Alex Roy’s Cannonball Run Buyer’s Guide
The best cars to drive fast—very fast—across the U.S. of A.
What is the best car for a Cannonball Run? Ah, the eternal question of car-loving criminals and outlaws, and car lovers with no criminal intent whatsoever. The conventional wisdom is not wisdom, because it is almost all based on the Cannonball Run and Gumball Rally movies. Although inspired by real events, both were comedies that glossed over the hardcore strategizing required to get dozens of cars cross-country at 100-plus mph, and to do it safely. The movies have literally nothing to teach us about the “right” car for running a Cannonball today.
That’s not to say we’re at a loss for recommendations. Not by a country mile.
Disclaimer Added For Obvious Legal Reasons: I’m not suggesting anyone should go out and commit 3,000 felony moving violations. I’m just saying you should want to.
Imagine someone is dumb enough to assume the liability for organizing a modern Cannonball Run. Dumb, but possible. People ask me to organize one all the time. Maybe I have and I’m just not telling. I certainly wouldn’t if I had. Or was going to. But I shall say this. You can tell how serious potential Cannonballers are by the cars they want to bring. (And—brazen plug alert—if they’ve read The Driver, they usually have a good idea of what makes sense.)
Brock Yates, Godfather of the Cannonball, once said: “Rules? There are no rules!”
There may not be rules, but there certainly are guidelines you’d want to follow. The Cannonball was a serious race. Think Le Mans on public roads. You’ve got to be prepared. Here are the eight basic tenets of Cannonball-car consideration:
1.) The distance is 2,800 to 3,000 miles, depending on your chosen route.
2.) You must average at least 85 mph overall if you want to be taken seriously, which—including fuel stops—means driving averages of 95-plus. Sounds easy? Then you’ve never done this.
3.) If you want to place, let alone beat the current single-car record of 28 hours 50 minutes, you’re going to need an overall average of 95 to 100-plus. Including stops. That means a lot of driving above 120-plus. A lot. Unless you’ve actually raced at Le Mans, read on.
4.) You will be in the car for 28 to 48 hours, depending on traffic, weather and police.
5.) You will need to carry an extra fuel tank.
6.) You will need to carry and plug in a lot of electronics (radar detector, laser jammers, iPad, smartphone, CB Radio, scanner, etc.)
7.) You will probably want to carry at least one full-size spare mounted on a wheel, along with tools and parts. If you’re smart.
8.) You might want to consider the space required for mobile bathroom solutions, but I’d rather not get into details here. This is supposed to be family-friendly.
Let’s start with the cars of the past.
The Cannonball Run Movie Cars
The movie cars were and remain cool, but are any of them capable of meeting all the requirements listed above? The most famous ones include:
2.) Aston Martin DB5
5.) Subaru Leone
7.) Mercedes 280 SEL Sedan
8.) Ferrari 308 GTS
… and, of course, the Dodge “Transcon Medevac” Ambulance.
If you remember the film, the Countach won the race. Which makes no sense, because no Lamborghini has ever won any such race. Not even the Gumball 3000, which isn’t a race, isn’t timed and is nothing like the real Cannonball, right? (That’s another story for another article.)
Which of the Cannonball movie cars would actually be appropriate? Let’s compare them with cars that actually placed first or second in the real event that inspired the film.
The Actual Cannonball Run Winners
There were five Cannonballs, but only four actual head-to-head competitions, running from 1971 to 1979. In a not-so-wild coincidence, the first multi-car race was won by Yates and Formula 1 legend Dan Gurney. Here’s a list of the winning cars:
Before I started doing such things back in 2003, I might have guessed a Ferrari. A Cadillac and a Jag? Not so much. Now let’s add the second-place cars:
That’s a really interesting cross section of vehicles, even for the Seventies. There’s only one issue. Let’s look at the winning times over the years:
1971 Ferrari Daytona 35:54
1971 Chevrolet Sportvan 36:47
1972 Cadillac Coupe De Ville 37:16
1972 Dodge Challenger 37:26
1975 Ferrari Dino 246 GTS 35:53
1975 Chevrolet Pickup 37:50
1979 Jaguar XJS 32:51
1979 Mercedes-Benz 450 SEL 6.9 32:59
See a trend here? The leaders clustered between 36 and 38 hours until 1979, when there was a huge leap forward in the winning time. A three- to four-hour leap. Now let’s add the fastest time from the U.S. Express, the Cannonball’s largely unknown successor, which ran from 1980 to 1983.
1983 Ferrari 308 GTS 32:07
The Modern Cars
Now let’s add cars and times for myself and current known record-holder Ed Bolian:
I’ve always known my time of 31:04 was beatable. I always knew 30 hours was possible. I didn’t think beating 29 hours was. But 28:50? An incredible time. It may be unbeatable, but that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t pick the best possible car. Anyone entering a modern Cannonball Run is going to be gunning to be—and beat—the best.
A real shot at a win, let alone a record, must factor in that four out of the five fastest cross-country times weren’t in pure sports cars. They were in GTs, i.e., sleepers. Not a coincidence.
The Lazy Choices
I can’t tell you how many emails I get from hopefuls keen to divulge what they’re bringing to the Cannonball they just know I secretly organize every year. They invariably describe, in painstaking detail, all the modifications that will be inflicted on one of the following:
1.) Porsche 911 Turbo
2.) Lamborghini Aventador
3.) NIssan GT-R
4.) Lexus LF A
5.) Mercedes-Benz GL63 AMG
7.) BMW M6
8.) Audi R8
9.) Ferrari 458
10.) Ferrari La Ferrari
There’s a lot to parse here, but it’s pretty obvious that these people aren’t doing their homework. All these choices are wildly conspicuous. Cops read car mags, too. Anyone who’s done the research on my or Bolian’s run knows that stealth is key. Power, handling and an active suspension certainly help, but stealth is key. With enough mods, any of these cars could make it—reliability notwithstanding—but some of these are so obvious they’d attract cops merely for being parked at an Iron Skillet.
How many Lambos or Ferraris have you ever seen at 3 AM in the middle of Oklahoma with out-of-state plates? The only SUV on the list is as much an aerodynamic brick as it is a beacon for country-club prickery. The M6 might work if it’s the Gran Coupe. I love that car. I wouldn’t want to do aftermarket work on its electrical system, though. LF A? Good luck finding one. Mod it and you’ve lost all your money. No one who owns one really drives it, anyway. A GT-R? You might as well drive yourself to jail. Ferrari? Lambo? Same thing. An AMG-GT S? I’d pull you over just to check it out. Porsche? Everyone else on the race will have one. An R8? Another ticket magnet.
Sports cars on a modern Cannonball? How amateur.
Anyone who’s done any real thinking knows that you want to bring the next level beyond what Bolian and I brought. The next level doesn’t have more power. The next level is a Q-ship. A sleeper among sleepers. The next level has to be inside and outside the box.
Use Your Head, Not Your Heart. Nah, Make It Both
There is only one choice if you want to win: a station wagon.
Or at least a wagon-like car. If I were going again, it would be in a Cadillac CTS-V Wagon. Or perhaps a highly modified Volvo, like the infamous 180-plus-mph Volvette. Or perhaps a late-model BMW 5 Series or Mercedes E-Class. Because WAGON. Wagons are cool, spacious and make you look like a family on vacation—presuming you have child-size inflatable dolls in the back seat. Then again, you really don’t want to get pulled over with one or more child-size inflatable dolls in the back seat. Really. I was once pulled over with an adult-size inflatable doll in the back seat.
It went really, really badly.
Stop the press. Here’s the perfect Cannonball Run car. Only 30 were ever brought into the country. They’re cheap-ish and produce 500-plus horsepower. Buy one before it’s too late. Just don’t tell any of your competitors, because I think it might be undefeatable. I’d even put money on it.
What do you think?
Alex Roy and co-driver David Maher held the Cannonball Run record from 2007 through 2013, and remain the second-fastest team ever to cross the United States by car, driving from New York to Los Angeles in 31 hours four minutes.