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From Sea To Shining Sea


By Timothy Carlson

SOMETIME AROUND the 26th of April, a selected number of automotive sports-men/madmen will take off from a New York City garage in the third Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea memorial trophy race--a no holds barred dash to an as yet unnamed destination near Los Angeles. Covering the approximately 2,800 miles in various times ranging from the absolute record of 35 hours 50 minutes, now held by Brock Yates and Dan Gurney in a Ferrari Daytona in the first race held November, 1972, to more indefinite periods depending on the astuteness of the many state police across the country who will be alerted when media coverage leaks out that the pack has started. During the 1973 race, the Ohio governor, alerted by ABC television coverage and several national radio hookups, declared that "Anybody cannonballing through this state" would be caught and fried, thus standing up for the rights of all his citizens.

Perhaps someone on his staff had read the Brock Yates article in Sports Illustrated or in Car and Driver, or perhaps had read the Yates book, "Sunday Driver," all of which mentioned the Yates-Gurney time from New York to Columbus--six hours. Yates said most of the cruising had been at about 80 to 90 mph, with a brief stretch on a western highway at 170 mph. The average speed, including gas stops and speeding delays, was about 80 mph. One incredible thing, though, made this race more than a case of boring elitism, Grand Prix pilot Gurney winning a hoked up race through Howard Johnson land. The Ferrari was pressed by a Cadillac driven by two Cambridge based lawyers, it finished only 10 or so minutes behind, and it was a Drive Away deal. The owner said he didn't want the car driven after dark and stipulated that it should never be driven at 60 mph. The lawyers kept the promise as best they could--it was driven after dark only once and they never went 60 mph. The only problem they had was deciding what to do with the car until the delivery date 6 days later.

The rest of that inaugural field was equally amazing. A Traveco Mobile Home finished in 51 hours, equipped with special racing tires, a chef, and 200 gallon gas tanks. The crew, while not sharing driving, had an intense poker game going on all across the Kansas heartlands, the Arizona desert, and into the first finishing point, a parking lot at Redondo Beach.

Trucks, motorcycles, and any other vehicle that was ready to go, for no prize money, and that knew the founder, took off. The response to the first story was so great that by the time of the second annual event in November 1973, twice the number of original entrants lined up--over thirty--and ABC and the radio people were there with klieg lights and cross country hookups. The challenge was even greater this time around. Beyond the pressure from regular patrolmen there was added the declarations of the Ohio governor and another governor along the route. Several teams took to subterfuges: one had a real epileptic ride with them as they drove in white coats. There was a letter from real doctors saying that the boy would die if he didn't get to the West Coast to a special clinic in time, and for medical reasons, couldn't fly. It worked. Other entrants dressed in priestly garb, and there were other methods as well. (I knew of one fellow, who although he never heard of this race, went across the country in an ambulance at 110 mph. At one point he got a police escort to the nearest hospital, and managed to lose the car at an interchange.)

The Traveco Mobile home, driven by NASCAR stock car pilot Joe Frasson and other members of the Bolus and Snopes (named after the Faulknerian family--auto racing is a crass sport and Snopes symbolizes pretty well a lot of what most auto racing is like) Racing Team, managed to finish with a flourish in 44 hours. According the B & S co-driver, a racing photographer, the mobile home hired a police escort from the county line to the finish for the standard rate of $75 thus missing all the red lights and other foulups that might beset other less well-planned entries. "There we were," said Parker, "fugitives from several state governors, finishing up an illegal and supposedly-a menace-to-society race under police escort!"

BUT THERE was an ominous note to the second race, begun sometime around the beginning of the oil boycott, but perhaps before the 55 mph speed limit. Several entrants showed up at the garage that nobody knew. Doped up and pilled up and on the wrong side of the thin line that defined the difference between the Teddy Rooseveltism and anti-Naderism and essentially libertarian philosophy of Yates and the dangerous Hunter Thompson nihilism that no one but children and Hells Angels take seriously. "I mean there was guys rolling up to the line with unvented 50 gallon drums of gas rolling around loose in the back of vans. That's 200 gallons of explosion ready to go off as these ninny jackrabbits pile through towns. And through stoplights. I could just see it--piling into a school bus, killing fiteen chillun," said the Bolus and Snopes man. This year Brock decided he wouldn't have any of those guys." Yates has set up an elaborate screening system. Potential entrants must send in $5 to Cannonball Enterprises at a P.O. Box near Yates's New York country home. At last count, 159 inquiries had been received, and nine or ten had guaranteed entries.

If accepted for the race, entrants must pay a $50 entry fee for insurance, and $200 to charity. Everybody pays for transport and gas. Plus the traffic fines, which are not inconsiderable. The Cadillac boys had about a half a dozen apprehensions, which cost them dear time in their race with the Ferrari. And one entrant was stopped at gunpoint for looking suspicious in Arizona.

There is also a false starting date--April 26th--circulating to take the lawmen off the scent. Only bonafide entrants will get the true time and place.

One of the Bolus and Snopes boys said that Yates holds the race for several reasons, many of which are philosophic, as "Brock is a complicated man." One of them is to show that speed limits as they are now set up are an infringement upon liberty and good sense as well. One contestant cited the fact that the top speed limits for the country are 55 mph, whether on a two lane country road or on a six lane interstate designed for speeds, well, of the Cannonball. "They tried speed limits in Germany, where gas costs maybe $2 a gallon, and finally had to stop the restrictions after protests. After removing restrictions, the percentage of accidents went down. An American survey dons by the state police shows that the natural flow of traffic is still 71 mph. Another thing is that police manpower is wasted trying to enforce the 55 mph limit. What Brock believes is that drivers who know what they're doing are no danger driving at high speeds on the interstates." In fact, he said, they're safer, because they're paying more attention to what they're doing. Cruising around at 55 mph, people lapse into zombiehood, an Orwellian coma, lulled into deadly unconscious by the AM radios.

ESSENTIALLY, this race is another chapter in the closing of the West. No more ranches, no more cowboys, soon--no more cars.

The cars once could get an intelligent man over ground in a calculated way at a high rate of speed, and the contest between man and road was like a living sport--taking place within the framework of his working, necessary life. Not in an artificial arena like the tennis court or ski slope or bowling lanes, but like the old cross country road races, this would be a test of who could get the fastest from point A to point B with only his wits and his car to get him there. The race would confer the status of outlaw upon all contestants, sure, but these were men who saw the obstacles of radar-equipped police much like Hillary saw the Himalayas in winter. They are ready to accept the consequences of their actions, and they believe they have made a rational choice.

This isn't just a race, it's Hobbesean men racing over and intersecting the fates of those poor Rousseauian slobs who made their pitiful bargain surrendering essential freedoms for the Social Security benefits of their Social Contract. Are these despicable men cousins of the NRA and Birchers, neo-Nazis ready to tromp on the right of the rest of the highway passengers to avoid the shock of a Traveco Mobile Home with mad dog Joe Frasson at the wheel rattling by their VW at 110 mph? Or are they sportsmen and liberators, by their brave example, putting their drivers licenses on the line, trying to get us all out of the prisons we are in? Rousseau noted the motto over the Genoa jails--Libertas--with favor, believing that men who would trample on the rights of others could only know true liberty by forcibly being shown the error of their ways.

Some say this race will be like the infamous Grand Prix of Gibraltar, in which no one finished. That mythical race was a comedy record by Peter Ustinov, but the Cannonball Baker is going to happen. The entrants have alternate routes, Citizens Band radios (Parker noted that over 6 million Americans have CB radios, a trend, he says, which marks a healthy sign of American individualsm and revolt against the speed laws) and new tactics, still secret, ready for this race, which was postponed from the regular November date because they didn't want to be sitting ducks for the police.

Intelligence units from various state police are out to hear word of the race, and one could foresee things like scenes from Vanishing Point, where a lone White Car took to the desert in a run from the police, or Sugarland Express, with chains of police cars seeking out the field like hounds after the foxes.

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