Board Track motorcycle racing AKA”Motordrome” was the rage in the early 1900’s. Manufactures were keen to sponsor such events to prove their bikes were the best. The newspapers called it the “Murderdrome” due to the high injury and fatality rate. The crowds turned out in droves to watch riders duke it out on constructed high bank wooden racetracks. Many riders young riders that were born out of the Motordrome scene went on to set Coast to Coast records. The record on a motorcycle between Los Angeles to New York was first set by Cannonball Baker in 1922. During the turn of the century many city to city records existed. However, Los Angeles and New York City would emerge as the dominate two cities. The route driven by Erwin “Cannonball” Baker would become coined the”Cannonball” from Los Angeles and New York City. Americans would celebrate the achievements of both man and machine. People would stand on the streets and cheer as these men barreled thru their towns. Manufactures would sponsor these underground/unsanctioned runs. The state of Indiana, (Bakers home) even “relaxed” speed limits when he passed thru.
In 1922 Baker left from Lincoln Park in Los Angeles, CA and traveled to Battery Park in New York City. The journey took him 6 days, 22 hours and 52 minutes. During those days the roads were primarily dirt, mud and sand. Roads built with bricks existed for a few miles within major cities. Much of the county was nothing more than glorified horse trails. Imagine no roadsigns, no GPS, no phones and maps were crude flip books of photographs.
Well Bennet whom was a famous track board racer, decided to take skills to the street. Bennet drove an Excelsior/Henderson and gave Baker a run for his money. Bennet beat Baker’s time by just a little over 6 hours.
As it is with modern cannonball attempts, innovation was the order of the day. People seeing to break the record would tinker and learn from those that have gone before. Even in the early days Baker modified his lights on the bike to increase night time visibility. I read reports of motorcycle club members meeting up and riding some of the route with these pioneers.
In 1935 Earl Robinson shorted time nearly in half! He did the run between Los Angeles and New York in 3 days, 6 hours, and 53 minutes. This is a testament to road improvement and bike horsepower. Manufactures were keen to prove who had the most horsepower.
One year later Rody Rodenberg set a time of just 71 hours and 20 minutes. Rody claimed he was fatigued and missed a turn in Colorado. This caused him to go over 100 miles out of his way. This cost him valuable time. Reports say Rody had a full support crew from Indian, including a pick up truck. AMA member Dot Robinson claimed that they had cheated and had relief riders. Unfortunately we will never know if that is true.
In 1959 John Penton set a time of 52 hours and 11 minutes, for the Los Angeles to New York solo motorcycle run. The trek was made on a BMW R69S. John Penton and others would install larger gas tanks and additional fuel cells. John went on to revolutionize the dirt biking forever with his invention of aluminum framed bikes. Manufactures would sponsor some of these men in the early days.
A college student by the name of Tibor Sarossy, set a record in 1968 of 45 hours and 41 minutes. Tibor used a homemade fuel cell made of jerry cans, which allowed for a reported four fuel stops. He also claims he never slept, though he did pass out from a diet of 12 Hershey Bars and coffee at the produce inspection station in California. He averaged 58.7mph on a BMW R69S.
Fred Boyajian whom set the record in 1969. Fred told me that he road most of the summer as a college student the summer before his attempt. He would see the poster of Tibor record hanging in the BMW Dealerships. When he was in a bar one evening he told someone he could break it….someone said ” it will be broken some day, but not by the likes of you”! Fred said this set him off, on his cross country record odyssey. Fred didn’t fool around ,he decided to “go big or go home” he used a beer keg as his extra fuel cell! Fred secure a beer keg, and welded a filler bung to it. He covered it in canvas so not to raise suspicion. The keg didn’t have any baffles so he really had a tough go, when the tank started sloshing around. He said it was difficult to wrestle with as he crossed the country. If that wasn’t bad enough he also lost a 5 cent screw that held his headlight in place. This really slowed him down, as it was dark and all the stores were closed. He continued on following the tail lights of the car in front of him. When I asked him what he had to eat, he replied ” a friend had a submarine sandwich shop” that hooked him up before he left. He got pulled over once for speeding in Flagstaff. Some had wagered against him, and his trip was fraught with multiple challenges, he never gave up. For those that bet against him breaking the record, they would live to regret it. Fred smashed Sarossys time with 42 hours and 6 minutes. His dad was waiting for him at the western union station in Los Angeles where he ended the trip. Fred shared with me some photographs of his telegrams proving his start and finish times. Fred’s accomplishment was aired on the Today Show. Fred went on to become a pillar of the community and today is a retired business man.
After 1966 Guinness quit recording the records, as corporate attorneys were upset these motorcycle guys were getting all the girls. As much as the attorneys tried to remove it from the American culture, it only put more fuel on the fire.
From the 1920’s to the 1980’s someone would challenge this motorcycle record about every 10 years or so. There was a long break between 1983 and 2015 when I made my attempt.
After World War II the country was inspired by the German freeway system and decided to build the modern highways we know it today. During 1970’s some of these backwards thinking people tried to implement the failed “55 mph speed limit” on the highways. Prior to this time in parts of the country had speed limits 70 mph and up. Montana was posted as “reasonable and prudent”. These new speeding laws where a major step backwards, to closing the time between LA and NYC. To roll the speed limits back to 55 mph seemed very vacuous. We know now the propaganda campaign of ” 55 Saves Lives” was a complete failure. It did not reduce fatalities on the freeway. Instead, most states had an uptick. People were already accustom to driving at 70mph and dropping the speed down to 55mph contributed to boredom and distraction.
85% of Americans polled admit they drive faster than the posted speed limits
The University of Spain did a study of the speed limits in United States and determined it was strictly revenue driven.
Seventeen countries around the world enjoy 80 MPH speed limits today. I’m not saying that congested cities like Boston, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles or rural byways could support higher limits. Let me be clear, I am talking strictly freeways. Long desolate sections of road can support higher speeds safely. Sections between some cities are artificially low because more than 80% of travelers are already traveling at much higher speeds! Think vast open desert highways with traffic flowing at a “reasonable and prudent” speed. Barstow to Vegas, Bakersfield and Livermore come to mind. The fast lane is usually flowing above 90 mph even thought the posted is 70 mph.
When fatalities happen on the freeway, almost alway the officers write up the cause as ” Speed Related”. This keeps the money rolling into the county coffers with fine revenue. These fines pay for retirement and overtime. Legislators see “speed related” data and they can keep artificial caps on the highways. It all becomes a vicious circle.
While I don’t have all the answers, we could lower fatalities by enforcing use of the passing lane is only for passing. Volumes have been written that point out “It’s not the speed, but rather the slow drivers that cause the majority of accidents on the freeways”. Slow drivers in underpowered cars using the passing lane to travel to their destination is a huge problem in the USA. We should enact legislation to revoke drivers licenses of those using the passing lane for anything else but passing. If you don’t believe me I suggest you read ” American Autobahn” by Mark Rask.
My apologies, as I digress somewhat off the topic of cannonball records. It’s difficult to talk about coast to coast records without touching on speed limits. During the 70’s the great automotive journalist Brock Yates revived Americas fascination with the coast to coast record runs. His underground event know as the “Baker Memorial Dash, Sea to Shining Sea” was commonly referred to as “Cannonball Run”. Racing from east coast to west coast the “Cannonball” was open to cars and motorcycles. The event was so popular it was made into a hit movie. This event and its successor “U.S. Express” originated by, Richard Doherty ran without a single fatality for many years. With all the brainwashing that was going on regarding the 55 mph… The cannonballers proved the 55 mph speed limit was horseshit!
One man George Egloff would enter a motorcycle in both the Cannonball and U.S. Express Runs. George was a soft spoken man that had incredible stamina. Although Georges times were lower than the cars entered in the event; he did not have the comforts of being out of the weather. George even tried a relay style crossing (3 men and 1 woman). Reports of that attempt said it was a disaster, multiple speeding tickets slowed the relay team down. George returned to the U.S. Express the following time solo. In 1983 the final event held by U.S. Express, George set a time of 42 hours flat. This record, like most cannonball records was controversial. George Egloff managed to break the previous record held by Fred Boyajian, by only 6 minutes. Georges time was the first ever recorded with a time of 42 hours with no minutes. Egloff’s departure, arrival an awards dinner/ceremony were all captured on film noting his time.
After the U.S. Express stopped, the motorcycle cannonball community went dormant. Coast to Coast records fell out of favor for the risk of being sued. I doubt Baker gave much thought about being sued. Baker went on to set 143 records in his lifetime. History shows these cannonball “Iron Riders” were made of the same iron their bikes were.
List of the motorcycle records between Los Angeles and New York City:
- Erwin “Cannonball” Baker drove his Ace motorcycle from LA to NYC in 6 days, 22 hours, and 52 minutes, in 1922.
- Well Bennet rode a Excelsior/Henderson in 1922 to cross NYC to LA in 6 days, 16 hours, and 13 minutes.
- Earl Robinson in 1935 did the run in 3 days, 6 hours, and 53 minutes.
- Rody Rodenberg and his record of 71 hours and 20 minutes, June 17-20, 1936, on an 1936 Indian scout. This record was disputed by AMA Member Dot Robinson.[A]
- John Penton set a time of 52 hours and 11 minutes, for the Los Angeles to New York solo motorcycle run in 1959. The trek was made on a BMW R69S.[B]
- Tibor Sarossy, at the time a college student, set a record in 1968 of 45 hours and 41 minutes. Tibor used a homemade fuel cell made of jerry cans, which allowed for a reported four fuel stops. He also claims he never slept, though he did pass out from a diet of Hershey Bars and coffee at the produce inspection station in California. He averaged 58.7mph on a BMW R69S.[C]
- Fred Boyajian set a new time on October 11, 1969 with a time of 42 hours and 6 minutes. Fred used a beer keg to proved extra fuel. Evidence provided was Western Union telegrams at New York City and Los Angeles. [D]
- George Egloff in 1983 set the record of 42 hours, recorded by witnesses participating in the event. [E
- Carl Reese left from West Valley Cycle Sales BMW Dealership in Winnetka, California at 3:15 A.M. PST on August 28th, 2015. Reese arrived at BMW Motorrad dealership in Manhattan, NY at 9:04 P.M. EST on August 29th, 2015. Traveling 2829 miles in 38 hours and 49 minutes, on a K1600GT BMW motorcycle. The trip was documented by notaries at both start and finish.[F]
If you want to learn more about the history of Cannonball Baker I suggest reading “Finding Cannon Ball’s Trail” by Done Emde. For more about the “American’s 100 History of Transcontinental Records” watch my keynote.
A. American Motorcyclist. June 1999. p. 11
B. “John Penton profile”. motorcyclemuseum.org.
C. Motor Cycle News. November 7, 1968. p. 9.
E. Documentary by Cory Wells ” 32 hours 14 Minutes”
F. Wired Magazine article.