They broke laws in 13 states and 93 counties, reaching speeds of 160 mph, on a 2,683-mile trip from New York to Los Angeles. The jaunt should realistically take over 41 hours – they did in under 29 driving an innocuous looking Mercedes that was decked out with more gear than a Oklahoma stormchaser’s rig.
The Cannonball Run transcontinental race
The race became popular in the 1970’s. Formally called the Cannonball Baker Sea to Shining Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, or Cannonball Run for short, the unsanctioned automobile race started in the Red Ball Garage on 31st Street in New York City, and continued to the Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach, California. The first race winner completed the run in 35 hours and 53 minutes hitting speeds of over 130 mph and averaging 83 mph throughout the race. The record was soon broken by a team that made the trip in 32 hours and 51 minutes, averaging 87 mph (afterward the racer bragged, “At no time did we exceed 175 mph.”)
The Cannonball Run was eventually replaced by a more organized event, the US Express. As a result, times dropped throughout the 80’s. In 1983, a driver in a Ferrari 308 knocked half an hour off the record completing the race in 32 hours and 7 minutes. The record stood for 23 years until 2006, when a BMW M5 smashed the record, turning in a finger-numbing 31 hours 4 minute time.
Record-breaking 28 hour 50 minute race across the United States
For years it was thought that the 31-hour mark would be difficult to beat. The 30-hour mark was deemed impossible. A crew of three however, felt it could be handily beaten with a little bit of forethought and a whole bunch of technology. After careful planning, on October 19, 2013, they made the run in a jaw-dropping 28 hour 50 minute time.
The race began in New York on October 18 at 9:55 PM. Over the 2,686-mile journey, they averaged over 100 mph and reached top speeds of 160 mph. They stopped only three times for gas and despite passing more than a dozen cops on the way, received no speeding tickets.
What does it take to travel in an automobile across the country in less than 29 hours? If you think smokescreen generators, a rear oil-dispensing unit, and radar absorbing paint – you wouldn’t be too far off. The drivers began with an innocuous looking vehicle, one that doesn’t draw attention while offering high-performance speed and racetrack-like handling. They chose a Mercedes of course.
Installed in the Mercedes were 3 navigation systems, 3 radar detector models, 2 laser jamming systems, a CB radio, police scanner, and a 3rd party tracking device (to record the trip). To eliminate as many fuel stops as possible, two additional 22-gallon gas tanks were installed in the trunk (which was vented). A panel of switches was installed on the dash which allowed the drivers to control equipment, for instance, to kill the radar detectors when passing authorities or shut down the car’s rear lights to foil a pursuing squad car. Even an ambulance traffic light changer was installed so drivers could control traffic lights and avoid slowdowns when their route forced them to pass through cities. A $9,000 engine tune-up was icing on the cake.
It wasn’t just equipment that won the race. Five different sets of “scouts” were deployed along the route. At various stages, the scouts would drive 150 miles ahead of the race vehicle to map out conditions and speed traps. Instructions were then relayed to drivers who were an hour or so behind.
The crew inside the car alternated between driving, resting, monitoring equipment, and scanning ahead using good old-fashioned binoculars. The car was stocked with energy drinks, coffee, and snacks. They were careful to leave on the weekend on a day with clear weather and a full moon (for nighttime visibility). They rarely stopped, only three times for gas, and peed in bottles or out the window. Total time spent not driving was only 46 minutes.