How the Cannonball Run Worked

Subsequent Cannonball Runs

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

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More Great Links


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