Cars from the 1979 event take a parade lap on the Long Beach Grand Prix course. Photo courtesy Gero Hoschek.
It was an event as audacious as its founder, Brock Yates, the Car and Driver editor known for speaking his mind regardless of the consequences. Five times in the 1970s, the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash traversed the United States from New York City (or Darien, Connecticut) to Redondo Beach, California, with the sole rule being “get from start to finish in as little time as possible.” The slap-in-the-face to highway decorum spurred a successful 1981 comedy based on the 1979 running (and partially rooted in truth), but now a German writer and 1979 Cannonball Run participant, Gero Hoschek, is working on a documentary about the actual event.
Named for Erwin George “Cannon Ball” Baker, the intrepid motorcyclist and automobile racer whose 1933 cross-country record of 53 hours and 30 minutes would stand for nearly four decades, the race was a protest of both the federally imposed 55 MPH national speed limit and of the idea that speed kills. Not that anyone with a fast car could enter, however: To minimize the risk of accident, drivers were vetted by event staff prior to acceptance into the Cannonball. In five events (actually four, plus the May 1971 proof of concept), the sole serious incident, a rollover caused by a driver falling asleep at the wheel, resulted in a totaled Cadillac limousine and a broken arm for team member Donna Mae Mims.
The Hemmings Motor News 1936 Ford driven by Terry Ehrich, David Brownell, and Justus Taylor. Photo by David Traver Adolphus.
The 1979 Cannonball Run even featured an entry from Hemmings Motor News, with publisher Terry Ehrich, editor David Brownell and Jack-of-all-trades Justus Taylor competing in a 1936 Ford panel truck (carrying the Hemmings logo, of course). The winning time that year came from Dave Heinz and Dave Yarborough, whose 1979 Jaguar XJS completed the journey in 32 hours and 51 minutes. The Hemmings team crossed the finish line 29 hours later, finishing 40th out of 42 entries, but met their dual goals of completing the event and not finishing in last place. Gero Hoschek, driving a 1969 Jensen Interceptor with Andreas Zoeltner and Ursula Nerger, finished in 31st place with a time of 43 hours and 47 minutes.
Pam Yates’s Cannonball logo, used with permission.
For Gero, then, the documentary is personal, and he’s seeking the public’s help in getting as much information about the event as possible, including photographs, films and tape recordings from the event. He’s attempting to track down as many original 1979 Cannonball vehicles as possible, too, though many (including the dark red right-hand-drive 1969 Jensen Interceptor Mk 1 used by Gero and his team) have gone missing over the years.
The Jensen used by Gero and his team. Photo courtesy Gero Hoschek
When last seen at a Daytona Beach auction circa 1986, Gero’s Jensen still wore U.K. registration plate WYF 513G, and came equipped with aftermarket black seats and a trailer hitch. Also unaccounted for are the 1978 Dodge Sportsman “Transcon Medi-Vac” ambulance driven by Hal Needham, Brock Yates and Pam Yates; the black 1977 Ferrari 308 GTB driven by Mark Pritch and Bill Cooper; the 1974 Chevrolet C30 Silverado crew-cab dually driven by Dennis “Mad Dog” Menesini, Charlie Robison, Ken Smith and Mark Miller; and the 1979 Mercedes-Benz 450 SEL driven by Dick Field, Tom Hickey and Al Alden, which recently appeared for sale on Hemmings.com.
April 1979: Film director Hal Needham, Cannonballer Pam Yates, and actress Tara Buckman with the “Transcon Medi-Vac” Dodge Sportsman fake ambulance in Long Beach. Photo courtesy Gero Hoschek.
Do you know the whereabouts of any of these cars, or others used in the 1979 event? Do you have access to images or recordings from that particular running, or do you know any behind-the-scenes stories from participants? If so, Gero would love to hear from you, and you can contact him via his website, MotoReporters.com, or the group’s Facebook page.