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Dan Gurney, Brock Yates and the Cannonball Run

-- Archived from 22/02/2021 --

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This is a story of dubious links to Formula One, but it is one that is worth telling regardless. This is the story of the Cannonball Run, 1971.

Brock Yates was born in Lockwood, New York on the 21st October 1933. He attended Hobart College in New York state to study journalism and screenwriting, having already started his career writing articles for “Science and Mechanics” magazine. In 1964, he joined “Car and Driver” magazine as an editor, and was given the job of elevating the magazine above its many competitors. 

It is with Car and Driver magazine that we meet our second protagonist. By 1964, Dan Gurney was well into his Formula One career, having driven a Ferrari, a BRM, a Lotus, multiple Porsches and was running with Brabham in his sixth season. His five races in NASCAR had netted him a victory, and he had unsuccessfully attempted to complete Le Mans 4 times. Through his motoring exploits, he had become familiar with the writers and editors of Car and Driver, and it is here that he comes to know Brock Yates. The magazine editor would even run a tongue-in-cheek campaign article, promoting the driver as a presidential candidate.

In ‘67, at the eighth time of asking, Gurney secured his only Le Mans win in a Ford GT40 alongside AJ Foyt, winning by 4 laps. By 1971, he had finished in NASCAR and F1, winning 5 and 4 races in each series respectively. Car and Driver had experienced a small upsurge of popularity, but Yates was determined to do something big. 

Inspired by the tales of Erwin “Cannon Ball” Baker, who had raced cross-country in various machines, Yates created the Cannonball Baker Dash aka the Cannonball Run. The Cannonball Run is a 2863 mile race from Red Ball Garage, New York, to the Portofino Inn, Redondo Beach, California, crossing the whole United States in the process. Yates and three other drivers teamed up in May 1971 to promote the later 1971 race, completing the route in 40 hours and 51 minutes. There were no rules.

That’s how 8 different vehicles found themselves in a car park in November 1971, ready to race the whole way across the USA. Opinion was split on approach, with three vans and a motorhome, modified for maximum fuel capacity, including the one used by Yates and his teammates earlier in the year. Yates himself had teamed up with Gurney to drive a beautiful blue Ferrari Daytona, with no modifications. With them were a Cadillac DeVille, an AMC AMX, the paragon of brutal 60s American muscle somehow mixed into a GT car, and an MGB GT. 

Amusingly, the Cadillac wasn’t owned by the pair of drivers running it. They had answered an advert asking it to be transported across the country, and decided to use the opportunity to run the race. It was by far the fastest car whilst travelling, but had to make 15 stops for fuel, and was pulled over by the police 5 times. 

One van had attempted to fuel for the whole journey, but had failed to account for the poorer fuel economy that would result from carrying multiple tons of fuel onboard, and so were forced to stop once on their trip. Despite that, and claiming they weren’t going to break the speed limit at any point, the all-Polish crew managed to finish the race in second place. 

The winners though, were, of course, Dan Gurney and Brock Yates. Despite being pulled over once, the team were able to triumph through a combination of Gurney’s excellent driving, comparatively good fuel economy, and a slightly faster route. Their finishing time was 35 hours and 54 minutes, averaging over 80mph.

The race would be the first of 4 throughout the 70s, and would lead to a slew of movies. Yates would go on to write Smokey and the Bandit II, Cannonball Run, and Cannonball Run II, which were very lightly based on events from that race. 

Even now, the record for the cannonball run is one that is highly contested. In 2020, it was broken three times, due to a decrease in traffic. One of those runs was in a rental Ford Mustang driven by a single driver and modded to have a 500 litre fuel capacity. The current record is 25 hours and 39 minutes, which averages to 110mph. The story of those runs, is perhaps saved for another day. 

 

 

-- Archived from 22/02/2021 --

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