Cannonball Run: A Road Trip Like No Other

by Shelli Stein

Some people like to travel in planes, some in trains, some by car, and some by foot. It’s really about getting from point A to point B……or is it? For some it’s much more than that. They prefer the fabled Cannonball Run! You might know the popular 1981 action/comedy movie by that name. Or maybe you’ve had a more personal experience with the run.

I heard about the revival of the Cannonball Run during the pandemic because it surprised many people that it was being run even in 2020. During the COVID-19 pandemic the record was broken multiple times, taking advantage of a reduction in both road users and law enforcement presence. I became fascinated by the story and the people involved in the adventure. I do enjoy the open road and driving, and I do like to run, but I still doubt whether I’m well-suited to join any Cannonball Run team!

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Cannonball Run History

Cannonball Run’s history is about more than setting cross-country records. It’s about man and machine and our insatiable appetite to conquer the open road and the love of “the drive”. The Cannonball Run began as an unofficial, unsanctioned automobile race run five times in the 1970s from New York City and Darien, Connecticut, on the East Coast of the United States to the Portofino Inn in the Los Angeles suburb of Redondo Beach, California.

Vehicles are customized for a single purpose: to complete the Cannonball Run. The run is thought to be one of the great underground feats in American car culture. The goal is to do it faster than anyone in history. It’s unofficial, unsanctioned, and spectacularly illegal, which is maybe why the Cannonball had been a staple of automotive lore for almost a half century.

Cannonball Run Rules

The rules are simple: Drivers start in Manhattan, at the Red Ball Garage on East 31st Street, and finish at the Portofino, a hotel in Redondo Beach, California. That’s 2800 miles. What happens in between is up to them. Not surprisingly, the race requires stamina, creativity, and a disregard for traffic laws.

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Can Cannonball Run Records Still Be Broken?

It was thought that the record couldn’t be broken. Why? Two main reasons: too many cars on the road, and every innovation in engineering and technology was already in place during previous runs. It seemed the Cannonball Run had run its course and new records were no longer possible, however………….

The arrival of the coronavirus and the lockdown emptied America’s roads. Traffic is the most unpredictable variable in any Cannonball Run. During COVID it became a nonissue. The roads were clear. As Americans hunkered down, a group of Cannonball obsessives spotted a moment of rare opportunity. It seemed the record was there for the taking.

Learn more about what happened during the pandemic, the conditions for record breaking runs, this human interest story, where the name cannon ball came from, the history of its comings and goings as an event, and that it can even be done in a rental car!

As the article reminds us, “The romance of the American road trip is rooted in a simple, time-honored notion: Only by driving—ideally slow, meandering driving—can we fully appreciate the vastness of this country. Fly overhead and you’ll reach your destination more quickly, but you’ll also miss everything in between. The Cannonball Run flips that idea on its head, inviting us to see that even when experienced on four wheels, the country can be made to seem quite small, conquerable even—something you can wrap your arms around.”

Of course though, the Cannonball Run flips all that romance of the American road trip on its head. It’s designed to avoid spontaneity!

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What Compels People To Do The Run?

Cannonballers call themselves a “fraternity of lunatics” and see the race as a last chance to be part of a legacy of exploration and adventure. “What compels these people to get in these cars and drive like madmen and then get out at the end and be like, ‘That was cool’?” asked Travis Bell, a longtime Cannonballer. It’s a good question. Maybe because so few have done it and there aren’t a lot of ‘no one else has done its’ left in the world.”

If you’ve had any experience with the Cannonball Run, let us know. Always great to hear from insiders!

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Chris September 17, 2022 - 12:12 pm

You’re missing the entire point of the original Cannonball, which was to protest the 55 MPH national speed limit.

Shelli September 17, 2022 - 12:13 pm

Appreciate you adding this to the story, Chris!

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DaninMCI September 17, 2022 - 1:38 pm

Although the Cannonball movies did better in the box office, the Gumball Rally movie is a bit more accurate as far as how covert it is and how they paid tribute to the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. It’s really too bad they are all so campy but to have an actual documentary would lead to legal issues I would assume.

During Covid, the Coast to Coast record attempts also involved only one vehicle at a time. While I didn’t have a chance during covid to test the Coast to Coast attempt. I did do a run from KC to Phoenix in my 911 in May 2020. It was a spectacular time to be on the road. We will never see that again. It was a beautiful run until I had a mechanical issue on the way back in New Mexico that hurt my time. The current 25:39 transcon record blows my mind. Even with multiple drivers, in order to keep a 110mph average is incredibly hard on the car.

I think for the average tourist car enthusiast that is interested in this sort of adventure they would do better with the One Lap of America. It is organized and much more legal and run by Brock Yates who really made the Cannonball famous.

Shelli September 17, 2022 - 2:51 pm

You make good points, Dan. It would make for an interesting documentary. I hadn’t thought about that. And thanks for sharing the experience of your May 2020 run. Wow. I’ll bet it was incredible to be on such empty roads. Surreal even. Also, sharing the One Lap of America info might just help someone else get some road thrills. Thanks for taking the time to bring your insider knowledge outside!

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