Burt Reynolds had audiences laughing, but "Cannonball" writer Brock Yates wanted a more serious take.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

How the Cannonball Run Worked

Let's take a trip back to 1981. Disco was dead, Margaret Thatcher was the Prime Minister of England and a former actor named Ronald Reagan took the office of U.S. Presidency, just as a former peanut farmer named Jimmy Carter made his exit. Anchorman Walter Cronkite resigned his post at the CBS Evening News desk, and the first recognized AIDS cases were made public in California. Major League Baseball went on strike in early June, but the spirits of Americans would soon be lifted when actor Burt Reynolds sped across the silver screen in a souped-up ambulance in the hit film "The Cannonball Run."

To most people, the movie was a funny take on a fictional cross-country car race. But gear heads and auto racing enthusiasts around the world knew that the movie wasn't fictional at all. It was based on a real "outlaw" car race that ran from New York to California a total of four times in 1971, 1972, 1975 and 1979. The film's director, Hal Needham, was an experienced Hollywood stuntman who actually took part in the final Cannonball. The writer, Brock Yates, was an editor for Car and Driver magazine and also had another small qualification to his name: He founded the race and won the first Cannonball Run in 1971.

The Cannonball wasn't sanctioned, wasn't publicized and received very little press coverage at the time. And while the race ran only five times, it has spawned a number of imitators over the years, including one in Europe that isn't even a race at all. Today's clogged interstate system in the United States and the 55 mile per hour speed limit imposed in many parts of the country make a Cannonball Run next to impossible these days. But that can't stop us from reliving the glory years when the open roads were more conducive to an illicit auto race.

Erwin "Cannon Ball" Baker road across the United States in 1914 on an Indian motorcycle much like this one.

Paul Thompson/FPG/Stringer/Getty Images

The Cannonball Run's Start

The Cannonball Run didn't originally start out as a race. In 1971, there was a looming change on the horizon -- the institution of a nationwide maximum speed limit of 55 miles per hour on American interstates. Automotive journalist Brock Yates had a problem with the impending law and set out across country in a Dodge van to try to prove a point that high-speed travel across the United States by car was possible. He was quoted as saying, "Good drivers in good automobiles could employ the American interstate system the same way that Germans were using their Autobahn." Germany was and still is known for its famous high-speed highway system that has no imposed speed limit.

Yates and a crew of three men drove 2,858 miles (4,599 km) from New York to Los Angeles in the Dodge van in 40 hours, 51 minutes at an average speed of 70 miles per hour (112.6 kph). At the end of the run, Yates thought it might be a good idea to do it again and compete with other drivers, and The Cannonball Run was born. The full name of the race was the "Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining Sea Memorial Trophy Dash." Many people referred to it as the "Cannonball Dash," and it has since become most familiar, due in large part to the movie, as "The Cannonball Run."

The race was named for race car driver Erwin G. "Cannon Ball" Baker. Baker was famous for making more than 140 drives across the United States, starting way back in 1914. That trip was on an Indian motorcycle and took a whopping 14 days. Baker would later become the first commissioner of NASCAR and is an inductee in the Motorcycle Hall of Fame. Because of his fame for making trips from New York to California and Canada to Mexico, Yates wanted to pay homage to the racing legend. Even though Baker passed away in 1960, Yates was advised to change "Cannon Ball" to "Cannonball" in order to avoid any legal complications.

Dan Gurney, winning co-driver in the first Cannonball Run, at the French Grand Prix.

Klemantaski Collection/Contributor/Getty Images

The First Cannonball Run

Even though there were many entries into the original Cannonball Run, only eight cars made it all the way to the starting point to participate. The first race started at the Red Ball Garage in New York City and ended at the Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach, Calif. The entry fee was a mere $50 plus another $200 to be donated to charity. The rules were as follows:

  • Participants could pick their own vehicle and route.
  • Entrants could also choose their leave time, within a 24-hour window.
  • Teams could have as many drivers as they wanted but could only use one car.

Aside from that, there were no rules. Participants could bring along 55-gallon (208-liter) drums of gasoline if they wanted, and some did. They could use radar detectors, take stops or drive straight through with the help of illicit drugs. Once you punched your time card at the Red Ball Garage, it was all up to you how you got to Redondo Beach. Some racers played it safe initially, preferring to keep it tame through states notorious for highway patrolmen, such as Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Ohio. The reasoning was that it was better to keep it around the speed limit in those states because a traffic stop could really hurt your time. Once the drivers hit the open roads of the Great Plains, all bets were off and they made up for any delays through the speed traps in the East and Midwest.

Yates was able to convince legendary driver Dan Gurney to assist him as co-pilot in a Ferrari Daytona on loan from a local car dealer. There were three vans in the pool of eight entries in the original race, and one team drove a Cadillac Sedan de Ville that belonged to an elderly man who had placed an ad in the paper to get his car from New York to California. His one stipulation was that it not be driven more than 75 miles per hour (120 kph). The "Caddie" ended up finishing in third place, at an average speed of 79.3 miles per hour (127.6 kph).

In the end, Yates and Gurney won the initial race, posting a time of 35 hours and 54 minutes. That made for an average speed of 80.8 miles per hour (130 kph). Four of the eight entrants received a total of 12 speeding tickets, including one to Gurney for doing 135 miles per hour (217 kph). The first race didn't get much press, with only Sports Illustrated and the Los Angeles Times running short pieces on the unusual trek. It was the L.A .Times article where Gurney made his now famous tongue-in-cheek quote, "At no time did we exceed 175 mph."

Actor Steve McQueen was the first choice for the lead role in the movie version of "The Cannonball Run."

Keystone/Staff/Getty Images

Subsequent Cannonball Runs

After the success of the first race, word got around the car community, and the next four races had more drivers clamoring for a spot. The second Cannonball Run was held the following year, had 25 entries and saw Brock Yates finish in second place to a Cadillac. The third race was delayed until 1975 and moved to spring to avoid the harsh winter conditions drivers faced with the November start. A Ferrari Dino won the third race and beat the record time set by Yates and Gurney in the first race by one minute. This time around, Time Magazine ran a story on the Cannonball and brought it more into the forefront of mainstream media.

Yates was pretty much finished with the race at this point but was convinced by his director/stuntman friend Hal Needham to write a script for an authorized movie version that Needham could helm. In order to get it right, they decided to hold one more Cannonball Run, with Yates and Needham as a driving team. So in April 1979, the last official Cannonball Run race was held with a record 46 entries. Much of what happened in the final race ended up in the movie, but in a comedic way. Yates originally wrote a script for Steve McQueen to star in, and it had a more realistic, non-comedic take on the race. McQueen passed away, and Needham's good friend Burt Reynolds filled in. "The Cannonball Run" went on to rake in more than $70 million at the box office, the seventh highest grossing movie of 1981 [source: Box Office Mojo].

Speed was important, but many of the entries in the final race depended more on outsmarting cops than outrunning them. Some of the tricks the teams used were included in the movie:

  • Yates and Needham used a fake ambulance, complete with Yates' wife as a patient being rushed to Los Angeles.
  • Three drivers posed as priests, as Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin did in the movie version.
  • One team faked their way through the country as a hazardous materials truck.
  • A team of three women dressed in skintight jumpsuits to distract male highway patrolmen.
  • One wealthy entrant rode in the back of his Rolls Royce and left the driving to his chauffeur.

Out of the 46 original teams in the final race, 42 finished the journey. The winning car was a Jaguar XJ-S driven by Dave Heinz and Dave Yarborough. They shattered the old record with a winning time of 32 hours and 51 minutes, an average speed of 87 miles per hour (140 kph). In all, more than 50 speeding tickets were handed out in the 1979 race, and there was only one minor accident -- a broken suspension from tapping an exit ramp guard rail. As for Yates and Needham, their ambulance finally gave out and broke down about an hour outside of Palm Springs. They towed it across the finish line.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks ArticlesMore Great LinksSources
  • "Cannonball Baker." Hdart.com. 2009.http://www.hdart.com/canbakstor.html
  • "Erwin 'Cannonball' Baker." Motorcyclemuseum.org. 2009. http://www.motorcyclemuseum.org/halloffame/hofbiopage.asp?id=15
  • "The Cannonball Run." Imdb.com. 2009.http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082136/
  • "The Year of Living Vicariously." Johnmikes.com. 2009.http://johnmikes.home.comcast.net/~johnmikes/cannonball/index.htm
  • "Welcome to the Cannonball Run Europe 2009." Cannonballruneruope.co.uk. 2009.http://www.cannonballruneurope.co.uk/
  • Graeber, Charles. "The Pedal-to-the-Metal, Totally Illegal, Cross-Country Sprint for Glory." Wired.com. Oct. 16, 2007.http://www.wired.com/cars/coolwheels/magazine/15-11/ff_cannonballrun
  • Niemcek, Brad. "Gurney/Yates Cop First Cannonball." Competition Press & Autoweek. Dec. 11, 1971.http://www.allamericanracers.com/cannonball.html
  • Smith, Steven Cole. "The cross-country trophy dash redefined excitement and, some would say, automotive irresponsibility." Edmunds.com. Nov. 16, 2006.http://www.edmunds.com/insideline/do/Features/articleId=117576
  • The Cannonball Run." Boxofficemojo.com. 2009.http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=cannonballrun.htm
  • Yates, Brock. "The Cannonball Express." Car and Driver. 1975. Onelapofamerica.com. 2009.http://www.onelapofamerica.com/cannonball/index.shtml?cball=article1975