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Cannonball Baker on his way across the country in 1914.

Ernest G. "Cannonball" Baker

Man among men, lunatic among lunatics

If there was ever a role model for an outlaw cross-country race, it was Cannonball Baker. He had a thing about driving cross country that bordered on obsession. He did it numerous times and was the first to do it on a motorcyle in -- ready for this? -- 1914.

Jeez, 1914. Woodrow Wilson was the new president, we hadn't yet been sucked into the Great War, and it had been only six years since Henry Ford delivered the first Model T to a customer. But there was Cannonball, astride a big, 61-cubic inch Indian V-twin, laboring mightily across the continent in abominable conditions. Twice he had to shoot pursuing dogs with a handgun, once he pushed his out-of-gas heavyweight for miles in 119-degree heat, and he routinely wrestled with muddy roads that he described as "plowed fields." It took him 11 days, 12 hours and 10 minutes to travel the 3,379 miles, most of them standing up -- the Indian's "suspension" consisted a semi-flexible frame designed to soak up shocks.

Why did he do it? Well, why not?

He also did it on four wheels, which must've been a piece of cake compared to the bike ride. In 1915 he drove from Los Angeles to New York in 11 days. The next year he dropped his record time to seven days. In 1922 he teamed with a mechanic and drove a Templar racing prototype across country in six days, 17 hours and 16 minutes.

In 1933, at the age of 51, he did it in less than three days, a remarkable achievement. To quote Brock Yates:

". . . Nothing even approaches, in my opinion, the incontestable pinnacle of transcontenental driving--the run of the marvelous Ernest G. "Cannonball" Baker in the spring of 1933. Then aged 51, Cannonball drive a new supercharged Graham from New York to Los Angeles in 53 hours and 30 minutes. Alone! Yes, driving singlehanded, without the benefit of a centimeter of Interstate, and enjoying very little in the way of smooth pavement, plus having to traverse every blasted small town along the way, he made the trip at an average speed in the neighborhood of 60 mph!"

Baker also competed hillclimbs and races, including the Indy 500, finishing 11th in 1922 driving a Frontenac. He was later the first commissioner of NASCAR and presided over the early wild and wooly days of the circuit. Can't think of anyone more qualified.

Cannonball Baker died in 1960 at the age of  78. He is buried at the Crown Hill Cemetary in Indianapolis.


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