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What’s all the fuss about Cannonball cross-country records?

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Last week, a team of drivers set off to break the existing coast-to-coast driven speed record–from the Red Ball Garage in Brooklyn, New York, to the Portofino Hotel in Redondo Beach, California—a path that followed that of the immortal Cannonball Run, a civil-disobedience tour de force. The new record, set in a 2019 Audi A8, now stands at 26 hours, 38 minutes, for an average speed of 106 mph. (That’s about 9 hours faster than Brock Yates and Dan Gurney did it, in a Ferrari Daytona, in 1971.) Universally, automotive media has jumped on board to condemn this latest running. Including, to my utter dismay, Car and Driver, a magazine that, once upon a time, dedicated pages and pages to the execution of the same cross-country trip.

Full disclosure: I’ve secretly always wanted to do one of these cross-continental runs. I confess that I never pursued it, for the usual reasons of lack: time, money, appropriate transportation, common sense, etc. And I’m not saying that I would be good or right or justified in doing it, just that it sounds like fun. But for someone who lived through seven Hot Rod Power Tour slogs that took a week or more to make it only three-quarters of the way across the country, and who has driven cross-country several times for reasons too various to count, the thought of seeing both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by car in one very intense day (and change) seemed like the ultimate adventure. It felt crazy, yet attainable, and even if I wasn’t successful in breaking the record, I could say I tried; there are tales to be told, even in failure. I mean, I wouldn’t be killing animals for sport, or leaving Dorito bags atop Mount Everest, or meeting with strangers of questionable age in a seedy Thai hotel, I’d be in a car going fast.

 

Another disclosure: I was a Car and Driver reader from the age of six, when my folks got me a subscription for Christmas of ’76, and which continues to this day. It was the magazine that made me want to write about cars in the first place at a time in the ’70s and early ’80s when most cars were so awful that the writing had to be entertaining in order to sell magazines. It was the magazine that dared to present the learned (and occasionally impenetrable) Leonard J.K. Setright to an American audience, where he used words that outstripped my home dictionary’s ability to present definitions. It was the magazine that presented a six-sedan trip to Baja wherein everything that could go wrong, did, from wrecking cars to getting arrested for peeing on a wall. The magazine that gave us P.J. O’Rourke and Sgt. Dynaflow. The book that gave us a motorcycle trip to a town called Hell; I didn’t even care about bikes, but I did an homage to that piece a quarter-century later in a ’96 Ford Mustang GT, a car that (with its weak-suck 4.6 V-8) most assuredly had gone to hell. Car and Driver told fantastic stories about cars, and they made me want to do that too. And the Cannonball Run was a fantastic story.

So C/D‘s recent angry reaction to last week’s record-breaking run was startling to me: the magazine that staked its bones on irreverence and enthusiasm in equal measure yanked the handbrake and did a 180. A dream is a dream, but it’s not every day that you’re told that you’re dangerous and stupid and wrong for wanting to even consider doing something that’s dangerous and stupid and wrong. As someone who long harbored that fantasy, I feel like I’m watching this very public drubbing from the wrong side of a closing door before I was able to step through and sample its delights. And it hurts.

There have been other more modern attempts to make this run, including one done for the documentary film 32 Hours, 7 Minutes, back in 2013. Can anyone recall this degree of hand-wringing when the coast-to-coast record was broken in ‘06, or in ’13, or even last year. And in a Car and Driver online story just a few years ago, celebrating a reunion of original Cannonballers, there was nary an unhappy peep.

But now? 2020 is so different, suddenly? Why?

Our current pandemic is used as an indicator of irresponsibility. The Audi launched from New York City, Coronavirus central, mid-pandemic, but I’m not sure how moving fast away from anyone and everyone inside a sealed car would spread it around. And because travel has been drastically reduced nationwide, the roads are emptier now than they’ve been since forever. If anything, minimizing traffic while breaking traffic laws is … well, responsible isn’t the right word. Less irresponsible, perhaps?

So other than a knee-jerk reaction to life in the age of Covid-19, how are things different? Average speeds are higher now, but today’s brakes and tires and crumple zones are vastly improved; things balance out. And these automotive outbursts, in the ‘70s and today, can certainly be viewed as statements against the effects of big government, whether it’s the national speed limit or it’s staying at home and avoiding people. Both are reactions against being told what to do, and for more or less the same over-arching reason: because I’m not supposed to. The details differ, but the overarching reasons appear to be the same to me.

As a Gen-X’er, I well know that the generation before mine changed their raison d’etre from “let’s get high” to “Just Say No” as soon as they had kids of their own. I saw how the free love of the ‘70s created a backlash for the next generation, who were afraid to engage with their partners without a sheath of latex to separate them. So seeing this particular turnaround shouldn’t be shocking to me. But it is.

Other similar takes in what is considered to be car-enthusiast media are to be expected. I get that AutoWeek and Road and Track are crapping on the latest run; they didn’t invent it, and they are entitled to their hot take trying to bury the notion. (AutoWeek and R&T are also now owned by the same publishing company as C/D, for what that’s worth.) But in C/D, it felt almost like a preemptive strike: something unequivocal and strongly-worded to present in court when (not if) someone tries this stunt and a tire bursts at 150 mph, leading to a barrel-roll that goes over the K-barrier and smashes into a minivan full of nuns and orphans in the middle of the night, and some distant relation hires an ambulance chaser to make a payday.

That irreverent, breakin’ the law, flip-off-authority spirit has gone, and the closet punk in me is sad to see a kindred spirit drift away. I get it. I just don’t like it.