Virus infects any record for recent coast-to-coast speed drives

What was fun in ’71 is just stupid folly in 2020

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cannonball
The open road beckons, especially when there's no traffic | Larry Edsall photo

In 1971, Dan Gurney and Brock Yates left the Red Ball Garage in New York City in a borrowed Ferrari Daytona and 35 hours, 54 minutes later, they pulled into the parking lot of the Portofino Inn on the shore of the Pacific Ocean at Redondo Beach, California, to win The Cannonball Baker Sea-t0-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash.

Gurney noted afterward that, “At no time did we exceed 175 mph.”

Primarily to see what the Ferrari would do, that speed was achieved, once and briefly, on an empty stretch of I-10. But the overlooked fact was that the famed race car driver and the automotive magazine editor actually had averaged little more than 81 mph on their cross-country escapade. 

Dan Gurney and Brock Yates averaged just over 81 mph on their cross-country drive in a Ferrari Daytona much like this one back in 1971

Eighty-one miles an hour! Today, there are thousands of miles of interstate highway in this country where such a speed is a mere 1 mph higher than the posted limit.

After getting back to his office in New York, Yates wrote, “The quickness of the journey was hardly attributable to outright speed, but rather to good routes, rapid stops, and assiduously staying clear of traffic. 

“When Dan and I got to the Portofino, we agreed that the part of the Cannonball which we were proudest about was the fact that we had bothered no one — we hadn’t jeopardized the safety of anyone, including ourselves. We had driven very fast, but we had driven cleanly, efficiently, and safely.”

Eight cars took part in that Cannonball run, which actually was the second such event. A year earlier, in what was both a celebration of the freedom of the interstate system and a protest of increasingly restrictive traffic laws, Yates and his co-drivers ended up in a solo run across the country in a modified Dodge van. It took them just less than 42 hours and broke the nearly 40-year-old record for such a drive, done by Baker himself in 1933 in a Graham-Paige Model 57 that he drove, NYC2LA in 53 1/2 hours.

Triggering this trip back through history is the recent news that a few people stuffed extra fuel tanks into the truck of an Audi A8 L and, taking advantage of the fact that much of the country is on coronavirus pandemic quarantine, reportedly drove from Midtown Manhattan to Redondo Beach in less than 27 hours.

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As The New York Times reported this past weekend,Traffic levels have dropped more than 90 percent in some major cities, and at least 50 percent nearly everywhere. Open highways beckon. Empty city streets tease. Gone are congestion and gridlock. In their place is temptation and speed.”

After reports of the sub-27-hour run spread on social media, Car and Driver, the magazine edited by the late Yates, headlined a story, “Cross-Country Cannonball Speed Records Are Dumb: Car and Driver popularized the New York to Los Angeles speed run in the ’70s. We’re here to tell you it’s no longer cool.”

The article noted that coronavirus claimed 336 lives in New York City on April 4. 

“This was the backdrop when, on that same Saturday, three (or possibly four) of this country’s biggest assholes loaded a luxury sedan with a trunk full of gasoline and charged across the country to claim a speed record that proves nothing other than their own self-importance.”

The writer noted as well that, “Driving across the country is different now, too. The speeds required to set the record are too extreme. The traffic is too heavy. And the payoff — a few thousand new Instagram followers, maybe? — is too pointless.”

While we all enjoy tipping into the right pedal from time to time, trying to be the fastest to drive coast to coast not only is pointless but wasteful and, yes, stupidly irresponsible and dangerous. 

As for establishing a new record, that also is stupid, just like all those home run “records” set during baseball steroid era or the way basketball scoring “records” are being set during an era in which shots count 3 points rather than 2. It’s not the same game. The “records” are hollow, meaningless, and should be ignored, right along with their perpetrators.


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A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

11 COMMENTS

  1. Tricky. Hard to argue it’s irresponsible now if it wasn’t last year (Mercedes) or a few years ago (BMW) – both personal friends of mine. Arguably less traffic is actually safer. Could argue that it’s a cheat, or at least opportunistic, to rely on the externality of no traffic, but some years at Pikes Peak we run in the rain and some years you get it warm and dry for records. I think the number should stand, if substantiated, but should have a footnote. I will say (and I told the previous record-holders this too) that after 25 years of pro rally/Pikes/drift/Baja racing myself, I’d still never have the nerve to chase this record. But the guys that I know who have done it – from Brock through to Alex and Arne – I dont think put anyone in particular danger. I think this is sour grapes, or an authentic reaction to the seriousness of COVID19 rather than anything to do with record-chasing.

  2. Some may say shame on me for saying this: but while I will admit that a record coast-to-coast speed run is rather pointless, but so what? Why do we all have to be so politically correct all the time? If the original Cannonball Run was in protest to the national 55 mph speed limits, then maybe this time it was in protest to the COVID-19 lockdown? Or maybe they just wanted to do it for fun? Either way I say more power to them! My point is I’m tired of everyone being so serious all the time! Whatever happened to a little bit of good-natured, rebellious fun anyway?
    And if anyone wants to shame me for saying that, I really don’t care. And if the editors don’t post my comment because it doesn’t meet the standards of the “thought police”, then I still don’t care.

    • The Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act was signed by Nixon in January 1974, though some states already had set limits at 50 or 55 mph. The first Cannonball was staged in 1970.

    • Agreed. The recent run has come up in casual conversation with various people, few of whom are “car folks”. The general reaction here in flyover country is that if you’re going to do it, this is the best time to do so.

  3. Waaa, waaa, was. Some folks decided to have some fun and in turn did an exceptional job social distancing themselvesfron the rest of the country for 27 hours.

  4. It’s around 2000 kilometres (1200 miles) plus a three hour ferry crossing from one end of New Zealand to the other using State Highway One.
    I did it once within 24 hours in 1999 on a large motorcycle.
    In 2009 l was one of a team of three who attempted the run in a Bentley Turbo-R.
    We missed by fifteen minutes. Knowing what we learned on that run we would suceed if we tried again.
    The required average speed is 5kph above the open road speed limit so it’s not quite the same as having to go ever more ballistic to beat an ever rising record – but my point is that, even though some people see what we did as as bad as killing babies with a rake, it was fun and we hurt nobody.
    We’re going to have another go at being the first to do it in a car as soon as two lots of pretty major road works are finished.
    We don’t care if someone else beats us to being the first, for us it’s unfinished business.
    I believe that, if you feel like trying for the US coast to coast record, keeping the number of stops to a minimum makes it possible and the quieter Covid19 highways make it less dangerous.
    I don’t condone record breaking but l do undetstand it

  5. Whatever anybody says, to do this on public roads is irresponsible to say the least and as to the drivers they are not immune to the fallout from a blown out tyre at 100mph plus. If any enthusiastic driver, and that includes myself, wants to chase speed, do it on a race track.

  6. It is what it is. They broke the cross country record. Hard to argue with that. People have been taking risks with cars and speed since forever. Likely more of a challenge and accomplishment especially considering 21st century traffic enforcement and public surveillance.

  7. The fact that Alex Roy got on his high horse and said: “what if they hit a truck full of masks and rubber gloves and people died because of it, it would be on them.”
    He could have just as easily hit someone and they could have died while he was making his non-pandemic run. He is not someone to speak.
    There are no rules but common sense goes a long way.

    • It would be great if it were common. Sadly and observidly common sense is anything but common.
      We are in the age of Sheepole where a tweet is gospel and everyone is an expert while their actual experiences are lacking.

  8. The speed time distance focus necessary to safely drive across country in that manner is an exceptional accomplishment, the social and political and Coronavirus environment notwithstanding! Having an A8L as a daily driver I can say it eats up miles safely at highway speeds!

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