“They Went And Did It”: The Real Cannonball Run

Jamie Hayes

If someone told me, “What if a bunch of crazy people raced from New York to LA on public roads, with the only rule being the fastest time wins,” I’d say, “That sounds like a good idea for a movie.” Well, it is a good idea for a movie. No fewer than five movies and a TV show have been made around that exact premise. But this wasn’t some elevator pitch cooked up by a desperate screenwriter. Nope; Cannonball Run, The Gumball Rally, and the rest can all boast the “Based on a true story” tagline—because, as Car and Driver put it in their legendary article on the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash: “Those damn fools, they went and did it.”

Moon Trash II

The Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash was the brainchild of two Car and Driver editors: Former auto racer Brock Yates and Steve Smith. As traffic laws across the country began to tighten up, Yates and Smith wanted to find their own way to protest. They also wanted to show off the United States’ Interstate System, which made driving from coast to coast a breeze. The answer was obvious: They had to plan a race.

Technically, the first Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, or C2C, took place on May 3, 1971, but since there was just one vehicle, we can’t exactly call it a “race.” It was more of a proof of concept. The merry gang of Yates, his son, Smith, and a friend, Jim Williams, piled into a custom Dodge Sportsman Van dubbed “Moon Trash II” and left New York around midnight, heading west.

Moon Trash II rumbled across the Los Angeles finish line 40 hours and 51 minutes later. It was the start of something big. Just a few months later, in November 1971, the real show began.


A crazed crew driving across the country in a van called Moon Trash II is one thing. A full-on race, with Ferraris, Cadillacs, and yes, more vans—that’s another. But on November 15, 1971, not long after midnight, the first true C2C outlaw race began. Six cars, holding 16 eccentric racers, pulled out of the Red Ball Garage on East 31st Street, New York City. Two more cars joined the race a few hours later, in Connecticut. Eight cars, 23 people, and nearly 3,000 miles to go.

The finish line was the parking lot of the Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach, California. There was only one rule: The car that made it there in the fastest time was the winner. Speed limits? Nope. A required route? Of course not. Disqualification for getting pulled over? Are you nuts? No one would make it. Get to LA, and get there fast. The rest is up to you.

And what were these 21 men and two women racing for? A giant check? A fancy sports car? I think you know the answer. The only thing you won was a monstrous trophy donated by S-K Tools called the Nutmaster. The drivers bought their own gas, paid their own speeding tickets, and didn’t see a dime. It wasn’t about money, or fame, or even the Nutmaster. It was about glory.

It’s All About Strategy

If someone asked you to drive from New York to LA as fast as possible, how would you do it? What route would you take? What car would you drive? Would you try to maximize mileage to avoid stopping to refuel, or just keep the pedal on the floor the whole time? See, even though the C2C sounds about as simple as it gets, there was a lot to consider—and teams came up with all kinds of strategies.

The first vehicle to leave, earning the “pole” position by nature of being driven by the Polish Racing Drivers of America, tried to minimize time stopping at gas stations. How’d they do that? By driving a Chevy Sportvan rigged to hold nearly 300 gallons of gasoline. It was comically heavy and slow, but it wouldn’t waste time refueling. Would it pay off?

Other teams decided that simple speed was going to be the answer. The men driving the Cadillac DeVille had the highest average speed of any car in the race. Unfortunately, that not only cost them in gas mileage, but it also led to five run-ins with the law, which cost them several hours in the end.

(The team in the Cadillac, we should note, didn’t own the car. They didn’t have a vehicle for the race, so they scoured the classified section until they found an NYC businessman who needed someone to drive his Caddy to the West Cost. To protect his precious DeVille, almost brand-new, the man told them not to drive before 8 am, nor after 9 pm, and to never exceed 75mph. Those rules were not followed.)

Racing Pedigree

I doubt it surprised anyone at the Portofino Inn when they saw a Blue Ferrari Daytona pulling into the parking lot first. Not only was it a Ferrari, but it had legendary American auto racer Dan Gurney behind the wheel. Gurney had already etched his name into racing history with his victory at the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans, but now he could add the Nutmaster to his accolades.

Gurney, with C2C founder Brock Yates as his co-pilot, finished the mad dash across the country in 35 hours and 54 minutes, averaging about 80mph across the whole journey. For such a chaotic event, Gurney and Yates executed the race to near-perfection. Their Ferrari had the best gas mileage of any car in the race. It also had remarkable performance in almost every category: acceleration, braking, cornering, you name it. Not too surprising it beat the Moon Trash II in that regard.

Gurney and Yates had the best steed, but they also played the race smart. They took a slightly longer route than most of the other racers, about 35 miles difference, but in doing so avoided slower roads, improving their overall time. They also avoided going much faster than 100mph, which helped them cover the 3,000 mile trip with only a single brush with highway patrols.

The best driver, the best car, the best strategy. Gurney and Yates were just a cut above, but it was a closer than you might expect: The first five cars crossed the finish line within just two hours of each other.

The 1971 Ferrari Daytona that won the first Cannonball Run

A Moment In Time

If you include the inaugural voyage of the Moon Trash II, the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash took place five times before Yates and Smith finally gave up the ghost. Increased traffic, increased law enforcement presence, and increased liability all meant that the C2C had to come to an end.

But no one thought an outlaw race from New York to LA with no rules and no speed limits would last forever. Yates and Smith definitely didn’t start the thing hoping to gain anything from it other than some fun and some good stories. The Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash existed just because it was a great idea, and it sure seemed fun while it lasted.

Sources: 1, 2

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