The riders in the 2012 Cannonball Motorcycle Endurance Run rolled across the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco today, wrapping up this 3,900-mile, 16-day coast-to-coast challenge for motorcycles made before 1930. And though I couldn't be at the closing banquet, I didn't want to miss this chance recognize some of the notable accomplishments of this year's ride.
First, you have to admire Brad Wilmarth's ability to win both the first Cannonball, in 2010, and this year's second edition, on the same motorcycle—a 1913 Excelsior. Yes, he was only one of the 19 riders who completed this year's Cannonball on perfect points, having covered every mile of the course within the time limit for his class, but the way that he earned his repeat victory is very impressive.
It was a major achievement when Wilmarth completed every mile of the 2010 event on the single-speed, twin-cylinder machine, and took the overall victory that year because his Excelsior was the oldest motorcycle to complete every mile. But that ride was for motorcycles made before 1916, so Wilmarth's Excelsior didn't give away an enormous amount of technology to other bikes in that event.
This year, though, Wilmarth was matched up against Harleys, Indians and Hendersons (along with machines from Great Britain, Germany and Australia) that were a full generation newer. And he never gave up a single mile on a course designed to challenge those newer motorcycles with more miles, a tighter time schedule, steeper climbs and higher elevations.
Having watched Wilmarth's approach to these two events, it's clear that his pre-ride bike preparation is perfect, and that he carefully controls his riding to conserve the bike. And while there's an element of luck involved in any cross-country ride aboard an antique machine, the fact that Wilmarth's 99-year-old Excelsior has now logged more than 8,000 Cannonball miles without a failure that would cause him to be late on even a single day is nothing short of amazing.
While recognizing Wilmarth's accomplishment at the top of the standings, I don't want to overlook the other repeat rider/motorcycle combinations in this year's ride. Joe Gardella's famed “Grey Ghost” 1914 Harley actually had a better Cannonball this year that it did two years ago, when a magneto failure late in one of the first few stages knocked him out of the ranks of “perfect” riders before everyone even realized that it would take perfection to compete for the overall Cannonball title. This year, Gardella continued his style of riding on his own, far out in front of the pack. But he avoided any mistake that would take him out of the overall championship.
Steve Barber brought back his 1915 Harley, and even said that he was attempting his second coast-to-coast challenge without rebuilding the bike's engine. He came up just 24 points short of perfect after a single day in which a flat tire and carburetion problems caused him to arrive minutes too late at the finish line. And he never gave up a single point after that, despite having to fix three flat tires on another day.
The final member of the two-time club was Shinya Kimura, who kept patching together his 1915 Indian all the way across the country, just as he did two years ago. Kimura wasn't able to complete enough miles on enough days to earn a finishing position this year, but that didn't stop him from pushing himself and his motorcycle as hard as he could.
While Wilmarth and Gardella topped the overall standings at the finish, the other three Class II (750cc to 1,000cc) riders who finished on perfect point also deserve special mention. Norm Nelson (1929 BMW), Jeff Alperin (1929 Indian) and Josh Wilson (1929 Indian) didn't give up a single mile against riders on the larger Class III (over 1,000cc) bikes. And Wilson even completed every mile on a motorcycle he bought just five weeks before the Cannonball began--a machine that wasn't running right until the morning of the start, September 7 in Newburgh, New York.
Behind those Class II riders came 14 Class III competitors who also finished the ride without losing a single point. And they provided an entertaining matchup of technology from eight decades ago.
By the late '20s, V-twin engines designs had become the standard in American motorcycling. But there remained a significant counterpoint in the form of inline four cylinders, most of which could trace their ancestry to the engineering genius of William Henderson.
It was fun to watch a replay of the battle for dominance between Harley's V-twins and Henderson's Fours in Class III. And it's only fitting that, of the 14 Class III machines that completed every mile, the final score ended up a perfect tie—seven Harleys and seven Hendersons.
Frank Westfall claimed the Class III championship thanks to the age of his 1924 Henderson and to his own age, which won him the final tiebreaker over Andreas Kaindl, also on a 1924 Henderson. Westfall also led four other members of the Henderson “Wolfpack”--Steve MacDonald, Mark Hill, Byrne Bramwell and Mike Fockler—who finished the 2012 Cannonball on perfect points.
Bringing this collection of elegant fours to the Cannonball was a longtime dream of Hill, who has studied and refined Mr. Henderson's engines for years. And the achievement of getting so many of the Wolfpack bikes to the finish is a reflection of Hill's planning and preparation. Kaindl and Richard Correia also brought back the glory of the Henderson name with their perfect finishes.
Of course, it's not like the Harley JDs of the '20s came up short in this year's Cannonball. Dave Kafton, Art Farley, Randy Aron, Sean Duggan, Peter Reeves, Gary Wright and Jim Dennie demonstrated the technology that made Harley-Davidson the dominant American motorcycle manufacturer in the '20s, and the sole remaining manufacturer just a few decades later.
In Class I (for motorcycles under 750cc), Jim Crain is celebrating a double victory, since he rode his own 1927 BSA to the top point total in the class, while his friend, Jimmy Allison, rode a 1926 BSA that Crain owns to second place. But the rest of the top five riders in this class—Mike Wild (1925 Rudge), Darryl Richman (1928 BMW) and Buck Carson (1927 BSA) earned the respect of the other competitors for their willingness to take on a challenge that was truly at the limits of the 500cc bikes they were all riding.
Finally, the biggest achievement of the entire year may once again belong to Lonnie Isam Jr., the Cannonball organizer, for once again putting on an event that captured the imagination not just of people who already love antique motorcycles, but of the general public.
Right from the beginning in New York, the most common question people asked when they saw Cannonball riders stopped at gas stations, restaurants or hotels, was, “Where are you guys headed on those old bikes?” And the most common response when they were told these old bikes were headed nearly 4,000 miles from coast to coast, was, “That's not possible!”
Thanks to Isam's Cannonball dream, it was.