Cannonball Run: One Lap of America in a Plymouth Duster
Any typographical errors are our own!
It all started late last summer. Frank Pogoda, my ever-enterprising colleague, suggested that we begin a project to field an entry in Brock Yates' "Cannonball" One Lap of America. As seasoned journalists with over two weeks' experience in our fields, Frank and I decided that we were perfect for the job. After all, we had seen both of the movies.
At first, we pursued the whole task of filling out the necessary forms and applications on the sly, as there was absolutely no backing from the magazine's previous editor, who seemed somewhat oblivious to the One Lap craze and its potential for stories. Through the fall, Frank and I kept this whole thing pretty much under wraps, until the January 1989 arrival of our new editor and pal, Steve Collison. He was the only guy who would back us on this idea and approach the publisher, Steve "The Boss" Schneider.
Actually, the big guy was pretty receptive to the idea when it finally got to him:
"Waddya mean it costs fifteen-hundred to enter this thing?!"
"Yeah, but Steve, think of the publicity we can generate! We'll be on ESPN and everything!"
"Have you got a car yet?"
"Well ... no, but we're working on it. I know, we can use my'66 Grand Prix. Take it from me, it's big enough to sleep in, heh, heh, heh ..."
"How long will it take to get it ready? Let's face it, with your schedule, you don't have much time to prep your car..... Yeah, you're right. How about Ehrenberg's Road Runner?"
The infamous Road Runner, Rick's sinister dark green '69 Six-Pack, would be the perfect One Lap assault vehicle. It had it all: face-crushing horsepower, handling and visuals. Combined with a 145-plus mph top speed, the Road Runner was our choice. So what if it would only get 8 to 9 mpg? Gas mileage is for wimps! There was only one small hitch: Rick himself.
"There is no way we’re using the Road Runner. The body and paint job are perfect. If it gets scuffed up or wrecked, I’ll stick a gun in my mouth. [Now there’s a vivid image.] I have a couple of other cars we could do instead though. What do you think about my 440 cop car or my 360 Duster?”
“Well, we’ll get back to you on that, Rick.”
“All right, all right. I know they aren’t as glamorous as the Six-Pack, but either will get the job done, and the Duster has a fold-down seat. It’d be great for sleeping. I’ll tell you what - come on over to my place and check them out.”
“Okay, we can do that.”
Frank and I made the trip upstate and were both taken in by that Duster. It was clearly the best candidate of the bunch, and with a strong-running 1969 340 A-block, we would be able to out-horsepower just about anyone in the crowd. Ehrenberg guaranteed this combo would be good for an honest 135-plus mph. So we would definitely be in the thick of things-if it ever got down to being “more than a rally car.”
Ehrenberg soon went to work on the car and had it done just in time for the transporter to take it to sunny California. (The story on the six-week rusto-resto is covered elsewhere in this issue.) The car shipped on time and we figured everything would be smooth sailing from then until it was time to fly out to Long Beach for the start of the rally.
We were booked to stay at the Radisson in Manhattan Beach, as were the rest of the out-of-town entrants, and we found the accommodations to be magnificent —much better than we had expected.
We had an opportunity to check out the other entries and hang out with the drivers, who were incredibly laid back and very friendly. They spoke freely about their cars and the modifications made to them and acted like we had known them for years. It was a refreshing change from the uptight, close-mouthed primadonnas we are used to and were expecting. Most of them thought our choice of the Duster was pretty neat. Our no-factory-sponsor, low-buck approach to the One Lap was looked upon with curiosity, especially since we were running a 15 year old car.
The next morning we headed out to Long Beach for the official start of the event, and for the ceremonial parade lap. While there, we had a chance to see the start of the Toyota Grand Prix and the lovely Toyota Girls. We also met comedian Jay Leno, a really nice guy and good sport. He stopped for a few pictures with us. He actually guessed that the Duster had a 340 from the exhaust note. Not bad!
On the parade lap, we made sure we gave the ESPN cameras a good show, with a couple of full-throttle blips as we passed. In fact, we were always prepared to give ESPN's John Kerwin and his video crew some good footage throughout the 9800-mile trek.
By the time the rally had started, the temperature was already in the neighborhood of 105 degrees. It was hot, but fortunately the Duster had air.
We did it - we were off and running!
Our first event was at Sears Point, north of San Francisco. It was listed as a regularity run, meaning you would drive the Sears Point course at a driver-chosen average speed, between 45 and 55 mph. An hour later, you would take another run on the course and try to duplicate your time and speed. There were hidden checkpoints along the course that timed your average speed, so you couldn't drive like hell and then coast through with the correct lap time. It was average time that counted, as well as overall time.
We devised an unbelievably accurate system to duplicate the regularity runs at this event, using a device you could buy at any K-Mart. We're not telling how this works, because we're going to use it again next year. Needless to say, we did very well, picking up only 5.7 penalty points out of a possible 300! With more practice, our regularity runs became even more precise. Things definitely were off to a great start.
The next stop was Coeur d' Alene, Idaho. We had to go all the way up California, via routes 5 and 395, through Oregon, into Washington State, and then hook into Idaho. The ride was among the most exhilarating runs in the entire rally.
We were lucky enough to encounter almost no police intervention on this first leg of the rally. We figured if we were able to step up the pace a bit, we would have a chance to snooze, eat and, of course, drive fast.
We were able to see some of the most beautiful country imaginable - at 110 mph. It was amazing. We drove through countless miles of hauntingly beautiful landscapes that reminded me of Rick was driving at one point about 70 miles south of the Oregon border when we came to a small town, so we slowed down to the legal limit. We cruised quietly through the town and were promptly pulled over by a local police car. Rick got out of the car and spoke to the officer, and if I wasn't mistaken I actually heard the two of them laughing and carrying on. "What is going on out there?"
I thought. "He can't be that good a B.S. artist!"
Ehrenberg opened the door of the car and said, "Well guys, we're spending the night in jail! No, no, just kidding!"
The policeman added, "I saw another car with stuff painted on the side like yours pass by about 10 minutes ago. I was curious what it was all about, so I pulled you guys over. No big deal. I'll even give you a freebie. There aren't any more cop cars on this road from here to the state border. Let 'er rip guys, have fun!"
We gave him a bunch of magazines and thanked him to pieces for his tip. He was right, there weren't any other police cars on that road, even well into Oregon.
To an Easterner, the Oregon high desert was almost beyond the scope of imagination. Its desolate beauty almost appeared to be a landscape from some distant planet, with scattered foliage of unknown origin, frost covered and lifeless. Being at times half-asleep in the back of the car, I was quite taken by the surrealistic mood. Combine that with the breakneck speeds at which we were traveling and it certainly made for a once in-a-lifetime experience.
Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, was the site of a full-blown TSD rally. For those of you who, like us, didn't know what TSD stood for, it's "Time, Speed, Distance." Okay, why didn't you just say so, Yates? The 15-mile rally set the pros apart from the amateurs, as some of the competition was loaded with rally computers. One entry, sponsored by TRW, actually had a full-screen CRT mounted flush into the dash, replacing the glovebox.
"Are our calculators programmable?" asked Rick when apprised of the TRW rigging.
"No," I managed. "But just look at this easy-to-read display." Don was not impressed either, so I changed the subject. "Just look at this scenery, guys." The scenery was impressive. Lake Coeur d' Alene glistened in the midday sun, surrounded by mountains.
Our strategy of driving 80 percent over the posted speed limits paid off, as we were able to get in an early odometer check. This is a pre-rally check to compute your odometer error - that is, the difference between your odometer reading and that of the car that paced the rally instructions. This figure was placed in our calculator's memory and multiplied by our odo readings to get actual odo distances between rally instructions.
We scoped out the rally area, not knowing if this was "against the spirit of the rally" or not. After driving through the night and smelling each other's bodies at close range, though, we really didn't care.
We finished the odo check and headed back into town, figuring that we had 3.46 hours, or 207.6 minutes, before the rally. And who said that our calculator was worthless?
A sign caught out eye: "Rooms $25." A shower and maybe a shave. A bed and maybe a nap. We pulled into the lot.
One Pizza Hut pie and a shower later, we discussed the rudimentary details of TSD rallies. "...And if we don't get to this crossroads by 3:42, we’re [done]! Let's do it!"
With Rick driving, I handled the navigating chore, and Dandy Don rode shotgun, our designated sign-spotter. The rally seemed pretty easy. Only a few directions had speed changes without odometer readings, so we were able to do most of the calculations with our non-programmable calculator. I say "most" because after a few miles, our computations took just a bit longer than it took us to reach the next directions.
"We are going to do this by the seat of the pants," I informed our crew. They politely withheld their displeasure and we forged on, hoping our speedometer was working better than our odometer.
Rick did some decent rally driving as we stuck to the indicated speeds. Don held his own with the directions; we didn't miss one. The rally ended after we went up and down a mountain road where it was hard to maintain speed. We took some hard turns with that Duster, turns that we might not have taken with a car worth more than two grand.
The rally ended, and we found out later that we had picked up 27 penalty points! This was not too shabby and kept us in eighth place. The veteran rallyists must have thought we were ringers, and even we couldn't figure it.
The next set of instructions had us drive through Idaho to a passage control (checkpoint) in Billings, Montana. No sweat.
No sweat, that is, until it started snowing. This is where we figured the three-ton, off-road Lamborghinis (or "Rambo Lambos," as they came to be known) would come into their own. But it wasn't to be as the snow was steady but not extensive.
The state of Montana is roughly 550 miles wide. During the entire run we saw no cops, but the radar detector was going off nonstop. It was not until later in the trip that we found out that a Toyota Camry, Car 27, had a radar gun and was wreaking havoc on the entire field!
We reached Billings at about 2 a.m., had some coffee and used the restrooms. I even found the need to call my wife who, at about 4 a.m. Eastern time, appreciated my call.
Next stop was Fargo, North Dakota. We were due in at 3:19 p.m. The drive was uneventful, except for a brief passage through Theodore Roosevelt National Park, where the last buffalo in the United States roam. I saw one, in fact, at about 85 mph, on the other side of the interstate. Grabbing the camera, I thought I had a good shot of the hairy bugger, but the slides later revealed a blurry side of Ehrenberg's head. Oh well.
Escanaba, Michigan, next. Weather in Michigan is always deceiving. We'd ask somebody what the weather report was for the next day and they'd say "seasonal," as if we were supposed to know. Escanaba is on the northern tip of Michigan, and seasonal for mid April apparently means "really cold!"
We stopped at a Kentucky Fried Chicken and had what turned out to be the last pieces of chicken in the store. The burly head of the household who came in after us and was told that there was no more chicken took it personally and vowed never to return. Our sentiments exactly. To be sure, the natives were friendly, and we noticed that the One Lap made the front page of the local paper.
After driving through several towns at predictably slow speeds, we noticed that Escanaba was not getting any closer. Little by little we picked up the pace, passing two and three vehicles at a time. At this rate we soon reached the caravan of One Lappers, who were not giving an inch to potential passers, unless a driver wanted to leap all seven in a single bound.
After riding in the parade for several miles, we heard an engine winding and a blaze of headlights passed us in a blur. Who else but the Ital Uno and their eccentric Italian driving team? We saw a challenge and went for it.
No sooner did we inform our fellow rallyists of our intention to pass six cars at once than we did exactly that. Well, almost. At well over 100 mph in the oncoming traffic lane, third gear was no more. We were forced to limp alongside the motorcade and tuck in at the rear. You can only go so fast in second-roughly 65 mph.
We vowed that our transmission failure would not diminish our competitive spirits, and it didn't. The midnight regularity run did not call for high speeds, and we'd be in Saginaw in the morning and Detroit in the afternoon. If you can't get a car fixed in Motor City, you'd better get out of the automotive business. Quickly. Unfortunately, the next day was Sunday, and finding an open trans shop on Sunday is the thing of scavenger hunts.
Rick took the wheel from Escanaba to Saginaw. All of us were getting battle weary and looking forward to sleeping in a real bed on Sunday night. Detroit was more than a place to get our trans fixed; it was our halfway point/overnight stop.
Meanwhile, in Saginaw, Michigan, we hung out at the offices of Polar Molecular Corp., owners of One Lap sponsor Duralt Fuel Additive. We had a nice press showing there, with the local media affiliates and ESPN busily searching out the leaders up to that point.
And the crowd was buzzing about some car that had run out of gas but was able to limp to a service station on nothing more than octane booster and Duralt. That car was none other than Car 19, our Space Duster.
To be continued...!