Pope, Sears, Flying Merkel, Excelsior, Henderson, Indian, Triumph, and the Harley-Davidson’s Silent Grey Fellows. These are but a few of the vintage, pre-1916 motorcycles that will be thumping their way across these great United States for the Motorcycle Cannonball endurance run in September 2010. Riders will virtually dip their tread in the salty waters of the East Coast’s Atlantic Ocean as the officials wave the green flag, then come to rest some 3,294 miles later, at the shoreline of the Pacific Ocean’s West Coast.
Usually on display in museums, private collections, or in Harley-Davidson dealerships, packs of antique motorcycles will leave their prestigious perches and hit the road, being put to the test during this grueling coast-to-coast pursuit as their riders navigate the back roads and byways of our great nation. Some motorcycles will be built specifically for this challenge in accordance to the event’s stringent qualifying rules. Many may not complete the ride and the drama will build as the course determines how many will, indeed, finish. Following along the paths of their forefathers, each of the riders and their machines will be pushed to the very limit as the procession rolls from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to Santa Monica, California, during the two-week odyssey.
Cannonball’s Course Master, John Classen, has painstakingly mapped out a route for the hearty men and women motorcyclists that squarely address the particular nuances of this ride. "Our route was chosen in order to avoid having the riders enter a single interstate whenever possible. We’ll have 12 hours of daylight each day, and a goal of having every rider check in at the day’s ending point 1 hour before sunset. We don’t want anyone having to deal with the safety issues of meeting up with the local wildlife after dark, and we are expecting some break downs."
Classen is well aware of the ins and outs of these types of contests. With over 20 years experience directing various motor sport competitions, a long-time member of the Sports Car Club of America, and having personally competed as a navigator in the Great Race for five years, where he won the title of Champion Navigator for the race in 1984, John knows his way around a route. In March, he will personally drive the shore-to-shore course for the Motorcycle Cannonball in the first of two pre-run trips to produce precise driving instructions for entrants and to smooth out any wrinkles along the way.
While each competitor in this unique event is obviously enamored with his or her motorcycle and the history contained therein, few have actually ridden a course of this magnitude, let alone on a 95-plus-year-old machine. Contestants are from all walks of life and include museum owners, authors, and collectors as well as restorers, builders, mechanics, and an Iron Butt rider. Entrants come from the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany and the United States. Some have already begun rigorous training in order to endure the harsh physical demands the ride will require.
The Motorcycle Cannonball, named after the famed Erwin “Cannonball” Baker, who set 143 driving records from 1910 through the 1930’s, dares contestants to live up to the records set by men like Baker. Setting his first record on an Indian motorcycle in 1914, Cannonball made the coast-to-coast ride in 11 days. George Wyman was first to set a trans-continental record in 1903, taking 50 days to do so, and many other historical riders followed suit.
For the 2010 ride, some of the same challenges face riders that concerned their brave forefathers: gas availability, machine’s performance, and physical strength. Nothing was then, nor will be now, taken for granted as the modern-day motorcyclists measure themselves against our country’s most beloved and respected motorcycling ancestors.
This spectacular event is an opportunity of a lifetime for its participants. Lonnie Isam, Jr., promoter and owner of Jurassic Racing in Sturgis, South Dakota, is looking forward to the ride. Having admitted that the most he’s ever logged on a pre-1916 in a day is about 50 miles, he’s aware that there’s a real challenge ahead of him and the others. “You know, this started out as just a bunch of guys wanting to go for a ride that we’d been planning out over the years, maybe 15 or 16 of us. Then everybody started hearing about it and wanted to get in on it and it just grew.” Now, facing a full field of vintage motorcycles and anxious riders preparing to hit the wide-open road, the gauntlet has been thrown. Ladies and gentlemen, buckle up your kidney belts. It’s going to be an exciting, historical, bumpy ride.