NEWBURGH, N.Y. TO SAN FRANCISCO, CALIF., SEPT. 7–23—The inaugural Motorcycle Cannonball Run, held in 2010, had originally been planned as a one-time-only experience to parallel the adventures of Erwin “Cannonball” Baker during the early part of the 1900s. Baker became famous at setting records for both speed and endurance while traversing the continental states during a time of dirt roads and basic machinery. Individual states had competitions, scrambling to see who could host the best welcome for him as he traveled our country—and his adventures enchanted the world.
Antique motorcycle restorer Lonnie Isam Jr. had long dreamed of following the now-paved trails of Baker. He imagined an epic ride with friends that included rambling along obscure narrow twisties while visiting parts of rural America that time forgot. The thought of taking it all in on antique machines that are rarely seen outside museums consumed him. He could not, however, begin to imagine what that dream would turn into as he stepped into the world of promoting.
The original Motorcycle Cannonball Run consisted of a southern transcontinental route on pre-1916 motorcycles and the small, intimate group of adventurists experienced a sort of wanderlust that was hard to contain. Seeing the breadth of our country from the back of a 100-year-old time machine sparked a passion for the road in participants and awakened a motorcycle appreciation in citizens. By run’s end, riders wanted more road, the public wanted more riders, and the entire world had fallen in love with a romantic part of our history—a time when the machines were simple and so was life. Consequently, when word got out that Lonnie would once again take up his organizer’s mantle and charge out into the heartland of America with vintage machinery in his wake, the world was ecstatic.
Vintage riders immediately began signing up for the 2012 Motorcycle Cannonball, including 15 of the original riders who eagerly returned with wrenches in hand. Brad Wilmarth, the 2010 Cannonball winner, was among them. Brad would arrive on the same 1913 Excelsior that carried him to victory in the first run. Riders from all over the globe including South Africa, Germany, Ireland, France, Australia, the United Kingdom and Poland shipped their motorcycles stateside and made ready for the ride of a lifetime. The run also attracted first-time American riders from 22
different states. Disappointingly, among the more than 100 submissions, not a single woman applied.
Romancing the road
The fall expedition was launched from the Motorcyclepedia Museum in Newburgh, New York, with a field of 69 riders and a group that included sweep vehicles, staff (including myself) and crew totaling 200 individuals who became a gypsy band of die-hard enthusiasts for the 17-day adventure that would end in San Francisco, California. The schedule would include one day of rest in the famous motorcycle rally mecca of Sturgis, South Dakota, and take the pack along a northerly coast-to-coast route on some of this country’s most scenic back roads. A small portion of the route would be along major Interstates, an unavoidable nuisance, but consisting of less than 100 miles out of a nearly 4,000-mile journey.
The difficult course was carefully laid out and driven twice by the meticulous route master, John Classen. The detailed instruction charts guided the international pack of vintage iron across the continent and over the Golden Gate Bridge for a grand finish.
Stops were scheduled at a lakeside resort, in quaint little towns, Harley-Davidson dealerships and roadside cafés, as well as in national parks, forests and at four nationally recognized motorcycle museums. Indian Motorcycle provided an evening meal and lakeside party. One small farm town in Iowa even hosted a cookie stop. The 840 generous residents of Graettinger strung up the welcome sign and set their lawn chairs out on the main drag, as riders were invited to stop off for sweet snacks, cold water and warm hospitality.
Entrants were divided into three classes based on engine size. Class I consisted of engines with a displacement of 749cc or less, Class II was 750cc to 1000cc and Class III was 1001cc or more. The wide variety of marques presented for the run included a predictably strong showing of both Indians and Harley-Davidsons, but also included lesser-known machines such as Rudge and Sunbeam.
Coming out proud and in force to dominate Class III was an assemblage celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of Henderson Motorcycle. A group of eight Henderson riders dubbed themselves the “Wolf Pack” and showed up prepared to recapture their model’s glory days. A total of 17 Hendersons entered the run, a number deemed to be the most ever gathered in one place since the release of the machine in 1912. Mark Hill, a motorcycle mechanics teacher at the State University of New York at Canton, worked feverishly for months to get the pack together, an effort that paid off in relatively carefree miles. Four Henderson-riding New Yorkers arrived in California with perfect scores: Mark, Frank Westfall, Jeff Fockler and Steve MacDonald, as well as Canadian Bryne Bramwell. The pack was among the 19 contestants that rode every mile of the transcontinental course.
Unlike the first Cannonball, which had two female entries, the second iteration would have no women riders but did include two participants who brought along their wives as passengers. Unfortunately both ladies, Sylvia Crain and Christine Knoop, had to surrender their seats due to ailing machinery and the women found themselves watching the run from a chase truck.
Class I Rider #42, Jim Crain, had never ridden his restored 1927 BSA and was perplexed when the rear wheel started spitting out spokes, which contributed to the decision to resort to riding one-up. Australian Chris Knoop, however, suffered more catastrophic failures with his rare Class II Invincible J.A.P. The weight of his beautiful handmade replica wicker sidecar contributed to the failure of both his clutch and transmission, and after many miles of being trailered the decision to remove the sidecar, and wife Christine with it, was made. It wasn’t until Stage 6 that the 1925 Australian motorcycle made all the day’s miles.
The gender scales were tipped a bit when original Motorcycle Cannonball rider Cris Sommer Simmons discovered she was not willing to sit home and watch as the expedition took the States by storm, so she signed on as part of the sweep crew and met up with the gang in Milwaukee. Finding disabled machines along the roadside was a labor of love for the sweep crew and Cris quickly caught on to the task. Riders who found the need to reluctantly trailer their broken bikes affectionately dubbed her the “Angel of Death.”
Matt Olsen, the AMCA’s youth director, returned for the second Cannonball after being taken out early in 2010. As the only casualty during the first run, Matt was sent to the hospital when a pothole sucked up his motorcycle. He was delivered home to mend with a badly broken arm. Returning with the determined competitor was his new wife. The couple had chosen to spend their honeymoon with the group and Miss Brittney quickly became part of the MC family.
Most riders had worked diligently to dial in their engines and get things fine-tuned in the months before the run, but for rider #89, Josh Wilson, it was more about meeting his engine. The novice vintage rider arrived at the starting line with a mere 13 miles on his Craigslist purchase. The 1929 Indian 101 Scout was bought on a whim just five weeks before the run after the jet pilot was fired from his job. He made it less than five miles from the official start before his bike broke down—which it did repeatedly throughout the run. At one point the Scout even caught fire while Josh was riding down the road, consuming one of his saddlebags and its contents, which included all of his clothing. The unflappable pilot simply pulled over, made sure the fire was out and proceeded on course. Wilson would end up placing fifth in his class, finishing with a perfect score by having ridden all of the 3,956 miles.
Predictably the first few days of any run are tough, but day two from Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, to Sandusky, Ohio, seriously tested the men’s resolve and later came to be declared by Lonnie as “the toughest day of the Cannonballs.” With 320 long miles to cover, the day started off with slick roads through rain, hail and lightning, and progressed into heavy inner-city traffic before riding up on two major accidents that caused the closure of the already-congested Interstate in two separate locations resulting in detours, confusion and a plethora of breakdowns. Conditions were miserably hard on both riders and machines.
California rider Victor Boocock was the first to leave injured after his Clincher tire rolled off its rim and wadded up in the rear fender of his 1914 H-D, sending him home with a torn rotator cuff. By day three, another of the entrants would also be wounded. Englishman Ian Patton, however, gleefully recounted his breakdown experience with the locals who brought him out a chair as he waited with his bike for help to arrive. When it started raining the thoughtful citizens delivered an umbrella… then pizza.
Don’t miss the boat
Stage 3 would find the vintage jockeys staring down a tight schedule. There were 300 miles to conquer before boarding a ferry to carry the group and their motorcycles across Lake Michigan for an evening soirée planned at the Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This was a party no one wanted to miss, but they certainly would if they were not aboard the ferry at exactly 4:45 p.m. Missing the boat would mean having to go around the lake and through hours of traffic negotiating the streets of Chicago. As fate would have it, this would turn out to be the day that every conceivable space on the sweep vehicles would be crammed with broken machinery, one of which was #40, a 1927 H-D that belonged to Bill Buckingham.
Shortly after the Ohio Turnpike tollbooth, an inattentive driver made a left-hand turn in front of Buckingham and took him out. After a quick check at a local hospital, Bill was released with wounds that included a huge hematoma on his upper thigh and a variety of muscle aches that might have kept a less determined man off his motorcycle. Bill’s attitude was simply, “This is the greatest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Of course I’m gonna continue!” By evening he and his friends were found piecing his crumpled bike back together, making ready for the next day’s journey. He never missed a day of riding due to the crash.
Meanwhile, the rest of the tribe continued their mad dash for the ferry. One of the riders who got left behind due to overloaded transports was Jeff Decker, one-half of the #13 riding team of Decker and Vils. Decker and Mike Vils’ 1929 H-D was delivered in the back of a citizen’s classic pickup at the last possible second, as staffers stood outside the ferry gates frantically pacing with cell phones in hand. Lake Express employees actually held up departure and, with a huge sigh of relief, all who were expected to make the boat did. There was, however, one disappointed warrior who did not get to make the voyage.
Buck Carson, the youngest of the MC riders who would celebrate his 21st birthday during the run, had spent most of his day doing well, but ended up on the side of the road tinkering with “Elizabeth,” his 1929 BSA, and trying to make sense of his instruction sheets. The frustrated Texan finally threw in the towel and sweep truck driver Bill Wood was sent back from the docks to find the stranded time traveler who had wandered off course. The two men then spent the next seven hours dragging the temperamental Elizabeth through the grueling traffic around the lake while the rest of the crew enjoyed a hero’s welcome. Upon arrival in Milwaukee, a police escort took the pack from the ferry to the Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Museum where exhausted riders were welcomed with an elaborate dinner, music and tours of the world-famous museum.
Over the next few days, riders were battered by 40-mph winds, more rain and miles of long, flat roads through the cornfields. Riders awoke in a new town each day—provided they had actually gone to sleep the night before. For many the struggle to keep their ancient machinery running was a full-time job, and for some that task regularly consumed their nights.
Let it never be said that the Cannonball is easy. The long miles were taking their toll and exhaustion would plague the entire group. Exasperated Henderson rider Andreas Kaindl from Germany waved his arms frantically as he expressed in broken English that America is “just too big!” One particularly frustrated American rider left the run, saying he wanted to go home and decide if he was actually Motorcycle Cannonball material. Eventually sweep vehicles carried fewer broken bikes; there were more perfect daily scores and the weather settled into a calmer shade of autumn. Through it all, there was camaraderie, teamwork, respect and a common love for motorcycling.
By the time we rolled along the deeply etched canyons of the Badlands and found ourselves standing awe-inspired at the base of the granite sculptures of Mount Rushmore, a renewed source of energy took over. Many of the Europeans had come to the U.S. to experience these exact scenes in the American landscape and their excitement was infectious.
The beauty of the ride through Lead and Deadwood seemed to recharge the riders as they made their way to the day’s end. By the time we rolled into Sturgis, though, everyone was ready for a day of rest; the care and wrenching of the motorcycles came first and crews hit the town running, many having called in advance for parts and bench space. There truly was no rest for the weary, as local shops turned into operating rooms and triage began.
At Competition Distributing, where Lonnie Isam Sr. rolled up his sleeves and personally performed 42 valve jobs in 24 hours, all brands of motorcycle guts were scattered across the inside, and outside, of the huge building located on Lazelle. Mechanics and riders joined together, crossing brand loyalty and language barriers to get each other on the road.
Doug Feinsod tore into his 1920 Henderson for the third and final time, a job that proved a charm as he made perfect scores for the rest of the run. Chris Knoop addressed his clutch issues in the parking lot, while Mike Vils made his adjustments on the sidewalk. Polish entrant Marcin Grela was not one of the lucky ones. His 1929 Indian had broken down on day one and refused to be revived. Doug Wothke, a.k.a. “Around the World Doug,” manned the phone and searched the States for parts for his own 1928 Indian, while Mongo worked in the hotel parking lot shuttling back and forth for the machinery and guidance needed to keep New Yorker Eric Dunk’s cantankerous 1929 H-D on the road. Paul d’Orleans’ cute little bike with the nasty attitude finally sprang to life after hours of labor. The 1928 Velocette is known to be fast when it runs, which hasn’t been often, but you could tell this was the turning point.
By the time the rejuvenated clan was ready to hit the highway again, the AMCA, as well as the city of Sturgis and its residents, had treated them to two evenings of meals, entertainment and camaraderie. They’d stitched and bandaged their bikes and caught a catnap. The group readied themselves since the landscape they knew was about to change. The forests of the East and cornfields of the Midwest gave way to new scenery that would include several challenges.
The chugging machines would face a steady climb through Wyoming, over a 9,700-foot pass in the Bighorn Mountains and then the steep descent to Yellowstone National Park where the weather was a main concern. Known to snow there during the summer, the unpredictable weather patterns this late in the season worried staff, but the group managed to make it safely to the lodge just as a light rain began. By morning, ice would crust over the bikes and the early departure would prove to be the coldest day of the run. One rider took the hotel towels for additional warmth. Regardless, the day spent cruising the park would prove to be one of the most exciting, as riders encountered elk, buffalo and a bear before departing for the historic town of Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
More comfortable conditions prevailed as the bikes motored through Idaho and on into Oregon. At the evening meal hosted by the small city of Burns, Oregon, the city fathers laid out a homemade spread that was served by inmates. The Cannonballers generally thought it was a joke when they were invited to walk the food line, as men decked out in black and white striped uniforms dished up incredibly tasty grub, but we quickly discovered otherwise. When one rider asked in earnest how he could get a set of the duds, an inmate chirped up with, “Um, doing 65 in a 30 did it for me!” We suddenly realized the clothes were legit.
Some of the most beautiful riding of the event was along the Golden State’s Pacific Coast Highway, and by the time the pack crossed into California riders were more than ready for the
experience. The astounding sight of Mount Shasta and the mesmerizing giant redwoods took riders’ breaths away and they collectively began to relax as they consumed the miles in warm weather, silently preparing themselves to say goodbye to new friends and the carefree way of life. They had experienced a part of America they had never seen, in a way they could never have imagined. The group made memories not just for themselves, but also for those who had cheered them on and followed their progress.
As the assemblage posed for one last group photo at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge before the final miles, the message was circulated that rider #52, BMW rider Darryl Richman who had caught a footboard in a corner and broken his ankle the day before, would not join the pack as they crossed the finish line. The disappointing news served to remind riders to be hyper-vigilant as they navigated the city streets.
There were several machines that would not be crossing the famed bridge under their own power, and Buck Carson’s petite and finicky BSA was among them. “Elizabeth” had given up the fight, but Buck would not be denied. It was a glorious sight as the young Texan drug his machine off the back of the truck, gathered his huge state flag and walked the ornery motorcycle, much to the consternation of bicyclists and pedestrians, across the entire 1.7-mile span of the Golden Gate Bridge. His fellow Cannonballers cheered, taking in the sight through the fog on their way to a staging area to be escorted to the finish line by SFPD motor cops and local motorcycle clubs.
At the end of the day, Brad Wilmarth took home the bronze that sculptor Jeff Decker had donated as the trophy for the Motorcycle Cannonball. Chris Knoop donated a wicker sidecar for the rider who best personified what the Motorcycle Cannonball is all about, and it was presented to Buck Carson’s team as his peers cheered them for the many Cannonball riders they helped. Frank Westfall took first place in Class II on his Henderson. There were several more recognized personalities, and then it was Lonnie’s turn. He reluctantly took the spotlight in a standing ovation that made even him uncomfortable, but it was time to stand up and be recognized. It was time to thank the man for seeing his dreams through—and for bringing the rest of us along for the ride. You’re making a difference in the world, one historical mile at a time.