The Cannonball: Coast to Coast, As Fast As You Can Go!


In 1971 there was an obscure, unknown race that over the ensuing decades became the stuff of legend, and movies. “The Cannonball Baker Sea to Shining Sea Memorial Dash” was named after Erwin G. "Cannon Ball" Baker, a turn-of-the-20th century daredevil and successful automobile and motorcycle racer. 

Over the course of several decades, Baker challenged himself by seeing how quickly he could travel from Point A to Point B in a vehicle of some sort. This was at a time when many of the roads weren’t much better than dirt trails, and his legend started in 1914 when he traversed the country on a motorcycle in 11 days. Nineteen years later while driving alone in a Graham-Paige, he went from one coast to the other in a bit over 53 hours. 

The Cannonball's Creator

From this feat came the Cannonball, which ruminated from the fertile mind of Brock Yates. Yates was an insightful, prolific journalist with a serious iconoclastic streak and good sense of humor. In 1971 while working at Car & Driver, he, his son Brock Jr. and fellow C&D wordsmith Steve Smith took a modified van from coast to coast in a bit over 40 hours. As Yates noted in his marvelous book “Cannonball,” “The early 1970s was a time when illegal acts were in style. Everyone was going nuts with causes, most of them against the law…(That) was the unhinged fear and loathing that pervaded the land...Therefore, what better time to add to the national psychosis?”

And so was born the Cannonball Memorial Dash. “We convinced ourselves,” Yates went on to note, “that all manner of crazies, race drivers, hot car wackos, and fellow journalists would immediately throw in their lot if a coast-to-coast Cannonball was announced.”

In the first Cannonball, Brock Yates and Dan Gurney crossed the country in less than a day and a half in a Ferrari Daytona similar to this.

It didn’t quite turn out that way. The first contest was held in mid-November 1971, and a grand total of eight vehicles and “23 lunatics” participated. Winning it in approximately 36 hours in a Ferrari Daytona was Brock and his friend, racing ace Dan Gurney. Other Cannonballs were held in 1972, 1975 and 1979 before the underground contest officially came to an end. 

A Different Kind of Crazy

Flash forward four-plus decades, and the Covid-19 upheaval and even more insane market gyrations has created its own kind of national psychosis and unhinged fear. I recently found solace from the bombardment of this continual news reel when I stumbled across the aptly named COZI TV, a cable network that was playing deliciously crappy but entertaining shows from the 1970s. Think bionics, a soothing voice on a speakerphone who conversed with three angels, two detectives who ran around with a dude named “Huggy Bear,” and you get the idea.

The perfect comfort food for today's chaotic environment: escapist TV shows like "Starksy & Hutch," and their Gran Torino. It was definitely a different time and mindset...Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Looking at the atmosphere that existed back then, and the cars on the shows, it got me wondering if I knew what I know now, and could take a time machine back to that decade to go out and purchase any car to run in any or all of those Cannonballs, what would it be?

Which sent me down a very enjoyable rabbit hole. To tackle the burning question, it meant first determining a set of criteria for said car(s). Speed would obviously be needed, as would good brakes and handling, for there were 2,800+ miles to traverse in the least amount of time on a number of different types of roads. Reliability would also tantamount, for having any chance of finishing first in that cross-country trek, first you have to finish. You would be constantly driving and only stopping for gas, so the car's interior better be properly commodious, and comfortable. And you would want to have a light and airy greenhouse to help you see the cops that the CB channels might alert you about.

Away We Go!

Parameters laid down, I scanned all my digitized images to see what I could come up with. Out of the many options considered, here are five cool (and hopefully reliable!) Cannonball rides. Next week there will be five more, plus some which are still in slide form in the archive. Intriguingly, the fastest of all is also the oldest, so let’s start there, and work our way to the most modern…

  1. 1963 Ferrari 330 LMB. Ferrari built only four LMB’s, and out of the four my choice would be chassis 4619 SA. It was Ferrari’s development car, and early April 1963 it ran at the Le Mans test days and was clocked at 186 mph on the Mulsanne Straight. With speed definitely there in spades, what about reliability? That’s covered too, for a different LMB finished 5th overall and 1st in class at that year’s Le Mans. But what makes 4619 the choice of the litter is not long after the Le Mans time trials it was properly upholstered at Ferrari and sold off as a road car—which it has remained to this day.


  1. 1966-1969 Ferrari 330/365 GTC. Ever since the GTC model got into the hands of customers and road testers in 1966, it has been lauded as one of the best all-around Ferraris, and with good reason. A 330/365 GTC is so civilized you could have it as your only car, yet when you drop the hammer it gets up and moves, straight up to a maximum speed of around 150 mph. Back in the late 1970s I owned 330 GTC for a while; I think it cost me all of $9,000—a far cry from the mid-six figure price today.


  1. 1967-1972 Monteverdi 375 S/400 SS. What could be better for crossing the country at hyper speeds than having an extremely robust chassis, good suspension and brakes, with sleek styling and a Chrysler 440 under the hood? That’s the recipe for the extremely limited production machinery that was made by Switzerland’s Peter Monteverdi from 1967-1977. This particular second series 375 S spent several weeks under my care after a good friend bought it in the 1980s, and I found the car to be a very relaxed, comfortable and roomy grand tourer.


  1. 1968 Shelby Green Hornet. While you certainly couldn’t go wrong with a standard, 130+ mph GT500KR, this one-off Shelby test bed/development car came equipped with a trick 428 and upgraded automatic transmission. Back in the day the Hornet saw 157 mph during testing, and ran 0-100 in 11.4 seconds—which was quicker than the Daytona Yates and Gurney drove. It’s also extremely comfortable to drive, with a good ride, light controls and nice greenhouse for cop-spotting.


  1. 1969-1970 Lamborghini Islero 400 GTS. I had a real debate on whether to put a Lambo 350 GT on the list, for in the mid-1960s its comfort and refinement made Ferrari’s cars a bit agricultural in comparison. I ended up settling on the Islero GTS, for it was the last of the line to use the 350/400 GT drivetrain and chassis, and thus the most developed and (hopefully) reliable. It was also a legitimate 160 mph car, and a brilliant all-around performer. Indeed, so complete is this package that in the early 1990s this particular 400 GTS was my only car for the better part of a year, and I loved every minute of it.

Next week we will take a look at some more tasty potential Cannonball participants. Until then, if you could jump in a time machine and head back to the 1970s, what would be your perfect “blast across the country” machine, and why? Be sure to post your thoughts, for I'm running a contest until this April 10, and then my team and I will choose our favorite response. To tie in with our "across the USA" theme, the winner will get a copy of my American landscape/Zagato cars book that can be found on my storefront, and is signed by myself, Andrea and Marella Zagato. Have fun with this, keep your choice(s) period correct (able to be purchased new or used in 1979 or earlier), and be as creative as you wish! 



  • Winston Goodfellow

    David: A great choice. I’ve long been a fan of Super Duties, and missed a low mileage 4-speed ‘74 TA a good number of years ago when the price was around $20,000. The nice thing about a Formula is it does indeed have understatement, where the “Screaming Chicken” on the TA’s hood wouldn’t do you any favors. I recall the Car & Driver road test of a ‘73 SD with an automatic, and it was still sub-14 in the quarter, and handled and braked with the best of them. In other words, it’s still something I wouldn’t mind having in the garage today.
    And experiencing that dude’s Formula back in the day must have been something. According to the “Firebird Red Book,” 43 SD Formulas were made in ‘73, and 58 in ’74. Needless to say, your neighbor’s car was a rare Bird indeed (pun unintended…).

  • Winston Goodfellow

    Mark: Your logic makes total sense. In many ways, if a Corvette (or Bricklin, to go geeky) was indeed America’s sports car, then a Firebird was its GT car. Adding a fuel cell was something a lot of the actual racers did, which makes total sense. In Yates’ “Cannonball” book, a number of the competitors talk about installing them, and reading their stories of basically doing pit stops when they would pull into gas stations to fill up out in the middle of nowhere is great stuff.

  • Winston Goodfellow

    Winston: Your Monaco pick really isn’t that far out in left field. I’m in the midst of reading Brock Yates’ book “Cannonball,” which is a marvelous recounting of all the races, including listing every car that ran in them. Your “built” Monaco would have fit right in, for that’s what a number of the entrants did—have something nondescript modified by the right shop. And the nun idea somewhat mimics what several guys (which included Pete Brock of all people) did in the 1972 race, where they all got dressed up as fathers to say they were delivering the car to the monsignor in southern California!

  • Winston Goodfellow

    George: A good choice, for my brother had a 633 CSi that he loved. And that car was comfy at speed, for he often had it at 100 mph. There weren’t nearly as many cars in California back then…

  • Winston Goodfellow

    Matthew: You bring up some good cars. Daytona is fantastic, and like you note, it won the first race. Aston I would have been scared of, due to the temperament of the fuel injection system. The DBS V8 was a cool car, but I’m suspect of the reliability. Which is where your Grifo Can Am makes perfect sense (experience speaking there, thinking of a long ago jaunt through Europe in a friend’s). The Facel makes sense too, for it’s fast, should be reliable, and has a bit more understatement compared to the rest.
    And to answer your question on production numbers for the Grifo Can Am, you are correct. Total production was 24, of which 23 had the ZF 5-speed.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published