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From the archives: Behind the scenes of 'The Cannonball Sea to Shining Sea Memorial Trophy Dash' (June 1979)

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On April 1, 1979, an unassuming Darien pub was the launch site for a semi-underground coast-to-coast road race known as the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. Conceived by legendary car enthusiast and Car and Driver magazine editor Brock Yates and taking place place sporadically during the 1970s, the Cannonball races essentially boiled down to one simple rule: Drive from a starting point on the East Coast to an inn in Los Angeles in the shortest time possible. (Previous iterations of the race had used New York City as their starting point; the 1979 race was the only one to start in Darien.)

By the 1970s the "open road" was becoming a bit less open, with the newly installed national speed limit of 55 miles-per-hour a prime example of increasing highway regulations. Cannonball participants were of course advised not to break the law; in fact the race was conceived by Yates at least partly as a protest of those new traffic restrictions, and drivers willing to incur fines and delays would face no other penalties from the race itself. Though technically illegal, the races were covered openly by Car and Driver and achieved a certain public popularity due to their outlaw nature.

This would turn out to be the last official, full-fledged Cannonball event, although several unrelated races have continued to pay homage in one way or another. In later years Yates, who died in 2016, declined offers to revive the Cannonball brand, citing heavier traffic, increased law enforcement and more acute liability issues as reasons why it would no longer be feasible.

Among the eccentric characters we meet in this article as they prepare for the race is Hollywood stuntman and director Hal Needham, who reveals that he is already planning to return to Darien for filming of a movie, which "would probably feature Burt Reynolds," based on the race. That film, of course, would turn out to be The Cannonball Run, a blockbuster hit in 1981 featuring Reynolds in one of his signature roles. (Yates, who collaborated with Needham during the race, also wrote the movie's screenplay.) Many of the scenes depicted in the movie are closely based on actual events from this real-life race.

This article is being posted to the web in March 2021 as part of Connecticut Magazine's 50th anniversary celebration. 


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"In no time at all we were back on the main highway and that night I saw the entire state of Nebraska unroll before my eyes. A 110 miles an hour straight through, an arrow road, sleeping towns, no traffic, and the Union Pacific Streamliner falling behind us in the moonlight.”

—Jack Kerouac, On the Road

The idea was sweet and pure and almost as romantic as moonlight. Summon a group of seasoned, clever, and somewhat twisted automobile drivers, along with a dangerous array of fast machines, to an outwardly nondescript restaurant in a Darien shopping center. Gather these drivers in a back parking lot and tell them that without breaking the law they are to drive as fast as they dare, by any route they wish, using whatever tricks they might devise in order to be the first to each a designated barroom in Redondo Beach, California—2,831 miles away. Then, at a later hour, under cloak of night, but with a band playing and bystanders gawking, point the cars toward the Pacific Ocean and, one by one, let them loose. A transcontinental car race, no holds barred. A fantasy come to life.

And so it happened this spring that the massive prank known as the Cannonball Sea to Shining Sea Memorial Trophy Dash was pulled off without a hitch. The author of the idea is Brock Yates, a leading motor sports writer and a resident of Winsted. He got the original inspiration back in 1971, and was moved to name the proposed race after the late, legendary Cannonball Baker, a driver who once took a 1933 Graham across the country in a tad over fifty-three hours. Yates got a lot of verbal support that first year, but ended up being the only entry. People then understood that he had been serious. The next year thirty-four participated. The third race was put off until 1975 because of the gas crisis, and then there was another three-year hiatus until this year’s event.

Without even trying very hard, the race (Yates, for legal reasons, prefers using the word "dash” to describe his event, even though this is like calling the Long March a “ramble”) has become freighted with mystery, excitement, and glamour. There is, first of all, the possibility of danger and adventure, and the thrill of sustained speed. There is for some the brazen flouting of highway law, the kick of putting one over on the cops. The race also spawns a camaraderie among contestants, along with a most gratifying sense of exclusivity—the knowledge that most people in the country won’t even know about the race until it’s over. Finally, there is the unspoken fear that, for legal or organizational reasons, each race may be the last.

All of this brought forty-nine entries and about 150 drivers to Darien on Saturday, March 31. One of the early arrivals, John Nichols, of Louisville, Kentucky, summed things up neatly. “This damn race sounds like it should be more fun than anything I’ve ever done,” he said.

***

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This race was the inspiration for 1981's The Cannonball Run, staring Burt Reynolds and directed by race participant Hal Needham.

The Goodwives Shopping Center just off the Post Road in Darien is such an unlikely starting point for an outlaw cross-country auto race that it’s understandable the Saturday shoppers there didn’t pay much attention to what was going on at the Lock Stock and Barrel restaurant and bar on that last day in March. It is also a part of residing in Darien that you don’t take notice of strange or exotic cars, there being five or six on Main Street at any given moment. Thus the race organizers were granted as much anonymity as they could reasonably expect.

George Lysle, owner of the Lock Stock and Barrel, is a racing enthusiast and a close friend of Brock Yates. He was more than willing to have the race start from his place, and he turned out to be an ideal organizer and host. "This bar is where a lot of racing people hang out when they’re in the East,” Lysle explained. “It's also very close to the Connecticut Turnpike. That makes it a logical place for all this to happen.”

On the afternoon of the race, the atmosphere inside Lysle’s bar was one of controlled excitement. People wore tags—a red dot meant you were a racer, Day Glo orange pegged the press, while red, white, and blue identified guests. The place was crowded and dark in a macho-barroom, real wood sort of way, and there was a good deal of rising and falling chatter. You could tell that everyone felt they were in on something just slightly naughty. Some people were better at concealing this than were others; indeed, some people gave the distinct impression that they led slightly naughty, jaded lives. Whether that’s racing people or Darien, or a combination of the two, I just don’t know.

If you went out Lysle’s back door, you went through a large garage and then you came to the back parking lot. This is where most of the competing cars were parked. It was here that you began to get an idea of what was going on: Ferraris, Jaguars, Mercedes, Porsches, a brand new Eldorado, a Jensen Interceptor, two Lotus Esprits, two big motorcycles, a very wired ten-wheel Capri truck cab, Trans-Ams, hot Camaros, and much talk of a Rolls Royce, a 427 Cobra, and an Excalibur. There was no question of body rot. These cars were brilliant and they were ready to fly.

Fifty or sixty people were walking around in the parking lot, aiming cameras, drooling, giggling, many of them not quite believing what they were hearing. “The Cannonball what?" one of them asked loudly. Occasionally a new entry rolled into the lot. One of these latecomers, a magnificent green Ferrari, crawled in with a low, temperamental rumble, looking for a place to park, and pedestrians hurried out of its path with expressions of fear and envy on their faces, as if they were cowering before spoiled royalty. There was also a great fuss whenever a competitor opened the hood of his car—a crowd of accountants would materialize to count the cylinders.

It was all a very fine preliminary show, but the best part about it was that these weren’t show cars. In a few hours they would be driven as hard and as fast as they could go, from sea to shining sea.

***

At about 2:30 P.M., Brock Yates climbed up on top of a large metal trash container in the parking lot and called on the drivers to gather round. It was time for the official talk. Up a bank behind Yates, cars on the turnpike roared and squealed and threatened to drown out his words. He looked toward the noise and then back at the drivers.

“We may be embarking on the automotive counterpart to the Bay of Pigs,” he said. The drivers laughed. Then Yates got down to business. "We've spoken with the Darien police and told them what’s going on. They’ve taken the posture that we’re not doing anything wrong until someone actually breaks the law, so let’s be careful.”

He went on to explain that the drivers would begin leaving at 7 P.M. and could choose any starting time between then and 2 A.M. He asked the drivers to behave properly out on the road. He claimed the dash was meant to prove something about good cars and good drivers and the fifty-five-mile-per-hour speed limit. This part was unclear. Then Yates gave out a little specific advice.

“We’ve had reports that Interstate 80 is very bumpy, very heavy with holes. Watch it if you go through there. If you’re planning on going into Harrisburg [it was the weekend of Three Mile Island] be sure to wear a lead jock. Finally, let me remind you that the hardest part of the trip is the last eight hundred miles; it’s dark and it’s very, very tiring. Make sure you don’t get careless.” Yates paused. "Theoretically,” he continued, “you can win this thing without breaking the law.”

The last comment was met with dark laughter.

***

It was good to have a fast car, and it was good to have experienced drivers and a clear route, but it was also important to have a little something up your sleeve. A trick, to be exact, with which to fool the police if they stopped you for speeding. Perhaps the best such trick belonged to Californians Peter Defty and Thomas Gafford. They revealed their plan as they ate from a buffet lunch laid out by Lysle after Yates’s speech.

“There are four of us all together,” explained Gafford, a huge man with a ponytail. “We’re racing in a very unglamourous Chevy Suburban, but we've got the words “U.S. Satellite Detectors, Radiation Beware” stenciled on the sides. We’ve also got a lot of complicated electronic equipment in the car. And we've got these.”

Gafford pulled a business card out of his pocket. “Satellite Tracking Associates," the card read, “Thomas A. Gafford, ESE Computer Specialist.” There was a Palo Alto address on the bottom, along with an illustrated radar dish and another illustrated symbol which—a touch of sheer brilliance—turned out to be the logo for the Cannonball Dash. Both Gafford and Defty also wore laminated plastic badges with their photographs on them that again identified them as employees of Satellite Tracking Associates.

“The basis for our scam,” Gafford continued, “is that the flashy cars going 120 miles per hour are going to attract a lot of attention. We’re going to be moving pretty fast ourselves, but if the police stop us they’re going to realize we’re just trying to do our jobs, which is tracking satellites. We’re going to try and appeal to them as working men. We think they may buy it.”

During his explanation, Gafford never once broke into a smile. He was ready.

* * *

Yet another scam devised to guarantee safe passage across the country involved two Nevada doctors and a whole lot of dead pigs. Before coming to Connecticut, the doctors stopped off at a slaughterhouse in Fanon, Nevada, and collected a large number of pigs’ eyeballs that they put into a very official metal container marked “Rush to Eye Bank.” The bank, the doctors were prepared to tell inquiring police, was in California and the need was desperate. At last check, the doctors had not yet decided how to explain why the eyes were being driven, rather than flown, to the coast.

* * *

Throughout the day, a long line snaked from the front door of the Lock Stock and Barrel to a booth in the dining room. Standing patiently in the line were drivers, waiting to register. The entry fee for the competition was $750 per car, a sum Yates hoped would keep the airheads out. A good portion of this fee been earmarked for the Gunnar Nilsson Fund, named in memory of the

Swedish race driver who died of cancer last year. Nonetheless, just getting up the money did not guarantee acceptance into the race. Yates said he'd turned away about eighty applicants because he either didn’t know them or they hadn't come with reliable references.

Each driver was asked to sign a “Release, Waiver, Covenant Not To Sue, And Indemnity Agreement." Among the statements contained therein were: "Undersigned hereby acknowledges that he, she, or it is fully aware of the great potential dangers of automobile driving, especially continuous driving during long periods of time..."; "The undersigned understands and acknowledges that the Cannonball Sea to Shining Sea Memorial Trophy Dash is intended solely to demonstrate the safety and efficiency of interstate highway travel..."; and, finally, “The undersigned will strictly observe all traffic, motor vehicle, and highway laws, codes, and regulations at all times during this Event....”

Everyone signed.

***

The drivers also chose their departure times at the registration desk. They could leave any time they wanted between 7 P.M.and 2 A.M.,although no closer than four minutes apart. There was a lot of mystery involved in the selection of these times. One driver was not so mysterious, however. He turned away from the table with a big grin on his face and walked over to his partner.

“We got 10:04!” he exclaimed. “Perfect!”

Why was that time so good? he was asked.

“We don’t want to get caught in the Los Angeles rush hour,” he said.

Late Saturday afternoon, while the drivers in Darien were going over routes and engines and last minute strategies, Wendy Epstein was camped out near Bristol, Tennessee, probably fretting a bit and wondering when in the world George Egloff would be getting there. George and Wendy and three other drivers were up to something a little different. They were making the dash as a motorcycle relay team, taking turns behind the handlebars of a very powerful Suzuki.

"We have five people spread out across the country,“ said Egloff. “There’s me at the beginning, Wendy in Tennessee, and then other guys in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Arizona. It works out to about six hundred miles for each driver and the way we’ve planned things, the bike’ll never shut off during the whole trip.”

Egloff said he thought his team would make it to California but he didn’t think it would finish high in the standings. “A motorcycle will get out of congested areas faster and gets better gas mileage than the cars here, but it won’t go as fast. Before I came here I thought we might have an outside shot, but when I saw what kind of cars were here I knew we’d have to settle for a finish. We can’t really win anyway because, according to the rules, you have to have the same people in your vehicle at the end as you had at the start. We obviously can’t do that.”

Another motorcycle team, however, was planning on doing exactly that. Loyal Truesdale and Keith Patchett, a pair of Hollywood stuntmen with a damned good eye for a stunt were planning to go it alone on a BMW. And being from Hollywood, they had a further gimmick. Whoever rode in the back would wear a blond wig and falsies. A “Just Married” sign would be attached to the rear of the bike. This was meant to get the cops laughing.

Gasoline did not seem to be of great concern to the contestants. Certainly its cost was of no interest. The possibility that it might not be readily available was also shrugged off. More to the point was the time lost in driving off the highway to fill up. Most cars were equipped with double gas tanks, making for a capacity of about forty gallons. At least one driver was better prepared. He was driving a Chevy pick-up truck with Nevada plates and he was actively seeking conversation about gasoline because it allowed him to point to the tarpaulin-covered bed of the truck, wink, and whisper conspiratorially, “I got 340 gallons under there.”

“Now I know why Missouri is called the ‘Show Me’ state,” complained one finisher. “Show me your license and registration.”

* * *

Brock Yates, of course, would be making the trip to the coast. One of his partners was Hal Needham, director of the movies Smokey and the Bandit and Hooper. Yates and Needham were involved in an enormously bold ruse. They’d taken a Dodge van and disguised it to look like an ambulance. Yates and Needham would ride in front while a real doctor and Yates’s wife Pamela, turned out to resemble a patient, would ride in the rear. There was a stretcher bed and everything. The only trouble was that the engine of the ambulance/van could not be made to work properly. Panic began to erupt as the starting time drew near. Mechanic types labored furiously. Still, the machine balked. Needham raged.

“I paid $30,000 for this goddamn thing and it dies on me!” he yelled. Then he hit the ambulance/van with his hand.

At length, however, things were repaired to a certain degree and Yates, Needham, the doctor, and the patient lurched off toward California.

Incidentally, before he left, Needham revealed that he plans to come back to Darien, possibly in the fall, to begin filming a movie based on the Cannonball Dash. He said the film would probably feature Burt Reynolds.

There was a rule at the Lock Stock and Barrel that the drivers not be served alcoholic beverages on the day of the race. The drivers seemed to understand. They probably had no intention of drinking anyway. The noncontestants tried their best to take up the slack, however, and as the drivers tuned themselves and their cars to a nice quiet hum, the spectators became noisier and more excited. This is not to say that the drivers were averse to artificial stimulation—Lord knows what they resorted to in order to stay awake during the transcontinental blast. One driver, in fact, couldn’t wait to get started. Minutes before he was to leave the starting gate, he was seen behind the wheel of his car, quietly filling his nose with a white, powdery substance, perhaps talcum powder.

* * *

In his chalk talk before the race began, Yates had warned the drivers that the first police they’d have to face were the "very tough” Connecticut State Police. "But they’re only the first in a whole string of these people you’re going to have to deal with between here and California,” he’d continued. The consensus of the drivers was that the California Highway Patrol would present the gravest problems to speeders, particularly since it had somehow found out about the race. It was surprising, then, that the most alert cops turned up in Missouri.

“Now I know why Missouri is called the ‘Show Me’ state,” complained one finisher. “Show me your license and registration.”

Reportedly, the police there were apprised of what was coming by excited truck drivers who were enjoying the show over in the fast lane, but nonetheless were radioing ahead car descriptions and marker numbers. The Missouri cops got just about everyone who came roaring through. The 1972 Cannonball winner, Steve “Yogi” Behr, driving a Porsche 928, was yanked right off the highway near Union City, Missouri, and thrown into the local slammer for six hours until a judge could be found to set bail. Another driver reported that the Missouri trooper who pulled him over could not contain his excitement. “This is the greatest day of my life,” the cop said.

It was in Missouri, too, where George Willig ran into trouble. Willig, who is better known for vertical stunts such as the scaling of the World Trade Center, had entered the dash with partner Sam Moses in a 1969 Boss 302 Mustang. Unfortunately, the brakes were not so boss. They gave out almost completely near St. Louis. The fact that they could not stop did not stop Willig and Moses, however. They motored on. And despite the fact that they had to slow down for gas twenty-one times, they finished in the top fifteen and didn't suffer a scratch.

"It must have been a hell of a drive," said a man at the finish line.

“It was," said Willig.

* * *

The winner of the fourth Cannonball Sea to Shining Sea Memorial Trophy Dash pulled up at the Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach at 2:18 A.M., Monday, April 2. It was a black 1978 Jaguar XJS driven by Dave Heinz of Tampa, Florida, and Dave Yarborough, of Charleston, South Carolina. The car had covered the 2,831 miles at an average speed of 86.179 miles per hour, including five stops for gas and one stop for a traffic ticket (in Missouri, naturally) for which the drivers had been clocked at 71 miles per hour and had to pay a fine of $39.50. During their thirty-two hours and fifty-one minutes on the road, Heinz and Yarborough said they generally cruised between 100 and 105 miles per hour, although they did once take it out to 120 miles per hour. They got twelve miles to each gallon of gasoline.

The second car in was but eight minutes off the pace. It was a 1978 6.9 liter Mercedes-Benz driven by Dick Field of Weston, Massachusetts, Al Alden, a White River Junction, Vermont, Mercedes dealer, and Tom Hickey, a Harvard psychology professor. They had beaten the winners in a least one category. They’d hit a top speed of 142 miles per hour along the way.

As for some of the others:

—The motorcycle relay team finished in thirty-first place.

—The two stuntmen “Just Married'' on their motorcycle got stuck in a snowstorm in Arizona and had to phone in.

—The satellite trackers finished in due time, delayed a bit, perhaps, when they stopped for gas in the area of the nuclear power plant accident and insisted on going over the gas station with a Geiger counter.

—Yates and Needham and the ambulance were finally hauled into Redondo Beach on the back of a flatbed truck. The engine never really worked, but the scam did. The New Jersey State Police stopped the ambulance but then let it speed on once they saw the gravity of the situation.

And now everyone wonders when the next one will be. And where.


More sports stories from the archives:

Most everyone thought it was a crazy idea, but on the eve of ESPN’s launch, Bryan Miller takes a sneak peek at the upstart, sports-focused cable station out of Bristol in Television Gets (Even More) Sports Crazy (September 1979).

Terese Karmel’s Husky Heaven (March 1995) takes a look at the classic UConn basketball women’s team at the start of their phenomenal streak.

Get to know Fairfield native and former Westport resident James Blake, Connecticut's most famous tennis product, in Blake’s Progress (April 2002) by K. Lee Howard.

Lime Rock Park gets an early profile in these pages in John Birchard’s Lime Rock Bridges the Gap (May 1972), a look at the auto racing venue's broad appeal.

Read even more stories from Connecticut Magazine's 50-year history at connecticutmag.com/archives