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How a coast-to-coast bet turned into the Cannonball Run

A $50 bet made by Horatio Nelson Jackson in 1903 in San Francisco became the forerunner to one of America’s great challenges involving the automobile.

Driving a Winton touring car. Jackson was joined by a mechanic and a goggle-wearing bulldog in his coast-to-coast, two-month journey.

Since then, many attempts have been made as the Cannonball Run captured the imagination of speed demons worldwide in pursuit of breaking the record leading to new and creative ways of avoiding the attention of America’s constabulary.

The Cannonball Run as it was coined during the 1970s even spawned a (dreadful, but box office hit) movie.

Named after Erwin ‘Cannonball’ Baker, the Run’s interest gained momentum in the 1970s when Car and Driver writer Brock Yates devised plans to anyone who’d listen, but it was initially brushed off as too risky. It wasn’t until former co-worker Steven Smith’s interest was piqued the event started to build momentum.

The plan was simple, clock out at the Red Ball Garage in New York (where Car and Driver housed its test fleet) and clock in at the Portofino Inn in Rodondo Beach California, with the first to arrive the winner.

Yates and Smith were able to get their hands on a Dodge van named ‘Moon Trash II’ featured a variety of modifications, including a fridge, but were unable to find another team to compete against. This didn’t stop the quartet made up of Yates’ son Brock Jr and Jim Williams headed on the road, making the finish line in 40 hours and 51 minutes. A disappointing result.

For 1972, the stakes were raised when Yates acquired a Ferrari for the event and also welcomed champion racing driver Dan Gurney as co-driver only confirmed the night before. Eight teams competed, but it was Gurney and Yates taking the win by lowering the record to 35 hours and 54 minutes.

The pushback to the event was all in the past as 37 teams at one point were registered in 1973 featuring models as eclectic as a motorhome, stretch limousine, Honda 600, Porsche 911 and Yates had a Dodge Challenger.

A storm spoilt the record attempt, but the race was close with the top three teams split by just 17 minutes.

Economic factors revolving around the fuel crisis put a stop to the race as well as the planned movie, but only until 1975.

A Ferrari 246 Dino GTS won the event and lowered the record again, though this time by just a sole minute.

Run again in 1979, a Jaguar XJS won as law enforcement began to crackdown on the Cannonball Run. Despite attracting plenty of attention from police, the black XJS broke the record by arriving at Portofino in 32 hours and 51 minutes. Of course, disguises and improved technology such as scanners were used to ward off the police.

A film on the Cannonball Run had been attempted before, but another was made in 1981 and is regarded as the worst movie of all time despite a star-studded cast led by Burt Reynolds.

The Cannonball Run was complete, but this hasn’t stopped others from breaking the record. Achieved in 2021, Arne Toman, Doug Tabbutt and Dunadel Daryoush in a well disguised Audi S6 hold the new record at a 25 hours 39 seconds.

Other events in the style of the Cannonball Run have been run worldwide, including here in Australia where it ended in tragedy when two Japanese competitors crashed into a marshalling post driving a Ferrari F50.

Check out the latest record setting run below