A Team Exploited the Coronavirus Pandemic to Set a 26-Hour 38-Minute Cross-Country Record
Only a few months have passed since we reported that the New York-to-Los Angeles Cannonball record was broken. It’s allegedly been broken again. The 26 hour, 38 minute time—which beats the record set in November by more than 45 minutes—appears to be legitimate, according to Ed Bolian, a Cannonball insider and driver who set his own 28 hour, 50 minute record in 2013. Alex Roy, who set the first modern NYC-to-LA record in 2006, also said the new claim is credible based on his analysis of multiple sources.
“It was not me,” Bolian was quick to point out to Road & Track, eager to quell an Internet-generated rumor that perhaps he had been the one to pull it off.
All we know about this new set of scofflaws is that there were three, maybe four of them, and that they were driving a white 2019 Audi A8 sedan with a pair of red plastic marine fuel tanks ratchet-strapped into its trunk. They started at the Red Ball Garage in New York City at 11:15 pm on April 4, and ended less than 27 hours later at the Portofino Hotel & Marina in Redondo Beach, California, the traditional start and end points of a Cannonball attempt.
We also know that their timing was awful. It doesn’t seem likely that the new record-holders were keen to have news reach the public so soon, especially at a time when so many people are understandably on edge. But an exuberant friend posted a picture of the Audi on Facebook this week—situated among a number of other high-dollar cars, with its trunk open to show the auxiliary fuel tanks—along with the team’s alleged time. Within a day, hundreds of people had shared the post, and social media chat groups were abuzz with Cannonball aficionados offering up opinions on the matter. (The Facebook post has since been removed; it’s reproduced here via screengrab.)
“Do I think this is the best use of time while the country is staying in during a pandemic?” Bolian asked in an interview with R&T. “Probably not, but for me to say it’s awful is like a cocaine dealer saying a heroin dealer is awful.”
As the world reels over the effects of the global coronavirus pandemic, many people around the world are sick, out of work, and generally anxious over an uncertain post-pandemic future. Stay-at-home orders are de rigueur in most of the country, and the economy has ground to a near-standstill as the government and healthcare providers grapple with the spiraling rate of infection, death, and unemployment created by the virus.
It did not escape many long-time Cannonballers that an immobilized workforce and hard times might create ideal road conditions for fast driving thanks to much lower traffic volumes. Musing in online chat groups ensued. But most decided that it was better to cast their lot with the rest of humanity and stay home. Most, but not all.
A handful of people who had driven in the C2C Express and the 2904—Cannonball Run offshoots from recent years that featured a menagerie of low-buck, mostly vintage beaters—had planned to run a no-holds-barred Cannonball on April 4, along with some others who also had the trans-continental record bug. Among that group—self-selected for reasons of safety and to avoid publicity—it would have been open to any car, with no limit on budget, a vast departure from the cost-capped events they had run in past years. But with the COVID-19 death toll rising and more state governments calling for people to stay at home, the event-that’s-not-really-an-event was rightly scrubbed.
Debate within the group of self-anointed Brock Yates disciples raged. Was it appropriate to participate in an illegal cross-country race—or even a time trial—during a period of national crisis? When it became apparent that someone outside this group had gone ahead and completed a very successful run, regardless of high levels of national anxiety and fear over coronavirus, responses ran the gamut from “Nice job!” to “Who the hell do those guys think they are?” to “Who the hell are we to judge them?” There was talk of not recognizing the new 26:38 time set by the white Audi team as a record, due to the extraordinary circumstances.
But as John Ficarra, the creator and organizer of The 2904, pointed out, there is no sanctioning body for illegal cross-country races and time trials. He suggested that those worried about besmirching the Cannonball legacy were taking themselves too seriously.
“How do you tarnish something that’s illegal and that the general public already hates?” he asked. “If we come together as The Council of Cannonball or whatever and say, ‘No, we forbid this,’ who really gives a shit? This whole Cannonball thing is small potatoes. It’ll blow over.”
Ben “Charlie Safari” Wilson, who created and organized the C2C Express (the final running of which was held in 2019) said that, although he understands the idea that someone could look at relatively empty roads and imagine driving fast, the fact that someone would do it now was in poor taste.
“It’s never completely responsible to drive across the country fast without stopping, but now is completely the wrong time,” he said.
Alex Roy took it a step further, and said that the run had the potential to cause harm during an already bad situation.
“If you hit a truck moving medical supplies and people die because of it, that’s on you,” he said. “People are counting on those trucks moving around right now. It’s not funny.”
Brock Yates, a legendary editor at Car and Driver magazine, cooked up the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash in 1971 and organized four of the illegal cross-country races throughout the 1970s. Records were broken every time. The US Express rose from the ashes of the Cannonball after Yates disbanded it in 1979, with a final record set in 1983, when David Diem and Doug Turner drove a bright red Ferrari 308 from New York City to L.A. in 32 hours and 7 minutes. Their record stood for nearly a quarter century, until Roy finished the cross-country haul in 31 hours and 4 minutes in 2006. Then came Bolian’s 28:50 record in 2013, followed by Arne Toman, Doug Tabbutt and Berkeley Chadwick last fall with their 27:25 finish.
What all the record runs since the US Express have had in common is an extraordinary level of detailed planning. Fueling points were mapped out, route data collected, potential police traps and safety hazards analyzed—and, of course, the cars were meticulously prepared. Judging by the photos that have popped up on social media, not much went into prepping the white Audi A8 for this most recent record-breaking journey. There were a pair of boat tanks strapped into the trunk, a tablet running a timing app duct-taped to the back of the driver’s seat, and, according to Bolian’s read of it, no visible laser jammer equipment to be seen anywhere. In his conversation with one of the drivers, Bolian got the impression that they figured it was a good time to go, so they just went.
“I pity the team that’s unprepared and gets someone hurt,” Ficarra said. “But eventually it’s going to happen. It’s a law of averages.”
But thus far, the Cannonball safety record is relatively clean, save for a couple of non-life-threatening injuries over the years. What remains to be seen is how people who care about such things come to regard this new record in years to come. Bolian and Wilson contend that it will always stand apart from the others, and not necessarily in a good way.
“What Brock Yates wanted to prove back in the Seventies was that you could drive quickly across the country in normal traffic without disrupting anyone or being unsafe, and that isn’t what this was,” Wilson said. “Even if you list it as a record run, it’ll always be the run during the time of quarantine. There will always be an asterisk next to it.”
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