Cannonball Re-Run part 1: CAR+ archive, January 2011

Published: 15 September 2015

‘Wanna court summons, buddy? You got it. Hey, Valleccio, take this asshole’s car. And you – get to the station.’ The fact that I’ve arrived in Times Square from New York’s JFK airport in under an hour is an achievement. A court summons within 60 minutes of leaving my Agony Class seat is, for want of a better word, miraculous.

Having heaved me out of the car like an insolent toddler’s mother, the cop directs me to the Midtown South Precinct, a few blocks away. The Challenger barrels past, full chat. Valleccio clearly approves. ‘Why am I here?’ I venture on arrival. An officer from the scene replies: ‘Terrorism.’

Sweaty and pitiful, I begin simultaneously plotting an exit strategy and avoiding eye contact with an aggressive-looking transvestite. I can’t help but feel that this trip has begun appropriately. We’re in New York to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the world’s most notorious outlaw road race, the Cannonball Run – a 2900-mile no-rules dash from New York to Los Angeles via the fastest, least policed route known to lunacy. Our guide is Brock Yates Jr, son of the event’s founder and CAR’s link to its nefarious competitors. Even in the early stages of our correspondence, he’d warned: ‘Cops, jails and court summons are all part of the journey.’ Exciting when read from an office in Peterborough; disturbing when realised in a New York police station. But before we can meet up with Jr – a veteran of the first run in 1971 – we have to resolve this terrorism business.

Snapper Mark Bramley has accidentally chosen the same parking place as last May’s failed car bomber for a photo stop, which explains our prompt removal and subsequent interrogation. Employing a hammed-up British accent I apologise profusely by saying ‘I apologise profusely’ while trying desperately to say things a terrorist wouldn’t. After an hour Officer Valleccio concedes. I am not a terrorist. Our Dodge Challenger will not be torn apart and searched. We won’t be spending the night with an angry cross-dresser. Things are getting better. Or less worse. We drive timidly forth.

The combination of recent imprisonment and torrential rain tethers the Challenger’s 5.7-litre V8 to four-cylinder eco mode during our trudge south to Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. After being outwitted by the car’s sat-nav four times, we arrive at our gently psychedelic motel five hours later than anticipated, sleep, wake, eat breakfasts the same size and weight as our own heads and head to Brock Jr’s.

Creeping into what the nav claims is our destination, I become abundantly aware that I have no idea what Jr looks like. We’ve only talked on the phone. So when I see the giant tattooed man exactly twice my size wearing a sleeveless denim jacket, work boots and cut-off jeans I’m a little surprised. He’s feeding a Pitbull. I wind down the window, assume my now well-versed charmingly-befuddled-Brit act and ask if he’s Brock Yates Jr. ‘Nope – wanna gimme your ride?’ I laugh nervously, hoping the question isn’t rhetorical. ‘He’s one house up, buddy. You boys sure you need that ride?’

The sight of a regular-looking man outside the house next door is a relief, even if he is laughing at me. ‘Not doing too well in the US, huh?’ says Brock, dressed in shorts, trainers and a polo shirt while daughter, Leda, clings tenaciously to his leg. Jr was 14 when his father and co-conspirators, Steve Smith and the late Jim Williams, conceived and completed the first Cannonball in a Dodge Custom Van.

Matt Jones recreates the Cannonball run with Brock Yates Jr

‘I wasn’t old enough to drive so I was on the lookout for cops and gas stations – an essential job in the ’70s. There were plenty of the former,  but less of the latter, and our van was bad on gas. But watching America change constantly through the windscreen while my father sped across country as fast as it’d go was a fantastic adventure. I guess I was infected from an early age.’ Which explains why he turned road trips into a living. ‘I run the Tire Rack One Lap of America, which is an endurance road trip around the USA stopping at the country’s key racetracks. Think Cannonball Run minus the jail sentences. Well, fewer jail sentences…’

It’s with speed born of experience that Brock installs a selection of gadgets to the Challenger to help smooth passage to the west coast – a CB radio, radar detector, his own Garmin sat-nav and a large bag of Beef Jerky – which, save for steak, fries and eggs, is all Brock ever eats in my company. Mark and I are ushered to our quarters. I’m up front, Mark’s in the rear, along with my luggage (two factory-fit 12-inch Kicker subwoofers hog the boot). ‘I’ll drive. Off to my Dad’s in Wyoming, right?’ Right. CAR’s Cannonball has begun.

‘Damn, this thing sure moves!’ Brock is not employing eco mode. Due to my own fear and incompetence, it’s the first time that anyone’s given the Challenger a good drubbing since collection. At the first sight of open highway on Route 15 he stamps on the throttle – after a dramatic pause, the auto ’box kicks down, then 400lb ft drags the car forward with indignant, mass-defying thrust. ‘Jesus – not bad, Chrysler,’ says Brock, shouting over the vociferous Mopar exhaust.

Our fun is short-lived. Cruising in triple figures, a profoundly irritating noise starts coming out of one of the flashing electronic boxes: the radar detector. ‘Shit – cops,’ says Brock. The CB crackles into life: ‘County mounty up ahead. Watch your back, little red Challenger.’ Did a man in giant American truck really just say that? Have I been beamed into the Convoy dimension? I don’t care. This is too delicious. ‘We should get off the interstate,’ Brock mutters. I’m grinning like a tit.

On Route 390, we begin an impromptu tour of the sort of small towns only their inhabitants have heard of. Each pocket of civilisation has its own increasingly questionable claim to fame: ‘Home to America’s Longest-Running Brewery’; ‘Our Mine Fire’s Been Burnin’ Since ’48’; ‘Hosting The 2010 Little League World Series…’

We draw into Brock Senior’s small, softly antiqued hometown, precisely in the middle of nowhere, 360 miles later. His long driveway suggests success. More so the mansion and carriage house full of historic IndyCars, midget racers and the Dodge Challenger that he used for the 1972 and 1975 Cannonball Runs, which is the reason we’re in one now. It was the only car he used twice. With clarity and economy, Mark summarises my thoughts: ‘Holy f*ck.’

Following two colossal Great Danes, Brock walks outside: ‘Cool car, fellas – reminds me of mine. Want the tour?’ Go on then.

The car: a Dodge Challenger

‘This is the Cannonball Challenger I used. Its best time was in ’72 when I was riding with Bud Stanner and Bob Brown: 37 hours 26 minutes. That’s about a 79mph average. Not bad, huh? We did a bunch of stuff to it for the trip – big fuel cell in the trunk so we could go longer without stopping for gas, there’s a cellphone and CB fitted, I got a Halda Speed Pilot point-to-point timer and a pair of Scheelk bucket seats, too. Oh, and we replaced the fogs with aircraft landing lights. It’s kinda important to see who and what’s in front of you when you’re running real hard.’ I titter with juvenile excitement – the chances of seeing a car this over-endowed with awesomeness stand at comfortably long odds. ‘Ah, good – Steve’s showed up,’ says Brock.

Steve Smith, ex-colleague of Brock during his tenure as a writer for Car & Driver magazine and co-founder of the Cannonball – or Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash to give it its official title – is a fellow Wyoming, NY resident. Dressed in black wearing contemporary jeans, Steve is an immensely affable man who speaks in dense, well-planned sentences, occasionally pausing and wringing his hands to summon old memories.

‘So, you guys wanna know the truth about the Cannonball? It all started ’cause of a couple of arguments. Firstly, Brock and I always used to argue with the tech guys on Car & Driver about what makes a good car. They used to go by numbers and specs; we went on what they drove like on public roads. They said we weren’t out there for enough miles to really test cars and we thought we were. Driving coast-to-coast would settle the score.

‘Then there was the argument most right-thinking motorists had with the government about the double-nickel [55mph] speed limit on interstates, which they threatened to implement in ’71 and eventually did a year later after the first gas crisis in ’72. With cars built to go faster and drivers able to do so safely, it was ridiculous. GM cars were tested at 80mph and Pontiacs to 70mph in the ’70s, so the machinery was capable. The authorities were basically saying we weren’t. Finally, there was the argument that Brock and I had during what he called his ‘Torque and Recoil’ weekends – high-powered cars and high-powered rifles – about whether it was possible. There was only one way to find out.’

Filled with inspiration and continental lager, I request some high-speed driving tips – tomorrow we’ll be driving west from the Cannonball’s original start line at the Red Ball parking garage, Manhattan, for 36 straight hours. Brock Jr, Mark and I plan on neither dithering nor encountering more police stations.

‘It’s not about plugging a radar detector into the dash and putting the hammer down. It’s the art of looking like you’re tied to a post when you’re actually doing 80. Or more. But whatever you’re in, you can’t outrun the police radio. Don’t use your turn signals – they’re a beacon for the troopers,’ says Smith. Yates continues: ‘If you’re gonna run hard, run silent and run deep.’ I have no idea what he means, but it sounds incredibly cool. Steve adds: ‘Oh, and if you’re feeling sleepy, eat some Doritos. No man can sleep eating Doritos.’ With that, all parties retire to bed.

Over breakfast the following morning, Brock’s wife, Pamela – played by Farrah Fawcett in the Cannonball Run film – casually tells us about the time she pretended to be a patient in the back of a fake TransCon MediVan ambulance that entered the 1979 event. After being driven for over 2000 miles by Brock, stuntman Hal Needham and a young radiologist called Lyle Royer who’d been recruited for added authenticity, the van broke down near Palm Desert, California. Needham conscripted an unladen lorry to transport the van, but there was no way of loading it on to the trailer. Unperturbed, he simply found a dirt mound, charged at it and launched the van onto the lorry’s bed. ‘He hit it perfectly. Hal paid the driver and off we went.’

Cannonball Re-run part 1

Goodbyes are exchanged, we gas up, replenish jerky stocks and I buy a jelly sweet in the shape of a strawberry, which, it transpires, is actually an air freshener. We have to force the square peg of an interview with Oscar Koveleski – 1971 Cannonball veteran and founding member of the semi-spoof Polish Racing Drivers of America – and arrival at the Red Ball 350 miles away, into the round hole of a day. Brock punches it, agreeing to change drivers after every tank of gas despite his passion for driving the Dodge.
Thus far, the Challenger has demonstrated remarkable poise, despatching over 600 Interstate miles with relative dignity. The whole of America is in this car – unapologetically crass, massive and oddly charming. Despite the lowered suspension, meatier Mopar anti-roll bars and low-profile tyres, it steadfastly refuses to corner. And the B-pillars are outrageously intrusive on visibility. And the giant speaker system makes you look like a crack dealer. And the plastics smell like sick. But the styling’s something to treasure, and it goes like a pensioner’s terrier. For a jaunt like this, you need nothing more.

Guided by Jr, we drive due south east to Scranton, PA, branching off onto smaller and smaller side roads until civilisation vanishes completely into northern New York State’s thick forest. Making a poor effort to disguise the previous evening’s excess, I hide in the back and sleep until my shift.

‘Jesus Christ!’ shouts Brock. I awake with an undignified snort. Two geriatric pick-ups have hauled themselves in front of us with no regard for our 90mph haste, forcing Brock to pull the car to a near stop a few inches away from their rusty chrome bumper. The Jerky cops it, but the car survives. ‘Man, you’ve got to be so careful on these back roads. People just don’t pay attention anymore,’ says Jr. ‘It’s exactly why you couldn’t have a Cannonball today – even the small roads are car parks, and if they’re empty people just pull out. No mirrors or signalling. Y’know, there was only one crash on the Cannonball [the all-girl Right-Bra Racing Team in 1972] and there were no major injuries. There would be hundreds if you did it now.’

Startled into consciousness, I notice a sign suggesting we’re four miles from Carbondale. The town crawls into view and we turn into the race shop owned by Oscar’s friend, Jack Deren. Partially expired, I tumble inside.

Koveleski’s wit, sharpness and ability to heckle run so many rings around the rest of us it’s a wonder he doesn’t pass out from the centrifugal force. His mind truly betrays his age, even though he refuses to give a number. An ex-Can-Am racer, owner of model car mail-order business Auto World and self-titled godfather of the Polish Racing Drivers Association, Oscar ran in the 1971 event (see left). In a thick New York accent, he tells us about his steed.

‘We used a Chevrolet Sportvan for all the fuel tanks, see – we weren’t stopping for gas like those other suckers. We had five 55-gallon drums of 130-octane fuel in the back, which would last us 4000 miles, and we were only going 2900.  We used Bendix aircraft pumps to get the fuel in the motor, heavy-duty wheels and Goodyear tyres to take the weight. There were beds in there, too, and seats to carry extra passengers.’ With a wink, he adds: ‘You never know, right? But I purposefully left putting the van together to other people so I could kick their ass when it broke.’

His thoughts on our Cannonball mule? ‘You’re gonna get arrested. It’s far too red.’ With that, we leave for New York. Despite our agreement, Brock drives for a second tank due to my irrational fear of the NYPD. Cue 130 uneventful miles until we arrived at the Red Ball, where we find 1979 Cannonball vet John Harrison (see left), waiting to drop the metaphorical chequered flag. Naturally, there are burnouts. It is on.

Brock screams through the city, charting an impossible route through back streets, lunging into spaces and disapproving of New York’s cab driver’s with vehement anger. Within far less time than it should take we’re on the New Jersey turnpike, off the New Jersey turnpike and onto the I78. A gas stop, more jerky and an oleaginous energy drink later and it’s my turn helming. ‘Nice Challenger, son,’ crackles the CB as I overtake a truck. ‘Reminds me of my Hemi ’Cuda. Safe travellin’.’ I gradually put on speed – 90, 100, 110 – shedding traffic with reckless disdain. Brock offers illicit driving tips throughout. ‘Stay behind this guy, there might be a cop on that ridge. Overtake two lanes away from the minivan – if they notice your speed they’ll call 911.’ Towns fling themselves behind the car – Clinton, Jonestown, Monessen – and we burst into Ohio.

At 3am the energy drink slowly wears off, along with the novelty of high-speed driving. Lights from roadside service stations begin to drag, along with my speed. Steve had warned me about the hallucinations. With the hypnotic visuals, heating on full and increasingly lingering pace it feels like I’m driving through a lava lamp. I try the Smith Dorito tactic. Delicious. Ineffectual. The decision to tilt my head back as much as possible and simultaneously speed up to 120mph isn’t wholly illogical – I’ll be able to relax my eyes while still being able to see and cover good time. I don’t know how long I’ve been asleep when Brock pounds his hand against the dashboard shouting ‘TRUCK!’ There is literally no way I can avoid a crash…

For Part Two, click here...

Cannonball Re-run part 1