Anything Can Happen On A Non-Stop, Low-Dollar, Faux-Cannonball Run
Police, mechanical failure and fatigue await would-be Cannonballers.
The time clock at Manhattan's Red Ball Garage made an old-fashioned sound when I slid my manilla folder into the slot at the bottom.
The time stamped on the bottom of the folder read 10:59 a.m. I jogged to the car and hopped into the driver's seat. Another cross-country run in an old car had begun. If all went according to plan, my team and I would be relaxing at a hotel in Redondo Beach, California, in less than two days. But first, there was a whole bunch of America to get through.
I'd participated in this faux-Cannonball Run foolishness before, but always with a different crew. This time, for the C2C Express, I was joined by a government bureaucrat (a D.C. insider who shall not be named; suffice to say that he wears this moniker only because he happens to live inside the boundaries of D.C., and not because he knows anyone important), and Mason Hart, a Kiwi aircraft mechanic I'd met only days earlier. The Bureaucrat sat shotgun and the Kiwi was crammed in the back seat, along with an extra wheel, a cooler full of sandwich ingredients, and other assorted odds and ends.
Like the original Cannonball, there weren't many rules. Mainly, get from New York to Los Angeles as quickly as possible. Unlike the anarchic event that had taken place a few times during those polyester-saturated years, a few minor limitations had been slapped on: The car had to be Seventies-vintage or older, and couldn't cost more than $3,000 to buy. It was also word-of-mouth. These stipulations accomplished two things. The mums-the-word component kept the event small, reducing the chance that someone possessed of poor judgement might join in and ruin everything for the rest of the contestants. And the $3,000 buy-in democratizes the playing field somewhat. It's not cheap, but there's only so much trouble you can get into behind the wheel of a $3,000 car. Right?
A handful of other cars were in the running, but most of them had already left–wanting to make an escape before the city that never sleeps, woke. First off was Dmitriy Cherkassky and his co-driver, Bertrand Potts. They shoved off early in a fairly unremarkable, silver mid-Eighties Mercedes-Benz diesel sedan. Although not a '70s car, the Benz was cool, so no one minded.
Two Southerners—Carl "Yumi" Dietz, a solo cross-country record holder, and his friend Roscoe "Marine King" Andersen, a walking, talking Jimmy Buffet song who joined Dietz for occasional driving duty and constant off-color entertainment—drove with John Ficarra, one of the founders of another cross-country drive called the 2904. Dressed in out-of-date country club attire and yacht captain hats, the trio had departed in an impossibly long '77 Lincoln Continental Mark V, carrying a healthy supply of Aretha Franklin and Herb Alpert 8-track tapes.
Eric Propst and his brother Kevin drove a 454-powered '93 Chevy van, carrying aboard one solar-powered fridge and a couple of Washington Post reporters. The van wasn't of the correct vintage, either, but considering the body style of Chevrolet's G-Series vans, which remained unchanged from 1971 until 1996, it was basically the right sort of ride. It was suitably badass with a 454 stuffed under the doghouse, so no one kvetched.
Then came my team, followed that evening by the last group to leave: three men dressed in black slacks, white dress shirts, thin black ties, black trilbies, and black Wayfarer sunglasses. They drove Arnie Toman's '74 Dodge Monaco, painted in the style of the car from The Blues Brothers and kitted out with updated suspension and brakes, a Z06 Corvette-cammed 5.3-liter Chevrolet LS engine and transmission, and an aluminum fuel cell, among other goodies. Toman, who's VP of a Chicagoland performance shop, said he had built the car mostly from scraps over the years, ending up with something that worked really well. His driving partners were Forrest "Schlotsky" and Ed Bolian, the Cannonnball aficionado who smashed Alex Roy's cross-country record with a time of 28 hours and 50 minutes in 2013. Not a bad team.
For our part, we drove my cream-colored 1974 Oldsmobile Omega sedan, a badge engineered Chevy Nova that had begun its life in service of an older gentleman in Queens who rarely drove it. I was only the third person to have owned the car, and had since taken it upon myself to make a few modifications, including a beefier engine, better brakes and freshened-up suspension parts. As I threaded the car through Manhattan's mid-morning traffic, thunder clapped from its exhaust pipes, ricocheting off of tall buildings and belying the changes I'd made to the driveline. It was Saturday, so we hoped to avoid any major foul-ups right out of the gate. Getting pulled over for making too much noise was not among our concerns, as most of the New York City policemen I'd encountered while driving the car had given it the thumbs up.
Like most of the people participating in this informal endurance event, I was a repeat offender. In it for nothing more than bragging rights. I'd bought the Omega several years earlier for the 2904, but had decided against running it, twice, in favor of a couple slow, but reliable Subaru wagons. It turned out to have been a prudent move on my part. The Omega's original 6-cylinder engine stopped running a short time after I'd bought it, and when I pulled it out of the car and took it apart, I discovered that the bolts that secured the oil pump to the block had worked themselves loose, killed the oil pressure and cooked some of the bearings. The car had fewer than 90,000 miles on the clock, but it had been built at the G.M. factory in Flint, Mich. at a time when factory workers may have been more intent upon smoking reefers on the roof than putting cars together. Or so I'm told. Looking at the guts of a ruined low-mileage engine, that story seemed plausible to me.
With the staid 6-cylinder leaning against a wall in a dark corner of my garage, I had an opportunity to do something grand. So I stuffed a 383-cubic-inch V8 into the car, increasing its horsepower more than fourfold. After a lot of tinkering, it was finally ready to go.
Hart and I had stayed up past 3 A.M. the night before our departure to install and plumb an extra 32-gallon fuel tank in the Omega's trunk. Despite that, and a frenzied last-minute packing spree, the three of us were on the edges of our seats as I drove the car across the Pulaski Skyway into mainland New Jersey. Even without the extra 200 pounds of fuel in the trunk – we'd decided to wait until New Jersey to fill up the auxiliary tank to keep the car from bottoming out on New York City's craterscape of terrible roads – the car felt back-heavy and difficult to control. The steering was sketchy; just what you'd expect from a car of that era. Perhaps G.M.'s engineers had been hitting the pipe, too, back then.
Throughout this cross-country odyssey, the various teams kept in touch with one another like anyone does – text messages, calls and posts on various social media platforms. One of the two teams that didn't make it to the start shouted encouragement from the sidelines. Hart had ended up with us because of their rotten luck. Some members of his team – a small group of Cannonball nerds from New Zealand – had gotten into a bad accident while picking up their car in the Plains. Four of them ended up in the hospital with terrible injuries and Hart, who had already flown in from New Zealand, was cut adrift in a storm of misfortune.
Joining the bureaucrat and I, he proved himself a worthy addition to Team Omega. From our perspective, who wouldn't want a Kiwi aircraft mechanic onboard? Not only was he more than willing to fuck off and go to the beach when we should have been preparing the car – showing what a great sport he was – but he later showed his jury-rigging prowess when our machine failed us.
Most of the other teams were hours ahead as we breezed through New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio. I didn't relinquish the driver's seat until we were most of the way through the Buckeye state. The bureaucrat had indicated that he needed to pee, so I'd directed him to a sack full of portable pee bags that are supposed to turn urine into an odorless solid. He had tried several times to "just go," but in the end had been unable to overcome stage fright and had decided just to tough it out.
The extra tank meant that we could drive 800 miles without stopping, but pee and fatigue brought us to the side of the road well before the fuel ran out. The bureaucrat took the wheel, and I slid into the back seat, falling asleep to the hum of the V8 and the chatter from the two men up front.
Ficarra said after this year's event that the devil is in the details. You can stop for piss breaks, he explained, but when you hit the New Mexico-Arizona border and realize how much time you've lost with a five minute stop here and a three minute stop there, it's already too late.
Think of it this way: when you stop for fuel, it takes at least six minutes to fill a normalish 20-gallon tank. When you have an extra tank to fill on top of that one, you're looking at a minimum 10-minute stop (also a good time for people with stage fright to use the restroom). By the end of the trip, the car with an 800-mile range will have had to stop three times to fuel up, which adds up to about 30 minutes of non-motion. The car with a 300-mile range, by comparison, will have had to stop nine times over the trip's 2,800 miles. At a very disciplined six minutes each stop, that adds up to nearly an hour.
See? You can cut your fueling time in half by carrying more fuel. Piss breaks are another time-waster. Even if you only stop on the side of the highway in rural areas, taking three minutes to pee, you're likely to do that at least five or six times outside fuel stops. Three times five is 15; a quarter of an hour, just for pee breaks. Team Land Yacht, the guys in the huge Lincoln, had drilled holes in the floor of their car, and had outfitted each person with a tube and funnel. Ficarra said that when the driver had to pee, the front seat passenger would hold the wheel while the driver handled the business end of things. Not, I was also told, vice versa.
My team lost plenty of time somewhere in the middle of Indiana. It was dark and I was still fast asleep in the back seat. Fatigue from staying up all night messing with the car, followed by 650 miles of driving had taken root, and I'd missed 60 or so miles as if it were a night flight across the Pacific Ocean.
I awoke suddenly to the glare of blue lights in the rear window, and heard the bureaucrat muttering obscenities as he guided the car to the side of the road. I sat up, spitting long strands of my sleep-tousled hair from my mouth. The bureaucrat had shut off the car, placed the keys on the dash and gripped the steering wheel as a sheriff's deputy rattled off the standard "Do you know how fast you were going?" spiel. Eighty-four in a 70. Not terrible. We were all a bit surprised when the deputy asked the bureaucrat to step out of the vehicle and follow him to the rear for questioning.
Another deputy approached the passenger side of the car, a huge metal flashlight held aloft next to his head. He was a robust man who looked as though he spent many hours a week at the gym. He sported a shaved head and his leather belt bristled with instruments designed to enforce submission. Everything about him – including his right hand, which we noticed held the hand grip of his holstered, but unsnapped pistol – said, "I dare you to fuck with me."
"Get your hands where I can see them. Get your hands where I can see them," he said, stabbing a blade of light back and forth between Hart and me. "Lemme see some ID."
I complied, but Hart's passport was in the trunk with his bag. When he asked if he should "retrieve his passport from the boot," the cop looked at him like he had three heads and instructed him to stay put. He took my license and disappeared into the blue glare behind us.
What seemed like ages passed before he returned. We hadn't seen the bureaucrat in a while. As a precaution, I had pulled out an old New York Times ID I keep handy for such occasions, although, depending upon where you are, identifying yourself as a reporter from a liberal Yankee paper always holds the possibility of making the situation worse. The deputy asked us when we had left. I said "this morning." He wanted to know if it had been before dark. "Sure," I said, adding that I'd been asleep in the back seat when we left and wasn't really too sure. Neither of us wanted him to know how long it had taken us to reach his jurisdiction from New York, lest his powers of deduction tell him we had exceeded some legal average speed. He smiled coyly, thanked us, and returned to his blue lights.
It wasn't long before he came back, this time to inform us that a K9 unit was on the way, and that we were to be searched by a dog. My response was a resigned, "Do what you gotta do." So we sat until the dog arrived, feeling each minute we weren't moving drift away into the night, never to be recovered. I cursed myself for not getting my hair cut before we'd left. Of course we were getting tossed by drug cops. To a Midwesterner who had never met a clean-cut East Coast druggie, I fit the stereotype for druggie bum. Long hair, unshaven; the neat polo shirt and crisp shorts I wore made no difference beneath the unkempt tangle of defiant nonconformity cascading across my shoulders.
The dog came, sniffed around the car, and, of course, didn't find anything. The bureaucrat walked up to the car, joined this time by both cops, who now wore friendly, if guarded smiles. Their pistols were snapped firmly into their holsters.
"This gentleman tells me you have an extra fuel tank in the trunk," one of them said. "That's pretty cool, can I see?"
I hesitated, and sensing what I was thinking, he said, "Don't worry, you're off the hook. I gave this guy a warning for going too fast."
I acceded, opening the trunk so that he could see the black plastic tank nestled among tools and luggage. He cooed praise for the car, saying again that it was cool, but his flashlight beam, which darted around the corners of the trunk, snaking into dark recesses, said something else: "Really? No drugs?!"
We were on our way, the bureaucrat maintaining a conservative 72 miles per hour until I fell asleep again. I was too tired to remind him that such grandmotherly driving would hurt our average speed over the long haul. A few miles later, we passed an old Buick – a faded gold hooptie with a tattered vinyl landau top and uncapped black steel wheels – pulled over by another deputy and what was probably the same K9 unit. We all reasoned that this particular sheriff's department must have been on the lookout for drug runners. All I could think as I drifted off was that, based upon the sorts of cars they were pulling over, they were much more likely to nail some poor bastard who forgot to dispose of the leftovers of his joint before driving on the highway. So much for justice.
The rest of Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and most of Oklahoma must have been smooth sailing, because I slept through all of them. When I awoke just before dawn, the Kiwi was driving. It was his first time behind the wheel of a left-hand drive car on a right-hand travel road. The tanks were more or less full. We'd lost some time to caution after the drug search – the bureaucrat had been fearful of getting a ticket and Hart was getting used to driving on the other side of the road – but we were moving along at a pretty steady pace.
By the time I took the wheel, we were just past Oklahoma City. The van was already in New Mexico and the Lincoln was somewhere in the Texas panhandle. There was no way we were going to catch the van, but I hammered on the Olds in hopes of at least narrowing the Lincoln's lead. A text from the Bluesmobile showed a computer screen with the team's 80 mph average speed on it. Hart, the Bureaucrat and I looked at one another. No fucking way could we do that in the squirrelly Omega. We only hoped they didn't pass us. That would be embarrassing.
The sun rose and we breezed across the Texas border, then through Amarillo, Tucumcari and Albuquerque. The miles slipped away without incident, but our luck was not to last.
Along a blank stretch of I-40 somewhere in New Mexico – to be fair, most of New Mexico seems to be composed of blank stretches – I looked down at the dash and noticed a red glow from the charge light. My eyes migrated to the voltage gauge, which read a distressing 11 volts. For those of you who aren't familiar with the workings of gasoline powered, 12-volt system cars, that's too low. If the voltage reads less than about 13.5, there's usually a problem. In this case, I knew it was the alternator.
A battle raged within my brain: ignore it and keep driving, or find a parts store and fix it. My thoughts drifted back to the high-power, 3,000 cfm cooling fan I'd attached to the radiator the week before. There'd been a sentence somewhere in the instructions that said a high-output alternator should be used with the fan. Distracted by a host of other things, I'd ignored that part. The 63-amp alternator that was on there already was brand new. What could go wrong?
The bureaucrat found me an Autozone less than 10 miles away in Grants, N.M. According to Google Maps, it was the only auto parts store for miles around. Lucky us. A dusty black Chevelle sat in the Autozone parking lot. A man with deep black eyes and broad Native American features looked at us, unblinking, as we piled out of the car. Another couple of guys, dark haired and wearing expressions that looked a lot like glares, watched us walk across the sidewalk in front of the store. The Autozone parts guy was friendly and helped us get a new alternator and make tracks in a hurry.
At a gas station near the interstate, we had the tanks filled up and the faulty alternator swapped out in about 20 minutes. We were on the road again, the bureaucrat behind the wheel and driving with more confidence on the open Western highway. Hart did some calculations and we all grinned. There was still a slim chance that we could catch up with the Lincoln, which had just crossed into Arizona.
The light came on again 60 miles down the road and the battery, which had gone down to 10 volts before we'd changed alternators, was back down to 11 volts. We were still almost 700 miles from Redondo Beach, and with dark skies imminent and headlights necessary, there was no way we were going to make it there on battery power alone. The faulty alternator was an inferno of unexpected heat – too hot to touch with ungloved hands – and needed to be changed immediately. We stopped in Gallup, N.M., but were unable to find the part we needed at the O'Reilly auto parts store there.
Perhaps as subliminal compensation for my failure to address the alternator issue back in New York, when it would have made a difference, I had, at the last minute, thrown the Omega's original alternator into the back of the trunk. Covered in oil and grime, it had come with the car's 6-cylinder engine when it had rolled off the assembly line in Flint back in 1974. I had little confidence in this soiled, elderly part, which was why I'd sprung for the remanufactured-in-Mexico Autozone alternator to begin with.
This stop required more pause for thought, but the headscratching cost us time. After installing the oily original-equipment alternator, Hart and I discussed the heat problems associated with an under-sized alternator. What if, he reasoned, we could find a way to cool the alternator, thereby keeping it from burning out like the others?
"Can you run without the bonnet?" he asked, suggesting that maybe we could remove the hood and strap it to the roof to allow cool air to flow across the alternator. I wasn't into this one, but then he wondered aloud if we could devise some sort of ducting to cool the overheating part.
Next to the dead-end parts store we'd stopped at was a Tractor Supply Co., a veritable trove of useable odds and ends. From there, we picked up a length of flexible RV sewage hose, cutting it in half to form two shorter hoses. Zip-tying one end of each into the slots on the car's lower bumper, we routed the hoses between the hood and radiator support, then zip-tied the other ends to the alternator. Hart fixed a bottomless McDonald's cup into one of the hoses to form a sort of intake. The idea was that cold air from outside would, at speed, be forced into the hoses and up onto the alternator to keep it cool. Almost an hour later, we wrapped up our junior high school engineering project and got back on I-40.
Although the headlights dimmed whenever the fan kicked on, the charge light left us alone for the rest of the trip. The sun began to set as we passed Flagstaff, transforming Humphrey's Peak into a dark, looming mass. The sky turned a soft orange before the light gave out, and cool air and the smell of pines wafted in from the west. We did some more calculating, and mirth once again took hold. There was a chance, we thought, that we could break 40 hours.
Aside from the white-knuckle grip descent through the mountains east of Kingman, Ariz., the remainder of the journey was uneventful. I took the wheel again, praying for luck as I blasted across the Mohave Desert toward L.A. This part of the trip fills driver and crew alike with anticipation. The land tilts slowly up as you drive west across New Mexico and Arizona, reaching elevations of more than 7,000 feet. Because of that, this part of the drive feels like an obstacle to be overcome. By the time you hit the eastern edge of Arizona, elevations start falling, and it feels like you're riding a roller coaster toward your reward. Gravity seems to do most of the work. With the exception of a handful of mountains here and there, the car plummets down, down, down to the coastal plain at the edge of the continent.
By the time we entered the vast sprawl of L.A., the fogbound freeways were empty. By L.A. standards anyway. Now and again, a 100 mph streak would shoot by on the right, a concurrent reminder of both horrible urban driving and the fact that I probably wasn't going fast enough. Dietz said he'd weaved the Lincoln in and out of daytime traffic like he were on the run from the law, but my fear of getting popped for speeding so close to the end – and the natural caution stemming from being tired – outweighed my inclination to drive balls-out the rest of the way.
We reached the parking lot at the Redondo Beach Inn & Marina at 12:54 a.m. PST, 40 hours and 55 minutes after we'd left the Red Ball Garage. It wasn't the time I'd been hoping for all year as I built the car, but considering all that had happened along the way, it wasn't a bad run. Ficarra smiled as he took the manilla folder. "The Omega is vindicated," he said, referring to my failure the year before to even get it ready in time. We didn't wait up for the Bluesmobile – the one car still out on the road – but went straight to bed.
Time-wise, we came in 23 minutes ahead of the van, and 57 minutes behind the Mercedes, whose driver had relied upon a strategy of leisurely speeds and very few fuel stops. The Lincoln crew had managed to pilot their gigantic personal luxury sedan from point to point in just over 37 hours.
The Bluesmobile emerged from the mist in the small hours of the morning, its crew wearing their white shirts, ties and the rest of the Blues Brothers getup. They'd pulled off an amazing time of 34 hours and 16 minutes in a battered (but well-modified) car that looked like it couldn't make it to the grocery store, let alone the other side of the country. Like ours, their journey was also fraught with mishap. A fuel pump had let go, a stretch of highway had been closed for 45 minutes and they'd been pulled over twice for speeding – once, I was told, by police who "got" the Blues Brothers theme and another time by officers who were numb to humor. The machine performed admirably and no one ended up in jail.
Ficarra's observation probably summed it up best: "Bolian must have a horseshoe up his ass."