When some think of the name "Cannonball Run," images of the 1981 film starring Burt Reynolds might come to mind.
But its inspiration was based on the unsanctioned 1970s Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash cross country races that challenged a select number of racers to drive more than 2,800 miles nonstop from New York City's Red Ball Garage to Redondo Beach, California's, Portofino Inn.
Nearly 40 years later, two lifelong friends, Alan Rowe of Beaver Dam and John Davis of Hazel Green, Alabama, participated in the spirit of the race named the C2C — or Coast 2 Coast — Express in September.
The two first entered the race in 2018 when Rowe first learned about it through an article from a friend. It described how a racer was building a classic car for the event, and that piqued Rowe's interest. He searched for the event and found some scattered internet articles that led to nowhere, so he turned his sights toward Facebook. After combing there, he found the private group but still needed approval from its organizer, Ben Wilson of New Zealand.
Rowe said Wilson has such a passion for American period cars that he organized the Cannonball-style race with the emphasis that the race had to be driven with 1970s period vehicles.
With Wilson being selective of who joined the group, he was even more selective of who could enter the C2C Express. Invitations were closed to the public, and Rowe had to answer a questionnaire to get into the closed group. Even after being accepted, the event's details weren't revealed to everyone.
Before Rowe and Davis competed in the race, they shared a history as former race car drivers at speedways around the region.
But when Rowe found out about the C2C Express, he immediately contacted Davis, and the two took to preparing Rowe's Thunderbird for the race.
“If you're going to finish the Cannonball with a vintage car that's 30-plus years old, it takes a lot of work and a lot of preparation to pull it off,” Davis said.
“We went through the car and made sure the transmission was in good shape, the engine was in good shape, changed all the fluids in the car, we added fuel capacity for this year's run, (and) we added extra lights for nighttime driving, so we could see going down the road well,” Davis said.
Along with installing a 60-gallon fuel cell in the trunk and replacing the stock tank with a 33-gallon one to limit their fuel stops to three, they added a new air conditioner system to help keep both drivers alert while driving the cross country stretch.
While Davis worked on the car, he said Rowe took careful consideration of the planning.
“He would plan out different fuel strategies as far as how far he thought we could go with both tanks full of fuel cross country, and he would go and look at every single exit that was within a range and classify the gas stations on how good they were,” Davis said. “He would look at criteria (such as) what side of the road they are, how many gas pumps there were, and he made notes. The best ones made it into the notes we took on the run with us.”
All together, planning and preparations took a year, but they needed to be as fast and efficient while running the race as possible.
With Rowe and Davis already completing the C2C Express in 2018 accident-free, they were invited to compete in the 2019 race. The entry fee was $400 per person, but that included a racing jacket and stickers.
Davis said an interesting aspect of the race was to meet up with the Cannonball-style racers who called themselves the Fraternity of Lunatics.
“Everybody's got a different way of trying to attempt this challenge," Davis said. "You can pick any roads you want from here to there, but you're only going to pick the interstates because that's the fastest way because of the speeds you can maintain.”
Rowe said there are generally two routes that drivers can take to minimize their time on the road.
The southern route went through Indianapolis, St. Louis, and onto Interstate 40 in Oklahoma City to the finish in Redondo Beach, California, while the northern route took racers through Chicago, Nebraska, Denver, Las Vegas and onto I-15 to the end. When the two left Connecticut, they took the southern route in 2018 and the northern route in 2019.
While driving nonstop across the country was a challenge of in itself, there were other hurdles that Rowe and Davis had to overcome. These included managing time for meal and bathroom breaks, keeping the vehicle fueled, staying awake and alert for more than 24 hours and efficiently navigating through congested traffic.
“Since leaving at night, we would try to cruise at 110 (mph) everywhere that we could, and we only got the max speed of the car up to 115,” he said.
But they didn't try to push the car past that for fear of blowing the motor. And they made an effort not to draw attention from other motorists.
“We would get into traffic during daylight hours, so we'd have to slow down. We would try to drive respectful to others, so we'd try to pass them as fast and give people as much room as possible because you don't want to get the police called on you during the run,” Davis said. And with speeds topping past the legal limit in every state, they had to be on the constant lookout for local and state police. Fortunately, they were prepared with countermeasures such as a Valentine One radar locator and the traffic app Waze, and to some extent, Google Maps.
And to combat natural urges such as sleep, hunger, thirst and bathroom breaks, the two tried to get 15 to 20 minutes of rest while riding as a passenger, but it only happened once, Rowe said.
“You're so amped up that, I think, from the day that we left from the time I got up that morning, to when we left, to the drive across (to the finish), and then the arrival party when everybody was there and we met everybody, I didn't go to bed for 48 hours,” he said.
They also stocked water bottles, beef jerky, cheese and cracker snacks, ordered Subway sandwiches at predetermined gas station stops and emptied their bladders using a hose and a funnel that poked through the floorboard.
After experiencing severe sleep deprivation and exhaustion near the end of the race, Rowe and Davis finally arrived at Portofino Inn at 1:20 a.m. on Sept. 16, 2019.
The first time Rowe and Alan completed the race, they finished in fourth place with a time of 36 hours and 4 minutes. The second time, they shaved nearly two hours off with a second-place finishing time of 34 hours and 20 minutes.
And for Davis, it was another adventure.
“It's more about the adventure of doing something that not a whole lot of your friends or colleagues have ever done, and it's a real challenge,” he said.
Rowe said there are no plans for future races. Since the 2019 race received a huge turnout and gathered a lot of attention from both media and police, the organizer has decided to quietly let it die.