In this month: May 1971 Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash

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That’s a long title for a long race from the east coast to the west coast of America. This unusual idea was inspired by the pioneering cross-country adventures of early 20th Century motorcycle rider and racer Erwin George ‘Cannonball’ Baker (above). During his racing career Erwin traversed the United States, point to point, a total of 143 times – a remarkable 550,000 miles in all.


The modern ‘Memorial’ run was conceived by automotive journalist Brock Yates and his Car and Driver editor Steve Smith in 1971. Not only was it an excuse for having some fun, the race was also used as a celebration of the United States Interstate Highways System and to protest against restrictive motoring laws that would soon be imposed.


Erwin George
Erwin George

Using the same principle of riding coast-to-coast in the shortest time possible, there was no specific route. Any vehicle was allowed, with any number of drivers, and no maximum speed was decreed. One stipulation, though, was that the vehicle used would be driven the entire distance and neither substituted for another near the finish nor transported part of the distance. If drivers received a speeding ticket during the race it was their responsibility, but they would not be disqualifed.

Starting from Darien, Connecticut, to the north-east of New York, the run headed west to the Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach, California. The first run, starting on 3 May 1971, was not much of a race because only Yates and Smith in their Dodge Custom took part. Their drive was then replicated a further four times, gaining notoriety but also – surprisingly – much public admiration for the feat. The official record for the run was set in the final year, 1979, by a Jaguar XJ-S; drivers Heinz and Yarborough set a time of 32 hours and 51 minutes. The best quote, though, was by Dan Gurney, who won with a Ferrari Daytona in November 1971. ‘At no time did we exceed 175mph,’ he deadpanned.


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