Theme: Movies (Late, Late Show) – Cannonball!

On a misty morning in May 1971, an unassuming Dodge Custom Sportsman van christened ‘Moon Trash II’ pulled out of a New York parking lot and headed into the low sun, due west. 

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Moon Trash II (Image: Transcontinental Drivers Association)

Inside were journalists Brock Yates and Steve Smith, photographer Jim Williams and Yates’ son, Brock Yates Junior, plus a stash of junk food, cans of Coke and some empty quart bottles.

40 hours and 51 minutes and some 315 gallons of gas later, Moon Trash II pulled into the marina at Redondo Beach in California, an entire continent away from their starting point. From amongst a litter of discarded food wrappers, drinks cans and full quart bottles tumbled the four men, rumpled and disgusting from marathon stints behind the wheel, but elated. They had done it! They had beaten Cannonball Baker’s time.

***

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Erwin “Cannonball” Baker. (Image: Alchetron)

Erwin ‘Cannonball’ Baker was an American vaudeville performer turned racing driver. From the 1900’s onwards he made his name and fortune by setting numerous point-to-point records on motorcycles and in cars, eventually making over 140 cross-country speed runs and clocking up over half a million miles. In 1933 Baker made a run from New York City to Los Angeles behind the wheel of a Graham-Paige model 57 Blue Streak 8, utilising the car’s advanced 90-horsepower, 245.4-cubic-inch straight eight to set a time of 53 and a half hours, a record that stood for nearly 40 years. That was, until it was beaten by four sweaty and dishevelled men in a Dodge van.

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Brock Yates (Image: Autoblog)

The catalyst for their run was a question posed by Brock Yates, spit-balling ideas for Car and Driver with Steve Smith over beers. Given the vast improvements to the road infrastructure of the United States made between 1933 and 1971, posed Yates, was Baker’s time beatable? The run in Moon Trash II proved that it was. But that posed the additional question: how fast could it be done?

From this seed, The Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash germinated. But before it would bear journalistic fruit, Yates realised it would need fertiliser. What it needed was a race.

***

“Those damn fools, they went and did it. Shortly after midnight on the 15th of November, 1971, six outlandish vehicles, manned by 16 even more outlandish drivers, co-drivers, navigators, mechanics – and a TWA stewardess, for God’s sake – scattered out of the Red Ball Garage on East 31st Street in New York City and headed west. A few hours passed and two more entrants joined the chase … eight vehicles in all, 23 lunatics…

All competitors will drive any vehicle of their choosing, over any route, at any speed they judge practical, between the starting point and destination. The competitor finishing with the lowest elapsed time is the winner. There were no other rules.”

So wrote Brock Yates, in a March 1972 Car and Driver article that would later pass into legend. The only thread connecting the motley collection of journalists, racing drivers and sightseers was that they all knew Yates in one (in)capacity or another. The field of racing vehicles was suitably diverse, ranging from a 1969 AMX clocking 90,000 miles, through a 1970 MGB-GT, a 1971 Cadillac Sedan deVille (lightly borrowed from a New York doctor), a 1971 Ferrari Daytona, three souped up vans (again including Moon Trash II, this time painted black), and a 1966 Union 76 Travco Motor Home.

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Dan Gurney and Brock Yates with their Ferrari Daytona. (Image: Autoweek)

Perhaps unsurprisingly it was the Ferrari, driven by Yates and one Dan Gurney, that went on to win, smashing Moon Trash II’s previous record with a time of 35 hours 54 minutes.

“At no time did we exceed 175 mph,” Gurney claimed.

***

“This staff, individually or collectively, will not recognize, support or publicize any attempts to break any of the records reported in the foregoing story.”

So read the editorial note that accompanied Yates’ article in Car and Driver. The disclaimer stopped no-one, of course. The race ran twice more in 1972 and 1975, alongside numerous other unofficial runs.

Brock Yates flirted with writing a screenplay based upon his experiences, but was beaten to the punch by not one but two films, Cannonball and The Gumball Rally (both 1976). Feeling that the idea had played out, Yates’ cinematic aspirations for his brainchild languished. A chance encounter with Hal Needham changed all that.

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Hal Needham

To say that Needham was a colourful character is an understatement. A Missouri tree surgeon, Needham enlisted as paratrooper during the Korean War. Disappointed that he would never see action, he quit, moved to California and almost by accident began performing stunts in Hollywood. Needham went on to feature in over 90 films including The Spirit of St. Louis (performing the famous wing walk), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, How the West Was Won, Blazing Saddles and Chinatown. Fearless, he was at one time the highest paid stuntman in the world.

Realising he could not keep that up forever, Needham parleyed his experiences into stunt direction, then second unit direction, eventually winding up helming whole films. After a number of moderately successful releases, he eventually got to make his pet project. Smokey and the Bandit (1977) turned out to be an unstoppable box office juggernaut, turning a budget of $4.3million into a stupendous $127million gross in North America alone. It was the second most popular movie of 1977, beaten only by Star Wars.

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Yates commentating at the 1979 Daytona 500 (Image: New York Times)

Needham and Yates crossed paths often over the years. Yates covered an attempt to break the speed of sound in a rocket powered car inevitably owned by, yes, Hal Needham. Yates also provided punditry for TV and print at a time when Needham co-owned a NASCAR team with Smokey star and long time pal Burt Reynolds. Needham later remembered:

“Over a drink one night Brock told me how he’d started the cross-country Cannonball race… After Brock told me about all the crazy people who drove in the race, it got me thinking. “That sounds like a great, fun movie,” I said. “What if next time you run the race, you and I drive it together?”

Yates and Needham hatched a plan to reprise the Cannonball for 1979. Calling upon his experience with Moon Trash II, Yates suggested the pair co-drive a van disguised as an ambulance. Tricked out with flashing lights and a 440 high wedge V8, Needham made sure the van boasted not one, not two, but three gas tanks totalling some 90 gallons, each tank having its own filler for simultaneous refuelling. With an eye to plausibility should their shambulance attract the attention of the law, Yates’ wife Pam was roped in to play ‘patient’; the pair even lined up a doctor, Lyle Royer, an actual certified medical professional Needham found drinking in a bar on Sunset Boulevard. Other competitors in the Run were supplied with notepads and tape recorders to catalogue their experiences, with the intention of providing fodder for Yates’ script.

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Yates and Needham’s ambulance later featured in the film (Image: carbuildindex)

Yates and Needham made it most of the way across America but, in an incident familiar to anyone who has seen the film, their high wedge powered ambulance suffered transmission failure 50 miles from the finishing line. Whilst they may not have completed the race, Yates had more than enough material to finish his screenplay. The Cannonball was about to ricochet back on to the big screen.

***

As the 1970s struggled to a close, Needham was fully committed to developing a sequel to Smokey and the Bandit. Ever the risk taker, Needham didn’t let that put him off; instead he roped in Yates to script that film too. Later Needham would also use much of the same crew from Smokey and the Bandit II to shoot the Cannonball film. The recycling even extended in front of the camera, with Burt Reynolds and comedian Dom Deluise starring in both films.

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Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham on location for Smokey and the Bandit. Image: Variety

Needham and Reynolds had been boozing buddies since Needham’s stunt doubling days. At one time finding himself without accommodation, Needham temporarily moved into Reynolds’ house and did not move out for another 12 years.

Now, thanks to Smokey and the Bandit, Reynolds’ star was at its zenith. Needham needed his old pal’s megawatt rating to secure funding for the Cannonball film from Golden Harvest, a Hong Kong studio flush with cash from a string of successful martial arts releases.

There was only one potential wrinkle: worried about being typecast, Reynolds did not want to appear in another chase movie so close to a Smokey sequel. To win him round, Needham hatched a plan to pay Reynolds an as then unheard of fee of $5million for a mere 14 days’ work. Funnily enough, that did the trick: Reynolds signed on and Needham had his funding.

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Jackie Chan as ‘Mitsubishi Driver #1’ (Image: Google)

Golden Harvest’s money came with a caveat in the shape of one Jackie Chan. Yates duly worked him into the script as the Japanese ‘Mitsubishi Driver #1’, which he is still credited as to this day, this despite the car he drove being a Subaru and Chan being Chinese.

***

Needham’s movies might not have been sophisticated, but as Car and Driver once noted, they “showed real affection for average Americans and the things they held dear. Things like muscle cars, beer, stuff that explodes, and watching Burt Reynolds show off.” Smokey and the Bandit II hit theatres in 1980 and despite a panning by reviewers, immediately took $66million off the back of a $17million budget.

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Image: Google

The Cannonball Run opened a year later to even greater critical hostility. Roger Ebert notably described the film as “an abdication of artistic responsibility at the lowest possible level of ambition” and, in an odd twist, The 1981 Stinkers Bad Movie Awards nominated The Cannonball Run as ‘Worst Remake’ for ripping off The Gumball Rally. No matter: Needham knew what Americans liked, The Cannonball Run doing even better business than Smokey II, turning a $18million spend into a $72million take to become the sixth most popular release of the year.

***

“It was over. The Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash had entered the annals of sporting minutiae, leaving future generations to decide what it meant, if anything.”

If the success of The Cannonball Run at the cinema propelled the secretive event into the popular American consciousness, TV syndication cemented its legend. On the back of heavy cable rotation, Yates’ Car and Driver article began to acquire a quasi-mythical status. “You know this was based on a real event?” was the conversational gambit amongst gear heads watching the film.

Now freely available on the Car and Driver web site, The Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash is a no less compelling read today, a heartfelt paean to the car and the freedom they afford, both to the writer and to his ragtag band of friends.

Or perhaps that paean should be a eulogy. Published in March 1972, The Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash marked a singular point in time: peak speed, peak Detroit, peak oil. Within a year the oil shock of 1973 would signal the gradual emasculation of American power, Detroit muscle yoked by emissions legislation and the imposition of a 56mph speed limit on interstate highways. Yates was right, it was over; America would never have it so good again. Nor, arguably, would automotive journalism.

***

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Brock Yates (Image: Car and Driver)

This was recently brought home by the death of Brock Yates, who in October finally succumbed to Alzheimer’s Disease, aged 80. Perhaps with an eye to their own legacy, journalists are wont to overstate the impact of fellow professional writers. This is even more true in those fields of journalism which, in the grand scheme, do not really matter, automotive journalism being but one example. And yet, by virtue of his invention of The Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, then the film he both inspired and helped to make, people around the world know something of what he created. Yates’ love of cars, his wit and his freewheeling spirit of adventure could not be constrained by dry ink; instead it leapt from the page to sire a legitimate cultural phenomenon.

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Hal Needham received an honorary Oscar in 2012 (Image: Variety)

As for his cinematic Cannonball co-conspirator, Hal Needham died in 2013 at 82. Most would consider that a grand old age for a man who partied as much as he did, spent a significant amount of time on fire, broke over 50 bones performing stunts (including his back, twice), and once blew himself up with a self-made car mounted cannon. (Unsurprisingly, Needham’s biography, Stuntman!, is even funnier than his films and worth a read.)

‘Moon Trash II’, the crusty Dodge van that Yates and his pals drove across an entire continent in homage to Erwin ‘Cannonball’ Baker, was perfectly named, their run coinciding with the bum end of the lunar landings. Fuelled by a can-do attitude and more than a few cans of beer, Cannonball Baker, Brock Yates and Hal Needham all exemplified the chaotic spirit of smart thinking, risk, opportunity and endeavour that built America and propelled it to such great heights.

Those damn fools. They went and did it. We may never see their kind again.

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Erwin Baker (Image: motorcyclemuseum.org)

Author: chrisward1978

Professional pixel pugilist and word wrangler. Unprofessional pub snug raconteur.

12 thoughts on “Theme: Movies (Late, Late Show) – Cannonball!”

  1. Great piece Chris. I can recommend Mr. Yates’ unofficial and un-endorsed biography on Enzo Ferrari. How he got it past the lawyers I’ll never know.

  2. I was never into Needham’s movies and utterly oblivious to Cannonball’s origins, so thank you very much for a most entertaining lesson in movie, as well as automotive history, Chris!

    1. And thank you for reading it. As a cineaste I imagine you would take great pleasure from Hal Needham’s biography, which offers a very interesting peek behind Hollywood’s velvet curtain.

  3. Thank you Chris. A Car & Driver subscriber back then, and an admirer of Brock Yates’ style, I read his account at the time. It conjured up a rather attractive world where you could stick two fingers up at regulation, without really doing anyone any harm, and its sheer haphazard nature was very endearing.

    I’ve been chastised on this site (gently but justly) in the past after admitting my sometime transgressive driving activities and, probably, I can trace it back to stories like that. But I’d like to think I have some sense of proportion. However, others seem to have followed in Yates’s tyre tracks rather too rabidly, and in a world not really suited to that sort of thing any longer.

    1. Thanks Sean. It is the ramshackle nature of Brock Yates’ adventures that makes his story so compelling. The one thing that I got from him and Hal Needham’s biography was that both men were just making stuff up as they went along. But both men would good at it, and it took them far.

      And you are correct, the time for this sort of shenanigans is long gone, on open roads at least. Not only are traffic police more organised, but the potential for speed and accidents are now that much higher.

  4. ” lightly borrowed”, what a great expression Chris. I hadn’t really thought about it before but I’d always kind of assumed the movies spawned the idea rather than the other way around. I enjoyed being corrected. That said the films themselves did leave a little to be desired?

    1. The first two Bandits and the first Cannonball film have their merits. Yeah the plots are threadbare and the characters ridiculous, but the films have a hang-loose charm. You can tell the actors mostly had a good time doing them.

  5. Reading this story was every bit as fun as watching the films, and it turns out there was plenty I didn’t know about the back story. Very nice work. Given the rash of biopics on the big screen lately, Needham surely deserves his own. It’d be wild.

    1. Hi Scott: I am sure Chris will be pleased that you liked it. In one Cannonball run a team used a Ford van and added a second fuel tank inside the passenger compartment. They reckoned refuelling was going to waste a lot of time and tried to arrange their trip to main a high average speed by avoiding pit stops.

    2. Many thanks Scott. I knew very little about Hal Needham until I began researching this piece. He literally came from nothing, yet via bravery, smart friendships and a prodigious work rate became unfeasibly successful. A biopic of the man using footage from the time a la Senna would be an incredible film.

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