The Real Outlawed Car Race That Inspired A Real Tribute Movie
Most people would so; that the Cannonball Run was a humorous take on a fictional car race, but they would be wrong.
Gearheads and racing fans already knew the movie was based on a real “completely outlawed” cross-country car race from New York City’s Read Ball Garage on 31st Street, to the Portofino Inn, in Redondo Beach, California. Actually, there were four, from 1971 to 1979.
The movie featured a cast of super-stars, including Burt Reynolds, Farrah Faucet, Dom Delouise, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. Mel Tillis, Terry Bradshaw, Jackie Chan, Jamie Farr, Adrienne Barbeau, Burt Convy and of course, 007 Roger Moore.
Tucked into the list of stars is a super nod to the film’s creator, Brock Yates, who was also the founder of the race, and the first winner, in 1971. He, and a crew of three, drove nearly 3,000 miles in the Dodge van, in 40 hours, 51 minutes at an average speed of 70 miles per hour. At the end of the journey, Yates thought it would be incredible to do the trip as a competition with other drivers, and The Cannonball Run was born. Tt the time, he named the race the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. Which was a tribute to iconic racer Erwin G. “Cannonball” Baker, who was famous for making over 140 drives across the United States, starting way back in 1914. His most noted was on an Indian motorcycle.
Aside from that, there were no other restrictions. Racers brought 55-gallon drums of gas, used radar detectors, and maintained heightened awareness with the assistant of illicit drugs. (Four of the eight racers received a total of 12 speeding tickets.)
Brock Yates first race winning time was 35 hours and 54 minutes, which equaled an average speed of 80.8 miles per hour. The actual Dodge van that Brock Yates drove in the real Cannonball Run had a 426 cubic inch, Dick Landy Built Hemi engine, hinting at an ambulance’s ability to best race cars.
For many of the stunts, the governor of Georgia agreed to shut down an entire small town for the filming, which gave the producer the chance to land and take-off an actual small-engine prop airplane, (a Maule M 5-235 Lunar Rocket,) on the streets and in a shopping mall parking lot.
In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Richard Kiel and Jackie Chan’s vehicle transforms into a submarine when diving into a lake. The iconic score from Steven Spielberg’s Jaws plays over the sequence. And movie-fans knew why. Rickard Kiel played the villainous, metal-mouthed, Jaws in two of the 007 movies. This was his tribute.
The Cannonball Run recouped its $18 million budget with its North American gross of $72 million. It was 1981’s sixth-biggest movie. Only Stripes, Arthur, Superman II, On Golden Pond and Raiders of the Lost Ark did better at the box office.
Most interesting of all, there were REAL tricks used, in the real race, to outsmart the police; which saved precious time over trying to outrun them and risk eventual capture, and/or injury. Some of those tricks made it into the film:
On a contemporary note, the Cannonball Run experienced a remarkable revival during the recent pandemic, when America’s streets were virtually vacant. New cross-country record of 25 hours and 55 minutes was set by Fred Ashmore, driving a rented, stock Ford Mustang. He replaced the seats and interior of the vehicle with fuel tanks capable of holding approximately 150 gallons of gasoline, which allowed him to make only one fuel stop. Ashmore clocked a speed average of 108 miles per hour, as recorded on the GPS app Glympse.
Thinking about building a replica with an american-made engine? Fraser has the right engine ready for you!