Every car guy has seen the movie The Cannonball Run, the star studded action comedy about an eccentric group of competitors participating in a wild and illegal cross-country road race. For those of you who need your memory jogged here is the opening sequence which was also probably the first time I ever saw a Lamborghini Countach.
A few years ago while at a bookstore (when they still existed) I came across Brock Yate’s book Cannonball! I’m not much of a reader but I figured if there was something I could get interested in it would be this. I bought the book and learned about the real life events that inspired the silly movie.
Yates outlines his motivation for putting together the now infamous Cannonball Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash; a flat out, no-holds-barred race from New York City to Redondo Beach, California. Setting out to prove that well trained drivers could safely navigate the American highways at speeds in excess of the posted limits.
In the book Yates gives the behind the scenes scoop on the running of the events in 1971, 1972, 1975, and 1979. He covers making the 1971 run with Dan Gurney in a Ferrari Daytona which topped out at 172 miles per hour. Running a Cotton Owen’s prepped Challenger in 1972 and 1975 and lastly making the run in a outrageously disguised ambulance in 1979.
The Yates Challenger
As I mentioned, I probably read the book ten years ago, and placed it on my bookshelf and forgot about it. Until my friends at the New England Auto Museum sent me an email for an event that needed to be promoted. On June 2, 2017 I attended Cannonball Reunion in Greenwich, Connecticut.
The event was a gathering of original cannonballers and their cars! The evening started with a gather outside with the cars. Cannonball cars on display included:
- Dan Gurney/Brock Yates Ferrari 365 GTB/4 Daytona that won the race overall in 1971
- Brock Yates’ iconic 1972 Dodge Challenger built by NASCAR’s Cotton Owens
- Bill Warner’s 1975 Porsche 911T
- Travis Bell’s TransCon MediVac Ambulance recreation
- Alex Roy’s Polizei 144 BMW M5
The a panel discussion followed in the auditorium hosted by Mike Spinelli, Executive Producer, TheDrive.com at Time Inc., co-host of The Drive on NBC Sports and co-founder of Jalopnik.
Pamela Yates, wife of Brock Yates, who was the patient in 1979 in the bogus TransCon Medi-Vac Ambulance speeding cross-country to a special hospital because her “condition prevented her from flying,” told her story.
Judy Stropus, who was part of the Right Bra team in 1972 of three women dressed in pink bell-bottoms and bodysuits told about their accident in a Cadillac limousine.
Riding in a Travco motor home replete with gourmet chef creating fine dining for the crew in 1971, ’72 and ’75, Bill Brodrick (known as the “hat man” at the NASCAR races in the ’70s and ’80s), and Car and Driver writer William Jeanes recounted their adventures.
Other outlaws with zany recollections from the 1970s included Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance wizard Bill Warner, who still owns and drives the Porsche 911 he piloted in 1975, and Jack Cowell, who, with Pete Brock and Dick Gilmartin, were the “Flying Fathers” in 1972 in a Mercedes-Benz 280SEL, loaned to them by M-B p.r. rep at the time, Leo Levine. Levine was on hand to explain how he got away with that one. We heard from Bob Brown, who drove with Brock Yates in 1972 in the Cotton Owens-built Dodge Challenger, and Rich Taylor, the official starter at the Red Ball Garage in New York City. We also viewed videos from other outlaws, such as racing icon Dan Gurney, Pete Brock, Brock Yates Jr., and Anatoly Arutunoff.
Long after the dust settled from the original races, long-distance driver Alex Roy and David Maher, with filmmaker Cory Welles on board, set a new transcontinental record in a technology-laden BMW M5. Roy spoke and shared the wild highlights and showed some never-before-seen footage from the record run!
From my arrival I was starstruck by the stunning white Challenger and blue Ferrari. I really thought that was going to be the highlight of the evening. However, as the evening progressed it was amazing to see the stories in the book come to life. To a certain degree I felt like I already knew all these ‘characters’ but each of the participants conveyed such warmth and openness that transcended the stories in the book. You started to feel the bond they all had and appreciated the lasting mark this silly event had on their lives.