When the Cannonball Rally went legit | The history of the One Lap of America

Steven Cole
By Steven Cole Smith
Oct 27, 2021 | One Lap of America, Cannonball Rally | Posted in Features | From the May 2021 issue | Never miss an article

Photography by Dan Burns unless otherwise credited

[Editor's Note: This article was written before the 2021 One Lap of America took place.}

To be clear, Brock Yates hated, hated, the film “The Cannonball Run.” Yes, he wrote it, and yes, he cashed the check, but the script was written with actor-racer Steve McQueen in mind. McQueen got sick, though, and Burt Reynolds got hold of the script and turned a reasonably serious effort into Dom DeLuise slapstick. So it made Brock richer but took a little bit of his soul. Fortunately, Yates, maybe the best automotive writer in history, had a lot of soul to go around.

It should be noted that I never would have had a career as an automotive writer were it not for opportunities presented by Yates, something I both praise and curse him for, sometimes in the same day.

But I digress. This is the story of One Lap of America, the bastard child of the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, which Yates and racer Dan Gurney accomplished in 1971 in a Ferrari 365 GTB/4, going from the famed Red Ball Garage in New York to the beachfront Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach, California, in 35 hours and 54 minutes. It was named, of course, for Erwin “Cannon Ball” Baker, famous for nonstop motorcycle rides; Wikipedia suggests he made 143 cross-country motorcycle speed runs, totaling about 550,000 miles.

He was Yates’s hero. The fact that Cannon Ball was also a vaudeville star would have only intrigued him further. Cannon Ball died in 1960; Yates died in 2016, the victim of Alzheimer’s.

Yates was wise enough to know there was no future in expanding the Cannonball and running it annually–the movie had squelched that. So in 1984, he tried something called One Lap, where you drove around the eastern part of the country, supposedly to match the mileage Yates had set in a trial run. Which nobody possibly could. “You had no idea where Brock stopped for gas and got lost, or made lane changes,” recalls his son, Brock Jr. 

Three Men and a Minivan

It was an informal jaunt, a test for the 1985 One Lap of America, backed by Yates’s employer, Car and Driver. It sought to have teams compete by driving around the country–with one night of rest in a motel roughly halfway into the 8800-mile trip, again in Redondo Beach and the Portofino, where Brock Yates Jr., now so familiar to Grassroots Motorsports readers and One Lap contestants, worked as a bartender.

It has been 35 years since Yates Jr. poured me a highball–appropriate–at the Portofino, halfway through that first major One Lap. This is what I and a few others remember. We are all old now, so lapses must be excused.

Yates came through Dallas in January 1985 and stopped at the Dallas Times Herald, where I, a lifelong fan, took ownership of him for the afternoon as we discussed this latest project, the One Lap of America. Teams would start in Detroit, drive to California, to the Mexican border in Southernmost Texas, to the East Coast, north to New York, and back to Detroit. There would be rally-style checkpoints which allowed Yates to avoid calling it a race. It was a rally! (It was a race.)

Might there be a seat available? I asked Yates. There might, he said. That, I was sure, was the end of it, but the best public relations man ever, Bill Baker, called a couple of days later and said there was indeed a seat, in something called a Chrysler minivan of the Dodge Caravan variety, and it even had the “big motor,” a Mitsubishi four-cylinder.

Photograph courtesy Brock Yates Jr.

In creating One Lap of America, Brock Yates Sr., third from top, turned his Cannonball Run into a legit event. The Portofino Inn provided a rest stop, while celebrity involvement included guest starter Carroll Shelby. 

Not a Ferrari, but more practical for three people. I was joined by Ben Farnsworth, a radio reporter for WCBS radio in New York City and host of the “Farnsworth File” radio feature, which would cover One Lap from the road. Baker had outfitted us with a radio-telephone and a new contraption called a cellular phone, which worked in like three cities, mostly Portland. Farnsworth would file from the back seat of the Caravan.

Bob Burns, the third member of our crew, was Bill Baker’s neighbor, an engineering student (handy for computing navigation details) filling in for a reporter who backed out at the last minute. (A lot of people backed out at the last minute. This event would be a major undertaking, a major time suck.) Whoever Burns replaced, I’m glad, as he and I have been lifelong friends since. Farnsworth and I have not, possibly because we made fun of his leather stringback driving gloves. (It was a minivan!)

It should also be noted that the fact there was no rear seat was my fault. I insisted that we remove it, so the one of us not driving or navigating could stretch out in comfort. This was a terrible mistake. The one in the back could not sit up, and when resting, rolled about like a bowling ball. Drive and learn, we say around here.

I arrived in Detroit two days before the start. I had a mechanical trip computer installed on a front wheel of the Caravan; it lasted 38 miles into the 8800-mile event. All subsequent TSD calculations were made on my little solar pocket calculator, to which we would have to tape a small flashlight at night.

Chrysler had backed several teams, I learned, including one in a Chrysler LeBaron GTS. The lead driver was Phil Hill. I spent a morning driving world champion Phil Hill, the nicest man in the world, around Detroit to various speed shops. A dream then–a dream now–for a dumbass kid.

Another Chrysler driver was William Jeanes, another top automotive writer of all time. Also on the trip was Jean Lindamood, née Jennings, another of the 10 best of all time. Man, I was in heavy company.

Road Hazards

Yates, at the start, was suicidal. The man he called a “safety Nazi,” Ralph Nader, had latched onto the event, which he believed was a race, not a rally. (Nader was correct, but it did start out as a rally, which could be completed, Yates calculated, at 55 mph, the national speed limit. Right!) 

So Nader pledged to stop the One Lap by rolling paraplegics in wheelchairs who had been hurt by speeding drivers in front of the starting line. The Detroit papers and TV stations and even the national media smelled a story. But Nader never showed. And Yates never stopped looking over his shoulder.

One person in a wheelchair did wave the green flag, 1 minute apart for all of us: Drag Racing Hall of Famer Shirley Muldowney, who had suffered a crash in 1984 in Canada that crushed her hands, pelvis and legs, necessitating half a dozen operations and 18 months of therapy. She looked so frail, but she was Shirley, and wave she did. And we were off. To Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, west to Portland, south to Redondo Beach.

Crossing Montana, it was the worst snowstorm ever. The highway patrol there closed the interstate, but we got there minutes before and proceeded in the most miserable driving conditions I’ve ever encountered. Bless the Uniroyal mud-and-snow tires and front-wheel drive; I drove the whole stretch at double a safe speed and was literally trembling when the snow stopped. 

Brock Yates Jr., at top in the white shirt, now runs One Lap. For reasons he can’t explain, Chrysler minivans were a big part of the event. Phil Hill, above (courtesy Free Library of Philadelphia) finished 10th in 1985. 

Meanwhile, a pattern: The rally checkpoints were off course, or didn’t exist in places. They were often closed by the time late starters, who drew a high number in the 70s, arrived because they were, by starting time, 70 minutes behind the lead car.

And from the start–and more about this in a minute–there were the cops. This is the recollection of freelance writer and North American Car, Truck and Utility Vehicle of the Year President Gary Witzenburg:

“We counted 48 radar-zapping highway patrol cars in just 200 miles. Others later reported as many as 65, some in large bunches and all lights strobing, along with five state tow trucks, two airplanes and a highway patrol helicopter that shadowed the lead car almost from border to border. It looked, they said, like a ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ chase scene, only no one was running.” (Brock Yates, incidentally, wrote “Smokey and the Bandit II.” It made $66 million and cost $17 million. That will make you forget automotive journalism.)

By the time we got to the Portofino for 18 hours of rest, many of us were too wired to sleep. This thing was serious. And we weren’t even halfway there.

One Lap, Infinite Routes

Bidding Brocks Jr. and Sr. goodbye, and given the green flag by Carroll Shelby, we headed south and east to Lajitas, a town on the Rio Grande in Texas where the power lines literally ended. We all had CB radios, tuned to the otherwise empty channel 12, but always monitoring the trucker’s channel, 19. While our minivan never missed a beat, we heard stories of woe from other teams. Like the Porsche 944 that hit a rolled-up armadillo; went through the radiator, fittingly, like a cannonball.

There were brand-new, not-out-yet Audi 5000 Turbo Quattros and a 1936 Ford Sedan Delivery. Team Obsolete was in a 1936 Chevy sedan. Benihana’s founder, the tuxedo-wearing Rocky Aoki, had a 1959 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith stocked with a microwave and a week of frozen Benihana dinners.

A Michigan limo builder had a stretch Cadillac with video games in the back. It was driven by Steve “Yogi” Behr, a former racer, and the limo was often seen “drifting”–long before that was a word.

It was a member of this team who, at a gas stop, hobbled to the bathroom on crutches and was still in there when his two teammates took off, assuming he was in the back. Miles later, on the CB, they laughed after hearing about some idiot team that had left someone in the bathroom. Then they both turned and looked and–it was them! 

They had gone too far to turn back. The teammate paid a kid $20 for a ride to the local bus station, and he somehow took a plane and taxi to Redondo Beach, joining his team just as they arrived.

Those early One Laps attracted plenty of characters: Rocky Aoki, founder of Japanese restaurant chain Benihana, and two guys in a Trihawk

We heard of another team who lost a member when they stopped for gas, near the Las Vegas airport. He disappeared. He was apparently having so little fun that he just walked to the airport and flew home, mentioning it to nobody, as his team conducted a frantic search for him.

As grueling as the journey was, one team really embraced the struggle. The biggest balls were worn by brothers George and Tim Fallar, aboard a three-wheel Harley-Davidson Trihawk, raising money for muscular dystrophy, which George had. 

Our constant companions, except when we might have actually needed them, were the police, whom Nader had notified in all 28 states of a bunch of hooligans in fast cars, or minivans, that would be invading the state and should be arrested on sight. Some were, including eventual winner John Buffum, the rally pro. He was handcuffed and taken to jail for going 62 mph in a 55 mph zone in Arizona.

To say there was selective enforcement is an understatement. Witzenburg got an appropriate statement from a major in the highway patrol: “When we’re confronted by these types of people,” Gary quoted in Robb Report, “we have to take some enforcement action for the safety of the motoring public.” The major added that he had been informed by teletype from Michigan police to expect “an unsanctioned race” with “participants that have a reputation for disregarding speed laws.” Meanwhile, Witzenburg observed, “Locals, tourists and trucks full of chickens sailed by doing at least 60 mph.”

It did not help that we were required to be decked out like NASCAR Cup cars: We had a big number plate, along with decals from Dodge, Uniroyal, BFGoodrich, Anco, Escort, Quaker State, NYNEX and 800 Cellular. Burns and I visited a Pep Boys in Redondo Beach and dressed up our Dodge with pinstripe flames, fuzzy dice, a Pep Boys air freshener with Manny, Moe and Jack holding a giant strawberry, and a Snoopy with a bobbing plastic head. Farnsworth was not amused but said nothing.

Actually, he said a lot. When we could get a phone signal, he tried to file a “Farnsworth File” from the passenger seat; more than once he’d get through his 2-minute radio feature–they were quite good–and we’d hear, “and from the road, this is–crap!” He’d lost the signal and had to start over again.

Other stories abounded, shared at gas stations and McDonald’s bathrooms and on the CB. There were two fatalities: deer in Michigan. A Merkur driver was now “The Deerhunter,” his companion “Dr. Kildeer.” Rocky Aoki’s Rolls spun into a snowbank; a team with a Chevy Blazer and a winch pulled him out.

One team in an S-10 Blazer had a transmission fluid leak. They filled up the windshield washer with transmission fluid, rerouted the tubing to the transmission fluid portal, and pressed the button when they felt the transmission slipping. Worked for a while.

Technically, the first One Laps operated as TSD rallies, complete with checkpoints. Really, though, they were races. Kinda. 

Anyway, we made it back. Plus, hustling along got us a couple of hours at a motel with a hot shower in New Orleans, so we were better off than some. We purposely broke the law in Virginia for the first and only time: Using a radar detector there is illegal, so while I was driving, I had Burns wear ours under his hat and lean forward. It worked. We got to the Renaissance Center hotel in downtown Detroit, finishing 18th out of 77 entries by sheer luck.

There were a few celebs in the mix: Emily Gail, sister of Max Gail, star of “Barney Miller”; Paul Page, NBC announcer who covered the event; Hall of Fame powerboat racer Betty Cook; professional stuntman Cliff Cudney; NASCAR racers Patty Moise and Robin McCall; 24 Hours of Le Mans veteran Margie Smith-Haas; professional personality and racer Anatoly Arutunoff; and actual rally champions like Buffum, Ty Holmquist, Tom Grimshaw and Gene Henderson. Garry Sowerby was driving the same GMC Suburban that had made the record run a year before from the southern tip of Africa to the top of Norway.

And I went back the next year, drove almost as far, but had not nearly as much fun. There were 116 entries, so the event was too big and unmanageable. We finished 70th thanks to the Ohio highway patrol, who knew the longer they kept us, the later we’d be to the next checkpoint.

I was in a modified BMW 535i, the official Rand McNally team’s, complete with a satellite navigation system no one knew how to use. (We were on the “Today” show fake-demonstrating it.) It also had a 35-gallon spare gas tank that wrecked the rear shocks and springs halfway through the event–with every bump, the tank banged down on the rear axle. Thonk! Not fun. Not even the checkpoint at the Nevada brothel, where the ladies waved from the windows, saved One Lap III.

Really, 1985 was kind of the pinnacle, the one that, if you survived it, made you feel an inch taller. Which makes up for the inch I’ve lost in the last 35 years.

Thinking About Taking the Lap?

One Lap, of course, still exists, and has every year since 1984–except for 2020. It’s now in the hands of Yates Jr., who called it off because of the coronavirus pandemic. There’s still one scheduled for 2021. Keep up with it at onelapofamerica.com.

One Lap adopted its current format in 1987 with the addition of actual timed events–slaloms and autocrosses at first, with road courses added in 1989. Two early One Lap stars: Dodge PR star Bill Baker and rally star John Buffum.

In 1989, Yates and Toly Arutunoff conspired to dump the checkpoints and go from race track to race track, making the One Lap much more interesting. Brock Jr. has maintained that format: For 2021, you’d start out at GingerMan Raceway in Michigan, work your way through tracks while heading south down through Texas, drive east to NOLA Motorsports Park in New Orleans, then head up to Atlanta Motorsports Park and Summit Point Raceway before arriving back at GingerMan. 

You could rent an unlimited-mileage car nearby at O’Hare in Chicago–hmm. My last One Lap was in 1997, I think. Maybe I have one more in me. And if you’ve never been, what’s keeping you?

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Comments
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spacecadet (Forum Supporter)
spacecadet (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
6/1/21 11:44 a.m.

Really cool article! Great job GRM!

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
6/3/21 2:04 p.m.
spacecadet (Forum Supporter) said:

Really cool article! Great job GRM!

Thank you. Steven Cole Smith is really good at doing this. 

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
10/27/21 12:39 p.m.

I was unaware of the TSD era. Sounds kinda fun. 

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
10/28/21 10:54 a.m.

In reply to Keith Tanner :

It's like we're an educational channel (sometimes). Wait, we are, aren't we? 

Lof8 - Andy
Lof8 - Andy GRM+ Memberand SuperDork
10/28/21 12:04 p.m.

That's pretty awesome!  I've been aware of the Cannonball Run, as well as the current "One Lap of America" format.  But I had no idea about the early rally-style One Laps.  Grabbing a rental car near the start is a fantastic idea - added to my bucket list.

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