How the Cannonball Run Worked

The First Cannonball Run

Dan Gurney, winning co-driver in the first Cannonball Run, at the French Grand Prix.
Dan Gurney, winning co-driver in theĀ first Cannonball Run, at the French Grand Prix.
Klemantaski Collection/Contributor/Getty Images

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."