Cannonball Run Founder Dies, New “Cannonball Run” Spits on His Grave

Legal Car Rally Trades On Legendary Illegal Race, For Profit

It takes a lot of nerve to spit on a dead man’s grave, especially when his body is still warm. When that man is Cannonball Run founder Brock Yatesthe most important person in American automotive history who never ran a car company — it takes someone lacking in basic decency, with no respect for the man or his monumental contribution to car culture.

As I write this, several dozen sports cars are on their way from Lenox, Massachusetts to Key West, Florida, where they will abandon their cars, have a party, then fly to Havana for another party.

Their achievement? A celebration of exploitation, ignorance and commoditized gravitas. Their transgression? Calling their event the Cannonball Run.

Theirs may not be a legal crime — lawyers are allegedly exchanging letters — but it is without any doubt a cultural one, for which they should be held accountable. If you see a car manufactured after 1979 with “Cannonball Run” stickers, it is on an event that is the enemy of everything Brock Yates stood for, and of American car culture itself.

Shun them, for their event has nothing to do with the original Cannonball Run except for its name.

Car & Driver

August 1975 Car & Driver, Brock Yates

What Was The Original Cannonball Run?

An illegal race that ran from 1971 to 1979, from New York (and once, Connecticut) to the Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach, California. Rules? There were no rules. The entry fee was $250. The cars drove as fast as they could in protest of the 55mph speed limit — non-stop except for gas — and as a defiant statement of Brock Yates’ hatred of what he saw as the encroaching government’s nanny state.

Actually, there were some rules:

“All competitors will drive any vehicle of their choosing, over any route, at any speed they judge practical, between the starting point and destination. The competitor finishing with the lowest elapsed time is the winner.”

Why? Yates wrote extensively about the political and philosophical motivations behind the Cannonball, and named his event after Erwin “Cannonball” Baker, who set 143 cross-country driving records between 1915 and 1933.

The event wasn’t even called “Cannonball Run” until 1981, when its official name — The Erwin “Cannonball” Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash — had to be shortened for the movie starring Burt Reynolds and Farrah Fawcett.

The fastest time set on the Cannonball Run? 32 hours, 51 minutes, in 1979.

Golden Harvest

Opening Title Sequence of Cannonball Run (1981)

What Defined The Cannonball Run?

Politics. Defiance. Endurance. Speed. Struggle. No stopping except for fuel and repairs. A route from coast-to-coast. An icepick in the face of convention.

What/Who Are The Spiritual Successors To The Cannonball Run?

  1. Brock Yates’ One Lap of America (1984-) — Track series linked by interstate transit stages. Organized by Brock Yates, and now Brock, Jr.
  2. U.S. Express (1980-1983) — Cannonball Run rules. Organized by Cannonball Run veteran Rick Doherty. 10-15 vehicles. Fastest time was 32 hours, 7 minutes.
  3. Record Run (2006) — David Maher & myself. One car. Time: 31 hours, 4 minutes.
  4. Record Run (2013) — Ed Bolian & Dave Black. One car. Time: 28 hours, 50 minutes.
  5. The 2904 (2007-) — Cannonball rules, restricted to cars under $2,904. Times? Secret.
  6. C2C Express (2013-) — Cannonball rules, restricted to pre-1979 cars. Times? Secret. My colleague at The Drive, Ben Preston, just did this. So did Ed Bolian and John Ficarra, organizer of the 2904. Talk about reciprocal respect.

Virtually everyone who has done any of the events listed above has met. Many of us are friends. Not one of us is on the new "Cannonball Run." None of us have ever tried to take over the Cannonball Run mythology. Instead, we joined it.

What about the Gumball 3000, Bullrun and Goldrush events?

I’ve done many of these, and enjoyed them. These aren’t races, although entrants like myself have treated them as such. These "rallies" are just glorified road trips — on public roads, with checkpoints, parties & stickers — inspired by the Cannonball Run and Gumball Rally films more than the Cannonball Run race itself. The Gumball 3000 has even run from NY to LA, and continues to trade on confusion over whether there actually was an illegal race in the 1970’s called the Gumball Rally, which there wasn’t. Some entrants think these resemble the original Cannonball Run, and organizers — happy to profit off this conflation — rarely dissuade them, but none of them have ever directly co-opted the name of a real world race, legal or illegal.

Then you have the shameless and untimely arrival of THIS, less than a week after Yates’ death...

What Is The New “Cannonball Run”?

A rally organized by men-who-shall-not-be-named, because I don’t want to give them the satisfaction of having applied for a trademark for “Cannonball Run” while Yates was dying in a hospice, then launching their event while his body was still warm. Also, for holding their finish line party in Communist Havana, where, if Yates was alive, he’d be waiting for them with a gun. Along with Hal Needham, Erwin Baker, F1 legend Dan Gurney, and everyone else who did the original race.

I won’t link to the interloper’s site, but here’s a chart I created highlighting the differences between Yates' beloved event, and the new one:

Alex Roy

*Take your pick: 1) According to eyewitness accounts. 1A) Some original event entrants had individual car sponsors stickers, new event cars wore event sponsor stickers, in addition to individual sponsors (if present), according to pictures. 2) Accounts vary. 3) We’ll never know for sure. 4) Discounts available, allegedly. 5) If the Bullrun or Gumball 3000 are guides. 6) Or so I was told. 7) Opinion, meet satire. 8) A lot of op, some ed. **Capitalism isn't necessarily bad, but it wasn't the inspiration for the 1971-79 race. It sure seems to be for the new one, though.

I could write 10,000 words of opinion about the steaming pile that is the new “Cannonball Run”, but I’ll hold my ire and only address two categories, the legal and the semantic.

Do they have one or more trademarks? Maybe, apparently for non-racing entertainment events and merchandise sales. Are they in legal hot water? Who knows? I hear the organizers have deep pockets. One of them is allegedly a trademark attorney. How convenient. Sources tell me “the lawyers are on it.” Brock Yates, Jr. and widow Pamela have been quiet. Warner Brothers has a remake in development.

I actually met one of the organizers this past summer, another man I shall not name. He seemed like a nice guy. He knew little of Yates or the original Cannonball, or pretended to. He also appeared to know little of the successor events, or of Ed Bolian or myself. We discussed the possibility of cooperation. The idea was floated that I might even attend the start and say something about safety. I was curious but hesitant, and wanted to learn more about Brock Jr’s position first. After we shook hands, I realized the shame and betrayal I would feel if I lent them any legitimacy, especially in light of Yates’ illness.

Trust me, I’d LOVE to sell more Alex Roy books and merch, but not at the expense of my soul and self-respect.

The legalities ultimately don’t matter. A trademark does not cultural ownership make. Getting one over on the Yates family does not create legitimacy. The Cannonball Run belongs not only to Brock Yates, but to everyone and every event honoring the spirit of the past, as Yates did when naming his event after Erwin “Cannonball” Baker.

Who wouldn't want to exploit the past to make buck? Amazingly, millions of car guys, thousands of race and rally veterans and fans, pretty much everyone except for the people behind the new "Cannonball Run."

The “Cannonball Run” Site Semantics, Deconstructed

If Yates were here to see the new “Cannonball Run” website, he’d load up a Raptor full of Samsung Galaxy Note 7’s, install an R/C kit and send it down to their offices in Calabasas. The site — with its obfuscation and omissions — tells the whole story of where their hearts lie. Whomever wrote this had to have had help with every word, because the hand of legal advice is unmistakable. Maybe someone's dad? Or maybe a $5k/month publicist?

You know who didn't need a publicist? Brock Yates. 

Defiance? Politics? Meet submission and certificate of participation.

Siri, begin analysis now:

 

Alex Roy/Cannonball Run

The homepage, depicting a car with a sticker guaranteeing they would never finish an illegal cross-country race.

Alex Roy/Cannonball Run

"...became known as the 'Cannonball Run' and thus gave birth to the car rally."

WRONG.

Nice picture of Erwin Baker, who would kick you in the face with a muddy boot. Also, the Cannonball Run didn’t become known as the Cannonball Run until 1981, when the movie came out, written by...Brock Yates, who also appears in it as himself. And no, Baker’s drives did not give birth to the car rally, by any definition. They gave birth to illegal endurance racing, like Yates’ event.

To be more specific, "rallies" as the new "Cannonball Run" organizers define them — as in week-long road trips costing five-figures and up, with supercars, parties, minor celebrities, models, strippers and DJ's, — didn't exist in such form until the first Gumball 3000 in 1999.

To suggest that Erwin "Cannonball" Baker's achievements birthed anything like the rallies we see today is like kicking an expectant mother in the stomach with a stolen Gucci loafer.

For profit.

Alex Roy/Cannonball Run

What’s that on the left? The Polish Racing Drivers Association (PRDA) van — one of the most famous vehicles to participate in 1971 Cannonball Run — driven by race driver Tony Adamowicz, who died four days before the new “Cannonball Run” left for Havana, an event conveniently omitted from this fractured narrative.

“We...want to drive unknown open roads, explore new cities and...share…”

Erwin and Yates didn’t want to share anything with anyone but how they crossed the finish line first. “There” being California.

“All cars and their drivers are created equal…”

Absolute nonsense, and both Baker and Yates would have drop-kicked that idea with a steel-tied motorcycle boot.

“We...embody the movement that Erwin started...”

Also nonsense. That movement is already well represented in other, cheaper events very similar to Yates' Cannonball. No veterans of those events are participating in yours. Most probably couldn't affort it, anyway. Movement? You’re spitting on it.

“...now we will carry the torch.”

Arrogant, presumptuous, and insulting. I also want to carry the torch. I could have registered the Cannonball Run trademark the day after I broke the Cannonball record ten years ago, but I didn’t. Nor did Ed Bolian, or anyone who knew Brock or has actually done anything in the spirit of Baker. All of us carry the torch — together — and we have nothing in common with you.

Alex Roy/Cannonball Run

“Cannonball Run’s history is about more than setting cross country records.”

WRONG. Setting records is ALL it was EVER about. It was an illegal race. Baker and Yates ONLY cared about setting records. Read Yates’s book. Or mine. Soon, Ed Bolian's. The word "Cannonball" itself is synonymous with moving/driving as fast as possible. Look it up. 

"It's about man and machine and our insatiable appetite to conquer the open road."

Insatiable appetite for the open road? Sounds like setting records to me. Except that in this crew being satiated only requires showing up in an expensive car. Conquering? The only thing being conquered is the toilet porcelain the morning after the prior night's steak and bottle service.

Alex Roy/Cannonball Run
Alex Roy/Facebook

“2016 Re-launch”

It might be a relaunch. If it was anything like the original, other than using the same name.

“After recently surpassing their centennial milestone, Cannonball Run is currently the oldest rally in existence.”

What the hell is this? Who exactly had their centennial milestone? It sure wasn't the "Cannonball Run" rally, which first occurred in October of 2016.

First use of the Cannonball Run name was in 1981 — when the movie was released depicting Yates’ 1971-1979 illegal race — and now Cannonball Run (or Cannonball) is commonly used to refer to those events.

There is no centennial other than that of Baker's first run, although there's no mention of what he did, or respect paid to that or any of his other records.

“...in the true spirit of Cannonball Baker…”

Clearly not.

“Cannonball Run Rally (CBRR) will separate itself from the rest by fully embracing a true customer service satisfaction ideology.”

Ah! The first combination of “Cannonball Run” and “Rally” that reveals the conflation of history and mythmaking! The “rest” are the other rallies these people want to compete with, since they’re clearly not competing with illegal races like the 2904 or C2C, which actually do honor the spirit of Yates/Baker.

“...true customer service satisfaction ideology.”

Talk about something Yates would have lit up with flamethrower. There is no customer service satisfaction in racing, legal or illegal. You win, or you lose. Customer service? That’s for the leisure and tourism business. In racing, customer service is for spectators.

“The namesake is back and without question, will prove to be the best.”

It’s back, all right, but I’ve got a lot questions. Starting with why would anyone want to be the best at co-opting something so easily googled, and inviting participants to get into bar fights with real Cannonball, Express, 2904 or C2C veterans for the rest of their lives?

"It's almost go time for the first Cannonball Run Rally!"

One more question. If they're celebrating their re-launch, why does their Facebook page say it's the "first Cannonball Run Rally"?

Cannonball Run

Your luggage will be carried for you? Baker didn’t have any luggage. Yates brought one change of clothes.

By the way, here’s the route for the original Cannonball Run and successor events:

Alex Roy/Cannonball Run
Alex Roy/Cannonball Run
Alex Roy/Cannonball Run
Wired

Here’s the map for my run, from Wired magazine...

Here’s the new “Cannonball Run” route, for comparison:

Alex Roy/Cannonball Run

Yup. Havana. In case you forgot.

HAVANA. When Baker made his first run across in 1915, the Spanish-American War and the Cuban War of Independence would have been fresh in his mind. Do you really think Baker would have gone to Havana? Nothing involving Havana is in the spirit of Cannonball Baker. The suggestion is an insult.

Here are some more details to offend:

Alex Roy/Cannonball Run

Looks like fun. Amazing. But it doesn’t look like the original start line. There was no party at the Red Ball. Just a garage full of people getting ready before getting a good night's sleep.

Alex Roy/Cannonball Run

Sponsors

I’d love to tear apart the new “Cannonball Run” sponsors, but I like two of them, and I genuinely think they didn’t know better. If only we could say the same of the organizers.

Why We Should Be Outraged About The New “Cannonball Run”

We live in an age of sloth and cowardice, where experience is bought and gifted rather than built and fought for. An age where people spend $100,000 to do Burning Man in an air conditioned tent, drop second rate acid and have a “spiritual” experience. An age where you pay someone to carry your luggage up Mount Everest. An age where every child gets a medal just for showing up. And now, an age where you can sign up online, pay tens of thousands of dollars, and pretend to be one of the participants in a legendary event that last took place nearly forty years ago.

In an age when money can buy almost anything, that which cannot be bought is the only thing of true value. History isn’t bought, it’s made. Respect isn't taken, it's given.

Those new “Cannonball Run” stickers and hats? A badge of shame and cowardice.

The Final Outrage? No Condolences

The new "Cannonball Run" organizers have been completely silent since the deaths of Brock Yates and Tony Adamowicz. Seriously. Neither the website nor their facebook page mention either death. Did anyone on this event say a toast to these men, without whom the "legend" the participants are pretending to be part of wouldn't exist? If I'm wrong please say otherwise.

You want to be part of the Cannonball Run history?

Save your $10k. Or give it to charity. Call some friends, get in your car and drive cross country at any speed — non-stop except for gas — and you're in. There's even a private Cannonballers group on Facebook, where veterans and newbies can talk. Hard to get invited though. You've got to seem serious. Money doesn't matter.

Apologies Will Be Accepted

Someone should have known better. A fresh brand should have been created. After Yates’ death, the event should have been delayed, or cancelled.

There’s nothing these “Cannonballers” can do to make up for the insult to every red-blooded American car enthusiast, or Baker, or Yates, or Brock Jr. and Pamela, or the hundreds of Cannonball Run and U.S. Express veterans who are still alive, or those who continue to honor Baker and Yates through the 2904 or C2C Express...except to strip their cars of “Cannonball Run” stickers and pretend “it” didn’t happen.

Actually, there is. When these new "Cannonballers" wake up in Havana, they should stay there.

A Fair Solution

I propose a new event. The Cannonbull Run. Entry is free. $10k charitable donation to the Brock Yates Memorial Fund (which fights Alzheimers) required. Now get in a car worth LESS THAN $250 — Lemons-style — shut up and drive to Redondo Beach, California.

Miss you, Brock.

If you'd like to know more about the original Cannonball Run, a documentary is in production, and the production company's site is chock full of raw info.

READ PART 2: "New "Cannonball Run" Spits on Founder Brock Yates' Grave, Part Deux"

[UPDATED: Re: Lack of Yates/Adamowicz statements on Cannonball Run Website or Facebook pages, sponsor sticker clarification, the # of cars on the original Cannonball Run, link to Motor Reporters, and additional chart footnotes]

Alex Roy is an Editor-at-Large for The Drive, author of The Driver, set the 2007 Transcontinental “Cannonball Run” Record in a BMW M5 in 31 hours & 4 minutes, and has set multiple "Cannonball" endurance driving records in Europe & the United States in the EV, 3-wheeler & Semi-Autonomous classes. You may follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.