Welcome to Part 2 of CAR's Cannonball Re-run from the 2011 archive. If you want to remind yourself of Part 1, please click here.
Waking up behind the wheel at 110mph is not a moment to treasure. Especially when Brock Yates Jr – veteran of outlaw road race, the Cannonball Run, and son of its founder – is shouting ‘TRUCK’ directly into your ear. Less still when there’s a very large lorry a very short distance away from the very expensive car you’ve borrowed. Still unsure as to whether or not this is a cruel dream, I freeze, drawing closer and closer to the back of the big rig. Brock grabs the wheel, the tyres squeal as he heaves the car into the outside lane of Interstate 70 and my heart leaps into my mouth, bumping into the word ‘f*ck’, which is on its way out. Definitely not a dream, then.
We swerve around the 18-wheeler. Brock takes his hands off the wheel and says: ‘Y’alright?’. ‘Err, yeah. Sorry about that. I was a bit, umm…’ ‘Asleep?’ he offers. ‘Yeah,’ I reply. Jr cackles, ‘Jesus. We should probably switch drivers.’
My stomach makes unsavoury noises until we reach the rest stop, four-odd miles from the near-death truck incident. Brock leaps out of the passenger seat with surprising composure and, after taking a deep-lunged breath and lighting a Marlboro red, says: ‘Cannonball’s as much about endurance as driving fast – you hit 100 and it soon feels normal, so you speed up to wake up. One ten, 120, 130 – when you’re double over the limit and it starts to feel slow, you’ve got to switch drivers.’
I tumble out from the helm making old-man harrumphs. Exhausted and inadequate, I fold myself behind the front seats, feng-shui the litter and half-used snacks left by photographer, Mark Bramley – who’s just woken up and been ejected from his back-seat digs – and pass out. The rest of the crew find their seat and follow suit.
This is the latest palpitation in a trans-American epic that’s already consumed 1418 miles, $311 in fuel, 29,000 calories and $100 dollars in terrorism fines (long story – see the January issue). Why? To celebrate 40 years of the notorious no-rules Cannonball Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash road race from New York to Los Angeles. Brock Yates Jr has agreed to guide us across country and our next stop is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home to the Indy 500, to meet one the event’s most infamous competitors, Steve ‘Yogi’ Behr and 1971, ’72 and ’75 veteran Brad Niemcek. But first we’ve got to get through the night.
It’s still dark when the Challenger’s V8 wakes me up. With a voice like a zip, I ask: ‘How long ’till we get to Indy?’ ‘Depends,’ says Brock, ‘D’you wanna run hard?’ Save for narcolepsy, which I’m fairly sure he doesn’t suffer from, I can see no good reason why not. Jr cackles, kicks down the Dodge and the familiar pause-mentalthrust-100mph follows. I doze, occasionally pawing the back of the driver’s seat to check there’s not a steering wheel there.
Just outside Dayton, Ohio, Bramley starts shouting, waking me up. ‘Cops, cops, cops!’ The radar detector, which sounds like an angle grinder at 6am, is making lots of its wretched noise, Brock’s slamming on the brakes and I’m straining to see what the snapper’s pointing at. Then it appears – a first-hand vision I’ve been dreaming of since I wore out my VHS copy of Smokey and the Bandit – a police car in the opposite lane passes the Challenger, clocks our speed, immediately switches on its lights and hurls itself through 180 degrees across the median towards us. I squeak involuntarily. This. Is. Awesome.
Brock seems utterly unphased by the cop’s interest. ‘I’m getting off at this junction. Strategic gas stop, anyone?’ He kicks it down, weaves between the commuters, shoots up the off ramp and pulls into a convenient service station. ‘Well, that was exciting,’ says Brock with a grin. We gas up and slot the remaining 70 miles to the small restaurant where we’ve agreed to meet the ex-Cannonballers into 50 minutes.
On arrival, Steve ‘Yogi’ Behr sidesteps traditional greetings. ‘Why the hell d’you get a car in arrest-me red?’ Tall, slight and dressed in a bright blue cookie monster T-shirt, 1971, ’72, ’75 and ’79 veteran Steve is exactly who you’d imagine being attracted to the Cannonball, with the sort of charmingly barbaric personality only America could nurture. With a slight southern drawl, he says, ‘I really hung it out in the Cannonball – I had a couple of driving licences, wasn’t doin’ much and I thought it’d be kinda fun to win it, which I did in 1972. I ran with some kids in a drive-away [manufacturer delivery scheme] ’73 Cadillac Coupe DeVille and man, we pushed it. When we stopped for fuel I’d have the gas hose pumpin’ in one hand and my hose in the other, then I’d toss ten bucks on the ground and leave. That little trick saved us more than a minute – we won by less.’
Three-time Cannonball vet and member of semi-spoof Polish Racing Drivers of America member, Brad Niemcek, winces. ‘Jesus, Yogi.’ Very much the yin to Steve’s yang, Brad is a softly spoken, well-dressed ex-PR exec, who retired to Wisconsin, where he pursues his incongruous interest in beekeeping and maple syrup. ‘I’m not concerned with going fast anymore, but I’m delighted that I used to be. Especially in that van.’
Brad, along with fellow PRDA members Oscar Koveleski and Tony Adamowicz, used a hopped-up Chevrolet Sportvan fitted with five 55-gallon drums of fuel. ‘The plan was to run without stopping. Of course, it didn’t work,’ says Niemcek. That thing was full of neat stuff, though. Our sponsor, Brigg’s Chevrolet, was run by Danny Zack who used to take a two-car racing team to LeMans. When he put our van together, he fitted the rear-end gears developed for the 2.3-mile Mulsanne straight, which were allegedly capable of giving his racing ’Vettes near-200mph top speeds. One time in San Bernardino County on a long downhill stretch we worked out that the van was going 128mph – either way, it was goddamn fast.’
As Brad talks, Steve’s defacing a Cannonball sticker, given to him by Brock, with a thick marker pen, adding an S and tucking it into his stonewash jeans. Brad laughs, shaking his head. Steve says: ‘I tell you boys what – it weren’t all fun on the Cannonball. I know you’ve got your own country club cross-country thing goin’ on, but when you’re runnin’ straight coast-to-coast it gets hard. The CB noise and constant pressure to drive fast but not break the car gets into your psyche, man. It’s real stress.’
Brad adds: ‘Yeah, it’s not all fun. Steve Durst, my co-pilot in ’72, wore white jeans, and by the end of the drive his thighs were black where he’d been rubbing them anxiously. Still, though – I kept coming back for more.’ Steve adds: ‘God yes. I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up, but damn – I hope it’s something like the Cannonball.’
Following our appointment and thorough exploration of the diner’s breakfast menu, we leave Indy wholly nourished and continue along the I70 towards Kansas City, eight hours away. Mark sets cruise control to 95mph, Brock spots for cops and I try everything to get to sleep, failing dimly – even when they’re not making any noise, I can hear the radar detector and CB with searing clarity. It’s not just Yogi that suffered noise fatigue. Barely sentient but very much awake, I cock my head, look out onto the plain of bonnet and lifelessly consume mileage until we reach Kansas. We collapse in keenly priced digs after 36 hours without proper sleep.
After 12 hours of desperately necessary rest, we plan the following day’s route over breakfast muffins that look like they’ve been sick on themselves. ‘We gotta avoid R10 and R40,’ says Brock. ‘A lot of drugs come in from Mexico down there and the police are red-hot on speeding. If you look conspicuous and you’re going fast, you’ll get in a lot of shit very quickly – we look conspicuous. Let’s drop down after Denver and take the Barstow cut-off to Vegas; my dad used that route in ’71.’ The reasoning sounds brilliantly theatrical. I concur with a gruff ‘uh-huh’ in a poor attempt to mask my excitement.
Brock joins the I70, levering off gravity with the Challenger’s 400lb ft-strong supply of torque. Within minutes we’re on the receiving end of more CB compliments. ‘Shit, son – that’s one helluva ride.’ I can’t resist grabbing the microphone, adopt an appalling American accent and replying, ‘Thankya, good buddy.’ Stony silence. Brock starts laughing. The CB crackles again, ‘We don’t say that around here.’ Brock’s in hysterics. ‘You realise you just called him gay, right?’ Umm, no. I did not. ‘When you say “good buddy” to a trucker it sorta means you want to hook up with him.’ How awkward. I suggest we pick up the pace a bit. Brock chuckles and Bramley cries with laughter, while the speedo nudges 100mph.
Putting a safe distance between the Challenger and the strange man I accidently offered myself to, we pull in to a beautifully desolate, unmanned gas stop, situated a few yards away from a deserted motel complex. Brock and Bramley navigate the lavatories, I try Yogi’s trick instead. Not as easy as it sounds.
Gassed up, I quickly realise that Kansas offers little visual sustenance, just endless cornfields. Brock suggests speeding to pass the time. One ten, 120, 125… My palms start sweating. Lucky I’m not wearing white jeans. Brock says, ‘Competitors used to drive like this for 36 straight hours. It’s unbelievable.’ The CB crackles. ‘D’you see that Challenger movin’?!’ The games up. Brock advises. ‘The cruisers will have heard that. Dip in the slow lane and relax for a while. We’re getting bad press.’
Bramley’s up next and Brock talks him through the speeding fine structure. ‘Fifteen over’s quite expensive, 20 over’s really expensive and beyond 100mph it gets uncomfortable.’
Despite tethered speeds, we make Denver ahead of schedule. Brock hunts for steak while Bramley and I take the car into the intricate network of empty mountain roads to experiment with adhesion. He concludes it grips lots, then not at all. After despatching 2mm of tyre tread, we return to the downbeat motel, sleep, wake up and get back on the road, bobbing through Colorado’s breathtaking peaks at a respectable pace until the mountains dissolve in the rear-view.
We dive off I70 onto the two-lane R191 towards Moab, Utah. We’re in Marlboro country. And out of petrol. Brock reliably informs me that we sailed past a sign stating there was no fuel for 40 miles. Buttocks are clenched, speed reduced and some hasty mathematics suggest that if we can up our current 24mpg we stand a chance of arriving under our own steam. We roll into town an hour later, on fumes.
At the gas station, Brock says: ‘Wait a coupla miles ’till it gets quiet and we really test the Dodge. It’s a traditional high-speed haunt for Cannonballers. In ’71 Dan Gurney did 50 miles straight at 130mph. He got caught, mind. No arrest, though. Lucky guy.’
After 20 minutes, the topography collapses inwards like an enormous failed meringue. ‘This is it…’ says Brock. ‘Speed Limit Enforced By Aircraft’ signs throw themselves behind us. Bramley opens the sunroof. ‘I’ll check for planes. Gun it.’ I kick down the car at 75mph and it charges to its 155mph limit with psychotic determination. Sweating drops of super-condensed fear, I’m tittering with nervous, inappropriate delight. Mark’s scanning the sky, occasionally leaning over to check the sat-nav’s speedometer. The Challenger’s in Sport mode – stiffened damping barely keeps my organs internal – but it feels composed and unphased. Me, less so. It’s the only time I see Brock asleep.
Steaming past minuscule Native American settlements, dead livestock and Monument Valley on R193, we dip off the freeway. ‘Best keep a low profile – let’s change roads,’ suggests Brock. Off R60 we swerve onto the 98, then the 89 towards R15 and Las Vegas. Temptation to explore a gas station advertising Lotto, Ammo, Guns, Beer gets the better of us. We entertain the idea of buying pistols, think better of it and forge forth.
On the I18 we’re driving at a civilised 90 when something big, red and mobile looms into view. It’s a Dodge Viper on Quebec plates, with another close behind. Gesticulations of mutual appreciation follow, the driver wags his finger forward, drops a gear and lunges ahead. The grey Viper follows, waving me to join in. I follow.
Simultaneously, we realise we’ve not booked the evening’s accommodation. Brock’s nominated to make the call – I’m busy street racing and Bramley’s dangling precariously out of the window taking pictures and constantly demanding I get closer to the Vipers. With wind noise borderline intolerable, Mark continuously shouting and Brock gently asking if they have anything cheaper, I’m forced to laugh at this preposterous situation. Having hung up, Brock cackles, leaning forward ‘It doesn’t get more Cannonball than this, fellas.’
A night of semi-reckless spending’s followed by an easy drive into LA. Despite lengthy warnings about speeding in the city, Brock betrays his own propaganda to reach our final appointments with Tony Adamowicz and American racing hero, Dan Gurney. Both brim with anecdotes, but our eagerness to cross the finish line is palpable. Farewells are exchanged and, after consuming a truly joy-withering burger, we charge towards the Portofino Inn – Cannonball’s original finish line.
The ocean occasionally peers through LA’s vastness, and it’s only then that I visualise the full scale of our trip from sea to shining sea. We’ve driven across a continent. Really bloody fast.
Like all of the Cannonball vets we’ve met, the neon-lit Portofino sign is delightfully unassuming. We pull up, stop and stretch while Brock prods lazily at the clod of bills in his pocket. ‘Beer?’ God yes. He finishes his drink and offers a summation with such neat edges I struggle to think of a better conclusion to our trip. ‘If only for a few days, we paid a damn good tribute to the Cannonball, and America’s unfettered open road.’
Our adventure spanned 4126 miles, 13 states, six days and 161 gallons of increasingly expensive premium fuel. The car, a Moparised Dodge Challenger, performed with remarkable poise and, despite its humble 300C underwear, won us hundreds of CB and face-to-face compliments. Admittedly, there were several new, voluble rattles when we delivered the car back to LAX airport. But its ability to carry three amply proportioned men in relative comfort, deploy its Herculean thrust and drink fuel should never be underestimated.
Combined with Brock Yates Jr’s substantial contacts book, it also afforded us opportunities to meet people who took part in and created the Cannonball Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash – unquestionably, the world’s most notorious outlaw road race. CAR’s sincerest thanks go to Brock for his assistance in assembling and realising this shambolic journey.