Auto Journalists Started the Cannonball. They Can’t End It.

Cross-country speed records are unspeakably irresponsible during a global pandemic. Now would seem like a great opportunity to say that this whole cannonball business should never have happened. You saw what those A8-driving, iPad-abusing people did? It’s the Cannonball’s fault! They’ve always been needlessly reckless!

But you know what? I’m a hypocrite for saying that. I’ve driven recklessly when I thought it was safe to do so. Everybody, especially auto journalists, has as well. We may have not averaged 109 MPH cross-country for 26 hours, but it’s tough to ignore all the spirited driving done on public roads. Especially when a lot of it is online for everyone to see.

Auto journalists in the not-so-distant past have been ticketed, arrested, and crashed press cars due to their own negligence. The masthead of this website has a picture of a speeding ticket. You cannot separate driving cars on the limit – on public roads or not – from automotive enthusiasm or auto journalism.

The people who got the Cannonball rolling in the first place were, after all, auto journalists. The legendary editor of Car and Driver Brock Yates dreamt it up in the early seventies. Since then, the automotive press has had no problem covering, and participating in, the NYC-LA excursion. Alex Roy’s famous cross-country trip – which has recently been recorded in a documentary – highlights the balance between the carefully planned safety and willing recklessness inherent to the Cannonball.

This new record is not an opportunity

The people most qualified to condemn this run is law enforcement. We shouldn’t need to ask former cannonballers or the automotive press if what these drivers did was appropriate. Clearly it wasn’t. That’s also not the whole picture, though. These new record-holders didn’t get the inspiration to do this sort of thing by reading Better Homes and Gardens. The idea of running a Cannonball during this time had been floating around the automotive world for a while before it actually happened.

The Cannonball is never going to go away. Cars are safer, faster, more efficient, and more capable than ever. A part of car culture won’t disappear because of one incident. Car culture is bigger than any one person, magazine, or organization. We can agree that a coast-to-coast drive during a pandemic (or not during a pandemic) is at the very least an irresponsible thing to do, but saying reckless Cannonball runs must go away – from anyone who often takes cars to their limits – is insincere.

14 Comments

  1. I don’t understand the logic of why this was fundamentally more irresponsible than any other Cannonball attempt. Was it the idea that they were potentially transporting the virus with them to a new destination? As for the driving itself, speeding on emptier roads doesn’t seem any more offensive to me than
    speeding on busier roads, with more people around to slam into.

    1. The bad optics of doing this during a pandemic aside – there’s an argument for both doing it and not. Less traffic=safer to make an attempt, right? I wonder if someone could compare the current traffic levels to the ones during the 70’s when the Cannonball started.

      But… regardless of the situation or conditions, a Cannonball attempt is pretty moronic regardless of the condition. It started as a protest to the nationwide 55 mph speed limit. Were cars safe then? Yes-ish. Are modern cars safe enough for the 65 – 85 mph limits around the country? Certainly, and if we had some decent lane discipline across the US maybe you could make an argument for raising them even higher.

      But the “Higher Goal” (if there ever was one) reason for the Cannonball – speed limits – has been gone for a few decades. Even Brock Yates morphed the Cannonball into One Lap because he felt that point was proven. The other big point he wanted to prove was that well trained drivers could do it safely. Further attempts just increase the likelihood of that point being disproven.

      1. I agree 100% on all counts. My point was not that this attempt was justifiable, just that none of the others were either. I read Brock Yates’s original article back in the day, and even as a kid I thought there was pretty sketchy justification for what was, at its core, an anti-social orgy of velocity.

    2. The logic is, risk takers making poor calculations are exponentially more likely to pointlessly kill someone is in a time of strained medical resources. There’s no slack in the system, so if they hurt themselves or anyone else, it’s even harder to help people struggling with the virus. With that in mind, I partially agree that anyone who gets hurt street racing should be left for the crows as a Public Service Announcement. I would (to my own disgrace) wish terrible things on them if they mowed down someone whose job is saving people’s lives.

  2. There will (hopefully) never be a more opportune time to set this reckless and irresponsible record. This could render the record effectively untouchable during non-pandemic times. That could be an upside. We may see fewer future attempts when these unprecedented conditions no longer exist.

    1. This is a rational handle of an irrational desire though. For every bit of publicity, and every measurement of time that passes, this turns into something that someone at some point reads, considers part of a tradition of honourable competition, and it will grow into an ambition to compete themselves. So many factors go into this. Better cars, better organization, new roads making for faster connections, new technology in every aspect of this…for whatever reason, there will be new record attempts.

    2. This is a rational handle of an irrational desire though. For every bit of publicity, and every measurement of time that passes, this turns into something that someone at some point reads, considers part of a tradition of honourable competition, and it will grow into an ambition to compete themselves. So many factors go into this. Better cars, better organization, new roads making for faster connections, new technology in every aspect of this…for whatever reason, there will be new record attempts.

    3. When Brock and Dan set the mark In the Daytona, that was the fastest production car available, and it topped out at 174 mph. Now any hard-working 24-year-old with a skilled trade or college degree should be able to afford a used CTS-V or Hellcat capable of exceeding that speed. At some point, those will have become 6-owner cars with 150K miles, and high school kids mowing lawns and cleaning swimming pools will have saved up the $15K those cars will have depreciated to. In other words, the tools to achieve an ill-advised record attempt will, at some not-too-distant point, be attainable by impressionable teenagers with no sense of self-preservation or mortality.

      1. i want to push back on this. do we know that there’s a rash of teenagers blasting from Chelsea to Redondo Beach in their ’06 Vs? i recall hearing 20 years ago that if i played enough Counter-Strike i was going to shoot up a school, but i think the link between mass shootings and video games is now understood as pretty tenuous.

        i’m not saying i think cannonball runs are a good idea, but i bristle at the impressionable-kids argument against ~anything. show me an actual trend and i’ll believe it. otherwise, entertainment audiences are much better at separating life and art than we give them credit for.

        1. I think you are misreading my point. smalleyxb122 theorized that because the record was lowered while the roads were unprecedentedly clear, future record attempts will be halted when those ideal road conditions don’t repeat. In contrast, I believe that one of the biggest barriers to a record attempt–namely unsupervised access to automotive hardware capable of sustaining speeds averaging triple digits for about a day–is trickling down to a demographic that the public doesn’t trust to make responsible decisions about alcohol consumption, smoking, or handgun ownership.

          I’m not suggesting Cannonballing is going to be the next Tide pod challenge, it’s just that the number of attempts will increase when Cannonballers can be competitive with afterschool-job-money and don’t need a Ferrari.

          https://i.kinja-img.com/gawker-media/image/upload/c_scale,f_auto,fl_progressive,q_80,w_800/ptruyodo2g3ytafv3twa.png

          1. there’s more than having a car to being actually competitive here. these guys have scouts in upcoming cities running the route to get a feel for traffic and cops. they’re modifying their gas tanks to carry more fuel. they’re developing efficient routines for their three man gas station stop. having a fast car is necessary, but you need to be rich, smart, and well-connected to really compete here. so if these teenagers know they aren’t capable of beating internet famous playboys no matter what they’re in, what’s stopping them from cannonballing in their beater Civics right now?

            all this is a roundabout way of saying i just don’t think the cannonball run is going to be a trend. how many teams have attempted it in the last decade? a couple dozen? whatever. i am not worried about this becoming a trend.

          2. The feel I get is the numbers are higher than that.

            I wonder if increased surveillance or police activity will be a factor in years ahead? No doubt Apple and Google knew about this before anyone else.

  3. Good article, I had something similar queued up in my brain for the site but had to move this week (moving now sucks even worse FYI since you basically have to do it solo). Totally agree, the “won’t someone think of the children” outrage that I read over the past week or two is crazy. This was mathematically safer now than it was months ago. Roy’s “they could have hit a truck carrying precious medical supplies” is BS. Sure, it’s possible, but it’s always possible to hit something critical doing something like this, including when he did it.

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