you have to load your bike onto the sweep truck for the first time.”
As for young Buck Carson, Ken Ashton was willing to fix the BSA every night if that’s what it took, but they were foiled when it finally holed the piston on the second-to-last day and they had no spare. Not to be denied, Buck pushed the bike across the Golden Gate Bridge, and across the finish line at Dudley Perkins’ historic Harley-Davidson dealership in San Francisco. At the banquet, Lonnie Isam announced the winner of the “Spirit of the Cannonball” award, determined by a vote amongst competitors. It went to Buck and his dad.
And the winner is Brad Wilmarth … again
Nineteen of the 69 starters rode all the way across the country. After applying the event’s complex tie-breaking formula, the winner of this war of attrition was Brad Wilmarth, 51, who rode his 1913 Excelsior to a second Motorcycle Cannonball win. I guess winning in 2012 proves that his 2010 victory was not a fluke.
Back when he prepared his bike for 2010, Wilmarth balanced the engine — twice. The first time it had a vibration right at the speed he wanted to ride. He took it apart and tried a different balance factor to make it smooth at 47-50mph. He fit aluminum pistons with an oil ring, as it originally had iron pistons with compression rings only. He relied on the original connecting rods but had to make a new crankpin to account for big-end wear.
The Excelsior’s crankcase only holds about 2 ounces of oil, which, when the engine is running and up to temperature, is essentially vaporized. A dripper delivers several drops a minute to the main bearings. Wilmarth drained his crankcase every second fuel stop. “The goal,” he explained, “is to regulate the dripper so that when you drain it, you’re removing the same amount you started with.” He also added 1 ounce of 2-stroke oil to each gallon of gasoline. He averaged about a quart of oil per day. After being plagued by fuel tank leaks in 2010, he made a new fuel tank for 2012.
Wilmarth also made his own subtle “spoon” front brake that rubs directly on the front tire. That came in handy this year in Yellowstone National Park, when a 2,000-pound buffalo loomed out of the fog directly in his path. That was the only really hairy moment for the unflappable Virginian.
Competitors wouldn’t name names, but I heard a few grumble about rivals whose bikes were so well prepared it seemed as if they weren’t in the same grueling event. And I admit, when others were tearing their machines down every evening, Wilmarth was usually just wiping his 61ci twin down. But his bike is more original than most; virtually all the moving parts in the engine are period pieces.
For a final word, I checked in with Mike Wild after he’d had a few days to recover and just before he was to fly back to England. He’d ridden 2,925 miles, putting him 42nd overall, which was good enough for third in Class I (under 750cc). “People questioned whether bikes like ours were up to the task,” he told me, referring to the bikes in Class I. “I’m the kind of person that, when people doubt me, it just makes me all the more determined. Even at that, there were days when my wife had to push me out of bed at 5:30 in the morning and say, ‘Get into your leathers!’ There were days when it was over 100 degrees on the prairies, and one morning in Yellowstone I had an eighth of an inch of ice on my visor. Honestly, it’s the hardest race in the world, it really is.” Then, after a pause, he added, “I’m already planning to come back and do it again in two years’ time.” MC
Read about the 2010 Cannonball in: 2010 Pre-1916 Motorcycle Cannonball. And about Cannonball participants Mark Hill and Mike Vils in: The Man Known as ‘Mr. Henderson Motorcycles’ and Mike Vils on his Harley-Davidson J: Painter to the Stars.
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