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Cannonball of Today Is a Far Cry from Original : From a Totally Illegal Dash Across the Country, It’s Become Just Another Rally

Times Staff Writer

Late one November night in 1971 an unlikely band of about 35 race drivers and other adventurers assembled quietly in the Red Ball Garage on 37th Street in Manhattan.

Suddenly, at a signal, the night roared to life.

“They rolled up the doors and out we went,” Dan Gurney recalled this week.

Their goal: To reach the Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach, Calif., as fast as possible, by any route.

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Gurney had driven at Indianapolis, Riverside and in Formula One in Europe, but he’d never driven anything like this, and he never would again. Soon after, he retired from racing to his All-American Racers shop in Santa Ana, building cars for others to race.

“It was a hair-raising thing, not so much from taking real risks, because I drove extremely careful and tried to be courteous to people on the road,” Gurney said. “I could still drive faster than the existing speed limits without causing any danger. Where it was wide open, we ran about 100, 110. That’s all.

“But I have a name that’s associated with professional race driving, and I couldn’t afford to make a bad example that would reflect on everybody in the thing. It was a tremendous responsibility.”

Gurney drove a Ferrari Daytona with writer Brock Yates, the event’s promoter, as co-driver. All was going well until they approached Quartzite, Ariz., on I-10 near the California border.

“It was 7 o’clock in the morning out in the middle of nowhere,” Gurney said. “We’re going along at probably 115 m.p.h. out in the desert, no other car within 20 miles. There was a building maybe 100 yards back from the road, like an old ranch restaurant or something.

“As I drove by, there was a highway patrolman just stepping off the porch . . . “

A legend was born with that first running of the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. Totally illegal, totally unsupervised, it set a standard for bare, unfettered competition that may never be equaled.

“The Cannonball had one rule,” Yates said. “There were no rules.”

Also, no prize money and only an underground kind of glory.

There were four more such races through 1979 and as many movies based on the theme, including “Cannonball Run” with Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise, but that stuff is all history now.

Yates dubbed the Cannonball in the memory of Erwin G. (Cannonball) Baker, who tested race cars and motorcycles for manufacturers back in the ‘20s and staged similar long-distance events. Now, its time past, Yates has refined it into a 7,980-mile rally with prize money, a schedule, a sanction from the Sports Car Club of America and overnight stays in hotels.

It even has a sponsor--the Uniroyal Goodrich One Lap of America, they call it--and everyone’s goal is to average a sedate 48.2 m.p.h., for goodness’ sake. It’s so clean and sterile it squeaks.

Gurney must have felt a strong tug of nostalgia when he returned to the Portofino this week as the official starter for the fifth leg of the fourth annual event, flagging off ribbon clerks in showroom stocks.

Oh, there are a few legitimate racers, such as Scott Brayton, who has driven five Indy 500s, and Jeff Andretti, the younger son of Mario. Driving in the Performance Touring Class, they get their chances to smoke when the One Lap deviates for a few “rallycross” hot laps at Laguna Seca, Road Atlanta, Lime Rock, Conn., and Mid-Ohio that figure in the scoring.

Otherwise, they keep it on cruise control at 55 m.p.h. and try to time their driving to hit the 50 checkpoints at assigned times. They started at Detroit last Friday and will finish there Sunday, after passing through 30 states.

The last two winners have missed perfect scores by only 50 and 36 seconds. That’s where John Buffum comes on strong. Buffum, of Colchester, Vt., is a nine-time U.S. pro rally champion and won the One Lap in ’85.

There also is still room for the odd lighthearted entry. One is Rocky Aoki, the Benihana restaurant tycoon who also races offshore powerboats and hot air balloons.

Last year Aoki drove a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith with a microwave oven to cook his frozen steaks. This time he and a crew of three have a $75,000 custom converted 1922 Ford delivery van, with color TV, VCR, microwave, exercise machine and cases of Japanese beer strapped to the running boards.

At the Redondo stop, Aoki complained that his cellular phone didn’t work.

“I can’t talk to my office,” he said.

Despite having a new engine, the van had a fuel system problem in Mexican Hat, Utah, then split its oil filter passing through Barstow late last Sunday night.

Later, at Redondo Beach, the crew relaxed in the Portofino parking lot and passed around Japanese beer.

The event’s 62 entries had bad times with strong winds in western Colorado and snow around Salt Lake City. Aoki said he hasn’t had time to cook any of his steaks along the way.

When they get hungry, most of the competitors, their cars plastered with sponsors’ stickers and extra headlights, duck into fast-food stands along the way--right up to the drive-through window.

“They usually give us a double take but we don’t have time to explain much to them,” Andretti said.

For all Gurney knows, that Arizona highway patrolman still doesn’t know what was happening.

“I didn’t tell him we were competing in anything,” Gurney said. “I didn’t even want to do it until the last minute, and the thing that made me change my mind was that my father-in-law died.

“He was a relatively young man, and I thought he’d worked hard all his life and had just got to where he and his wife and family were all comfortable, and along came a very virulent kind of cancer and that was it.

“I thought, ‘What is life all about, anyway? It’s not necessarily fair. I’m gonna do it.’ ”

Gurney and Yates figured they were leading when they saw the cop in Arizona.

“I was gonna have to stop for gas pretty soon, so I asked Brock, ‘What shall we do?’ There was a town about 15 miles up the road, so we said, ‘Let’s take it up to about 130 and cruise on in there. The cop won’t be able to go as fast as we’re going.’ ”

Yates said: “Dan kept saying, ‘He won’t catch us.’ I said, ‘Dan, he’s catching us.’ ”

Gurney: “We pulled up to a gas pump. We weren’t there too long and here came the cop. His Dodge would do about 130, so he wasn’t too far behind. He was red as a beet . . . wasn’t too happy about the whole thing.

“He wrote us up--the crime crusher--and then he tried to get friendly.”

Yates: “The cop recognized Dan. When he got through with him he asked, ‘How fast will that thing go?’ Dan said, ‘Why don’t you come out on the freeway and find out?’ ”

Yates hustled the ruffled Gurney back into the car before the cop could accept the challenge.

“We did run at 170 in one brief spurt, just to see,” Yates said.

Gurney and Yates won the race in 35 hours and 54 minutes--the fastest anyone had ever traveled coast to coast without leaving the ground.

Gurney said: “The funniest part was that we beat three attorneys in a Cadillac by only one hour, and they had been stopped seven times by the police.”

The three lawyers were delivering the Cadillac to a client on the West Coast.

“They drove it absolutely wide open the whole way,” Gurney said. “They passed us just out of Albuquerque on some ice and snow.”


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