The COVID Cannonball Run

words: James Edmonds, photos: JR Photon

Editor’s Note: This article originally ran in the Q4_2020 issue of quattro Magazine. If you would like to subscribe to quattro Magazine, please join Audi Club here.

The title suggests exactly what you think it suggests. So, before we get on with the story, let’s get the disclaimers out of the way. No quattro Magazine staffers were involved. Nor were any Audi Club members, employees of Audi AG, Audi of America nor anyone else we know…not very well anyway. We don’t condone the practice. We don’t endorse public recklessness in any way shape or form. We don’t like speeding (I have to say that, but you can guess where my tongue is). We are however a group of gearheads who love capable cars, racing, and in particular, anything of interest where four rings are associated. It would therefore be irresponsible of us not to report this story. If you want to flip the channel, now is the time.

Recently, and being aided by less-trafficked roads as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cannonball record has recently been smashed. It was then beaten again by the holder of the previous record – he of course, not wanting to be outdone. All the recent records were, it has to said, made with Audi vehicles. More on that later, but first, a little history.

Those familiar with the grass roots of the motoring industry may have read about the Cannonball through the pages of Car & Driver. Brock Yates famously documented his attempts, most notably with then just-retired All American Racers founder and Formula One legend Dan Gurney, when they drove a blue Ferrari Daytona to a first place finish in 1971 with a time of 35 hours 54 minutes at an average speed of 80.8mph. Remember those numbers. It’s doubtful however that they imagined 50 years on, the event would still be going on and the stories would become the stuff of urban legend.

If you grew up in the ‘70s or ‘80s, you would have been made aware of the Cannonball Run, most likely at the movies. Vanishing Point, The Gumball Rally, and the Cannonball Run were all hits that became cult-classics in the same vein as Smokey and the Bandit, though many didn’t realize that the event itself was real!

The movies – which were all comedies – featured several seemingly ridiculous storylines that were actually fact based. The Cadillac being delivered across country for a fee was in fact Cannonballed. The ambulance? Real. Remember Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. as the priests? The real team was called The Flying Fathers. The two voluptuous ladies in the Countach? The GMC dually smashing though the hedge at the start of the race? The list goes on.

The event was originated as an endurance run and not a timed run by a talented motorcycle and Indy racer by the name of Erwin “Cannon Ball” Baker as far back as 1914 when he rode an Indian motorcycle for 11 days straight from “sea to shing sea”, thus later giving birth to the epic event name, “The Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash”. Baker went on to do many more culminating in the mid ‘30s record-breaker when he drove from New York to L.A. on two-lane roads – solo – in 53 hours with 30 minutes of sleep somewhere in the heartland.

The event was formalized in 1971 when it was decided by Brock Yates and a small “committee” that the only way to ensure accurate timing was for participants to punch a clock at the Car & Driver parking garage in NY (the Red Ball Garage – still there today) and do the same at the Portofino Inn – a racers’ hangout (also still there) – in Redondo Beach, Los Angeles. The time between the two points would be the official time and famously, the only rule was that “there are no rules”.

Dan Gurney was hesitant about doing the drive for the very same reasons cited by PC-minded individuals today. He felt that it would be deemed socially irresponsible and tarnish his good name at a time when he had just hung up his helmet and started his business in earnest. Especially if he were seen to be a renegade protester. In the early ‘70s of course, this was what you did as a young liberal American.

Protester I hear you say? That’s right. The event plan was hatched as a protest against the 55 miles-per-hour national speed limit, seen as the “dumbest law since prohibition” and this phrase was plastered on the cover of Car & Driver along with a photo of some of the teams with their cars. Yates and his friends were of the mind that driving a well maintained, high performance car at high speed across the interstates of America could be done safely in much the same way that Germans had been using their Autobahn for decades. Hell, Bernd Rosemeyer drove an Auto Union streamliner to a speed of 268.432 mph on the Autobahn near Frankfurt back in 1938, and by the 1970s anyone with a car was only limited by their own machinery or bravery on the highway system of then West Germany.

That brings us to today. The Cannonball is alive and well but lives underground as a secret society of sorts. In today’s culture of political correctness, it’s not de rigueur to speak of such things in polite society perhaps for fear of recrimination.

quattro spoke to Tim Daly, one of the many Cannonballers. He has done the event in some of its many guises. There have been events for different classes with varying criteria, even down to a LeMons-esque run where the budget for the event including the car is capped at $2904 ($1 per mile) and the car has to be pre-1985. These runs are not designed to break the record but allow like-minded folk to experience the dash. But what about COVID-19? Was there a rule about this? “It’s tough to say. I’m a firm believer in the asterisk,” says Daly. “Without it, the dream of Cannonball is pretty much over. It’s not reasonable to plan what was accomplished in these times under normal conditions.”

The asterisk. Some feel that any run made during the height of COVID will have to be categorized separately, but again, the “there are no rules” thing kicks in.

The reason this began in the first place is still the ethos behind the present day runs, Tim reiterates. “The essence of Cannonball is not to get caught. It’s to prove that you can drive a lot faster than the ridiculous speed limits we have here in the US and not bring attention to ourselves.”

Tim, being a part of the “Cannonball Club” if you will, was the one who put quattro in touch with Arne Toman, the holder of the latest – and likely definitive – all-time record. Due to the sensitive nature of the information being exchanged and the possibility of a knock at Arne’s door from John Q Law, Tim had several exchanges with us prior to the connection finally being allowed.

Arne has done seven events in total. He has placed first or high in the rankings in most of them and was the previous record holder for six years until November 2019 with a time of 27:25 set in a Mercedes E63 AMG. This beat the previous best time by 90 minutes. That time was then beaten when the current pandemic hit – by three teams successively, all driving Audi A8 or S8 models suitably modified.

Asked about his opinion on the whole COVID-19 question, Arne has a different take than Tim. “In Cannonball there is one rule: There are no rules. There is no sanctioning body for this except for Ed Bolian – the record holder from 2013 – he’s the guy who officiates everything. He looks at all the evidence to make sure it’s legitimate, but really it’s the public perception. If they think it counts, it counts! To me it doesn’t matter that much because I have both records!”

The previous record was made in the aforementioned E63 AMG, so why the switch to Audi? Was it the recent popularity by the other COVID runners? “No. The only reason I didn’t use the Benz was because it got destroyed by an 18-wheeler! On April 4th, the weekend that the A8 broke the record, I was scouting for a team in a VW Passat diesel (there is a separate category for diesels too!) who were going for the record – which they got.

“I ran them across my home state just scouting ahead of them. When I got near the state line, I pulled off on a well-lit shoulder, put my hazards on and got out to film them going by. It was late at night and as I walked around my car there was a semi-truck heading straight for my Mercedes! I dove out of the way and thankfully didn’t get hit. 12 hours later my record was broken by the guys in the A8. So, I was stuck without a car and stuck without a record.

“I needed a car quickly. I bought a Corvette that was set up for Cannonball with fuel cells and everything. I then spent a week fixing that up, then took it for a drive and said, ‘No way I’m not driving that fiberglass coffin across the country!’ With only a few days left, traffic was starting to pile up as people weren’t listening to the ‘stay home’ quarantine. They did for a few weeks but then said, ‘forget it’.”

It was at this time that Arne called a friend who owned an S6 that was pretty much mechanically ready to run. “It already has RS 7 turbos, downpipes and a heat exchanger upgrade. I called him a few days before we were supposed to leave and said that I needed to buy his car and turn in into a Cannonball car in the next three days.”

During my research for this article, I found out that these record runs usually go unannounced to all but the Cannonball community for a year when the statute of limitations expires, and the drivers can avoid being collared. Why then was Arne all over social media and talking to me? “Ed Bolian has my GPS feed, I’ve got time stamped pictures from start to finish, full GPS data…but I haven’t released it publicly. Everything I’ve released has been carefully looked at. There’s really no way to pinpoint who was driving, when, where or how fast.”

Planning an event like this would normally take some serious time and a lot of effort, but having just done the run a few months prior, Arne already had a team of friends – most of whom had been staying home due to COVID-19 – as well as all of the electronic equipment required to get the S6 ready in just a few days. His team were of course motivated by the fact that time was not on their side, and they also wanted their record back. “I had the same team from November and I have a repair shop called The Cannonball Garage. Once I got the car in, I had four guys turning wrenches 24 hours a day for three days.”

Unlike sanctioned events with specific rules and structure, this one, remember, has none. So how do you pick a team and how many? “It’s me and my co-driver and we have one dedicated spotter. All his job is, is to be on the binoculars, listen to the police scanner, and allow us to just focus on the driving.  We also have scouts around the country running ahead of us.

“This is a mathematical equation. You have to figure out when to leave, what time you’re going to arrive at each city along the way. You need to avoid any traffic and be out with the least amount of cars possible. You need to figure out how to get out of New York and when to get to LA at the best time along the way. We also have a live GPS feed so that the scouts are able to see where we are. We had a guy on each coast who managed all of the scouts, telling them when to leave.

“We left New York at 6 PM on Saturday which is usually impossible. That was really the only advantage we had. We were able to extend our night driving and made it to Denver at an average speed of 120mph.”

Arne, interestingly, has never been pulled over during any of his attempts, so intricate is the meticulous planning.

Besides the engine mods and an array of electronic law enforcement-thwarting devices, the S6 was equipped with a fuel cell increasing the capacity to 66 gallons, which meant only four stops were needed. For 3000 miles! As always though, with the best laid plans, something inevitably goes wrong. “We had a guy waiting for us in Colorado to fill us up, but he forgot to fill the factory tank, so we had to make a fifth short stop for an extra 20 gallons.” If you can imagine it, think about driving Le Mans with two drivers doing two six-hour stints each…on the road at speeds up to 175 mph. That takes some serious concentration and mental focus. And no, they didn’t stop for driver changes in between. Of historical importance, the runs still start at the same Red Ball Garage in Manhattan and end at the same Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach.

The other piece of skullduggery which gave a nod to the movies, was the Audi’s clever disguise. Dubbed by Arne as the Fraud Taurus, the team had strategically placed body colored tape over the lights to emulate the popular police cruiser. Black wheels with silver centers and reflective body tape added to the look, and the ruse was made complete with the addition of a blue oval on the grille with Audi in the famous Ford script.

I asked Arne which of his runs was more satisfying. Pre-COVID or the record breaking COVID run? “The 27:25 was by far the most satisfying of the runs,” he replied. “Ed’s 28:50 had stood for six years and was touted as unbeatable. To beat that was a huge accomplishment. This latest 25:39 run was much easier. Everyone knew it was the perfect time to run, so it really wasn’t a surprise that we ran that time.” Just to save you the calculations, that’s 2900 miles at an overall average of 114mph. Let that sink in.

So, no matter your initial impression of Cannonball, does this prove the protests? Is it safe to be on American highways driving at three figure speeds? There have been numerous studies which suggest that it is and that slow driving dulls the senses. Perhaps variable speed limits in town or on the open roads would be one solution. It works in Europe after all.

I wonder what Brock Yates and Dan Gurney would make of this? They had nothing but a Ferrari Daytona, a few maps and a stout pair of attachments. What time could they have made with modern conveniences? If you’re familiar with the Michael Sarrazin and Raul Julia Cannonball movie, I’ll leave you with one word.