Why You Need A German Sedan To Break The Cannonball Run Record
There are some nails only a German hammer can hit.
It always pays to bring the right tool for the job, and if the job is a Cannonball Run record attempt across the United States, that tool better be highly specialized. I know some people don't want to hear it—national pride and all—but it's not the seventies anymore. Different cultures create different cars, and some just aren't up to the task of driving nearly 3,000 miles at triple-digit speeds.
Actually, if that were all a car needed to do, an American or Japanese car might work. But the modern Cannonball records suggest otherwise. Take a look at the last five cars to set a cross-country record, or come close:
Notice anything? Four out of five of them are German Q-ships. Four out of five of them seat four people. If you want to break the Cannonball Run record, you need a German sports sedan.
Let's deconstruct the history of modern Cannonball attempts, and the logic behind the choice of cars. When Dave Maher and I set out to break the record back in 2006, we had no modern examples to follow. As far as we knew, we were the first in 23 years to make a serious effort to break the record. The last successful attempt had been in 1983, in a Ferrari 308. Brock Yates himself, the godfather of the Cannonball Run race, which ran from 1971 to 1979, said in his 2002 book Cannonball that no one would ever cross the country in less than 38 hours. He cited traffic, road conditions, and improvements in police surveillance technologies. I thought he was wrong, and sought to deploy every possible countermeasure.
Disguise & Stealth
Of all the dumb things in car movies—and there are a lot—the dumbest has to be the scene in 2 Fast 2 Furious when Paul Walker, Tyrese, and some others have to race from somewhere in Florida to somewhere else in Florida to prove their driving skill. They select from a group of insanely obvious street racing vehicles with wings, stripes, and bright colors. They drive like complete morons, weaving through traffic and running red lights. That might work in a sub-five-minute street race over a short distance—although it would still be idiotic—but it sure isn't going to work in a 2,900-mile drive across the country. Just check out how the police treat the Gumball 3000 every time a group of stickered-up Lamborghinis and Ferraris try to go anywhere, at any speed.
The key to crossing the country at cruising speeds of over 100 mph is choosing a car that is as inconspicuous as possible. There are a lot more sedans on the road than coupes of any type. With a sedan, at least you have a shot at blending in. It should also be in a basic color. I chose blue because I thought we could disguise ourselves as an emergency vehicle or storm chaser/research car. The one time we heard a police dispatcher talking about us, they described a "dark blue BMW" traveling at a high rate of speed. I knew then that the next run would require a different color. The next two successful record runs, Ed Bolian's 2013 run in 28:50, and Arne Toman's in 27:25, were in grey and silver cars, respectively.
Not a coincidence.
What about Seth Rose's black Audi S8, which crossed the country in 30:43 in 2018? The perfect car, but a suboptimal color. Black is a bad choice because, while inconspicuous at night, a black car's contrasty, Darth Vader-like presence makes it extra conspicuous during the day.
What about Troy Schneider's black C7 Corvette, which crossed in 29:48 in early 2019? A great car, but wrong for the job, and also the wrong color. Troy played against the odds and won. I'm glad he made it safely, but I wouldn't try that. Troy said in an interview that he considered using a Cadillac CTS-V, a seemingly perfect car in almost every way. That is, except for the disguise part.
Take a close look at Arne Toman's Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG. Those rear lights normally scan easily as an MB product, but Arne masked them to match the rear quarter panel, which at a distance makes the E63 look like a... Honda Accord. Now that's what I call a disguise.
Now take a look at a Cadillac CTS-V:
You're not going to make a Cadillac CTS-V look like anything but a CTS-V. Conspicuity is a styling feature of Cadillac's V-models, and also their downfall for modern Cannonball attempts. That is, unless someone disguises a CTS-V as a Toyota Avalon. Unlikely.
Funny how the best disguise is making your car look like a Japanese sedan. If only Japan built an appropriate sedan. They almost do, but it's missing one critical feature, which we'll get to at the end.
(Yeah, yeah. I know Porsche Panameras are cool. But you'll never disguise them to look like anything else. Same goes for an Audi RS7.)
Dashboard Real Estate
If the police are going to deploy every possible electronic device to detect, locate, identify, and apprehend you on your Cannonball record attempt, you will need electronic countermeasures. Some of the necessary sensors and emitters can be mounted externally, but almost everything is going to need a control interface and and an informational display. These systems don't run themselves. They're not autonomous. From GPS to thermal cameras, radar detectors, laser jammers, police scanners, radios, and cellphones, the driver and co-driver have a lot of work to do. All that stuff takes up lots of dashboard real estate.
Here's what that looked like in my BMW in 2006:
Here's what it looked like in Ed Bolian's Mercedes-Benz CL55 AMG:
Here's what it looked like in Arne Toman's Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG:
No matter how far technology evolves, there is never enough real estate to accommodate everything a Cannonball hopeful wants. The bigger the displays, the larger the buttons, the easier the access, the easier it is to view and control. Just ask any fighter pilot. Any available real estate in the cockpit will always be filled with the largest display(s) possible. Clean, wide, open dashboards that can be easily customized are good. Overly sculpted dashboards with gratuitous design elements are bad. Ergo, German sedan interiors are the best for Cannonballing.
All those electronics, along with wind buffeting and tires on pavement, make a lot of background noise. Background noise causes stress and muffles the sounds one must hear to maintain situational awareness. German sedans have exceptional interior noise dampening. That is, assuming the car has a reasonable exhaust system, or the option to use a quieter exhaust-noise setting. Point: German sports sedans.
Everyone loves Ferraris and Lamborghinis, until you need to fill them with Cannonball accessories: water, snacks, spare electronics, clothes, et al. Everything takes up space. Everything needs to be well organized. The co-driver and (essential) third person in the back need to be doing their job spotting for police, not hunting for that one critical item no one can find hidden in a pile or seat pocket. Space matters. Everything matters.
Rear Seat (Crew Comfort)
You need a rear seat. You need a third person. People who've never done this—or who think the Gumball 3000 bears any relationship to actual Cannonballing—assume the passengers can sleep.
Safely crossing the U.S. at 125+ mph requires not just one or two, but three people in the car. The co-driver has as much (or more) work to do as the driver does. From managing the electronics and navigation to using the thermal camera to spot for police and monitoring the driver for wakefulness, every decision counts toward success or failure. That third person in the back? He/she is the backup for the co-driver. At one time it might have been possible to set the record with two people, but not any more. The speeds necessary are too great. The workload is too high. Safety and common sense dictates three people on board. But common sense wouldn't stop anyone from trying, right?
Every fuel stop takes time. When Dave and I went across, we made six stops totaling approximately 35 minutes. We carried 38 gallons of fuel. The latest record? Twenty-two minutes stopped time. Four stops. Sixty-six gallons. The more fuel you can carry the better. You want the biggest trunk possible. Also, you want to be carrying a full size spare, mounted on a wheel, ready to go.
That looks like this:
That ain't gonna work in a C7 Corvette, or a Porsche 911 or Ferrari. You need a German sports sedan.
Back in 2006, right after we set the 31:04 Cannonball record, I had my M5 shipped back to NYC. My mechanic put it on a lift. He said an axle failure was imminent, and we were very lucky to have finished at all.
Everything weighs something. People, equipment, but especially fuel. Sixty-six gallons of fuel weighs almost 400 pounds. if you want to maintain 120+ mph over 3,000 miles, you need a suspension that can handle the weight while offering the best possible control and stability. Add factors like uneven road surfaces, and there is only one solution: an adaptive suspension specifically designed for load control, whatever the conditions.
My 2000 BMW M5 didn't have one, and I took a chance I shouldn't have. It was the one thing I thought would be ok, and it barely was. Today, with the speeds and conditions required to move the bar beyond 27:25, there is no margin for error. You need a German sports sedan.
Anyone can build a fast car, and many cars can be tuned to go far beyond what manufacturers intend. But nothing can substitute for cars doing precisely what their engineers intended, which brings us to culture. American cars are designed not just for American roads, but for American laws. Japanese cars? The ones sold in America? Great cars, but still culturally attuned for American roads and laws. But German cars? German cars are designed for German roads and German laws, and that means the Autobahn, where people routinely commute between cities at 170+ mph. The only concession German cars make for the American market is the 155 mph speed limiter, which is easy to remove. A German sports sedan crossing the U.S. trying to set a Cannonball Run record is well within its limits. Add in all the other factors: disguise, stealth, space, noise, and comfort, and there is no other choice.
Anything is possible, and records are made to be broken, but until someone comes along and designs a car for the German market that is as good as or better than the Germans do it, a German sports sedan is going to keep the Cannonball Run record. But that's only true for the internal combustion Cannonball Run record. If you want to set the electric Cannonball Run record—which I've done three times—there is only choice, and it's not German. It's American. It's called a Tesla.
At least until someone tries it in a Porsche Taycan.
For more on why German sedans are the best for Cannonballing, check out the trailer for the upcoming APEX: THE SECRET RACE ACROSS AMERICA, the true story of how the Cannonball Run Record was broken, with never before seen footage from historic and recent attempts. As narrator Ice-T says, "It's nuts."
Alex Roy is Director of Special Operations at Argo.AI, founder of the Human Driving Association, editor-at-large at The Drive, host of the the No Parking and Autonocast podcasts, co-host of /DRIVE on NBC Sports, author of The Driver, and Producer of APEX: The Secret Race Across America. He has set numerous endurance driving records, including the infamous Cannonball Run record. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.