An Interview with a Cannonballer

April 8, 2013—As children, we watched all the ‘car’ movies: Grand Prix, The Gumball Rally, Le Mans, Smokey and the Bandit, etc. And as we grew older we continued watching car movies, in particular the Fast n’ Furious series. But one film always stood above the rest: The Cannonball Run. Sure it’s kitschy and slapstick, but the original script was much darker, originally written for the late Steve McQueen, and it’s a classic.

The thought of going flat out across the US always thrilled me, but it wasn’t until about the time I got my driver’s license that I learned that The Cannonball Run was based on a true story. This morning Wide Open interviewed a living legend, Bill Warner, who actually cannonballed in 1975.

Today he’s well-known for being the founder and chairman of the premier East Coast car show, the Amelia Island Concours. But when he drove from New York City’s Red Ball Garage to Redondo Beach’s Portofino Inn in forty-one, nonstop hours, he was running his filter company and working part-time as an automotive journalist for Road & Track.

1971 Porsche 911 ad

1971 Porsche 911 ad (© Porsche AG)

Warner, a self described “life-long car guy,” was friends with Brock Yates who was then editor at Car and Driver and would eventually write The Cannonball Run based on his experiences planning and marshaling the event. Warner happily accepted Yates’ invitation to run. What did Warner drive? His daily driver of course: a Porsche 911T bought new. He purchased the car in 1971 for $7900, much to the chagrin of his dad who called it a “Mickey Mouse car.”

He did make a few modifications to the car including installing the European 911 fuel tank (larger capacity), skinny wheels and tires, CB radio, and Cibie Oscar driving lights. The engine was bumped up to 2.7L displacement and fitted with Weber carburetors. Warner participated because he’d “never been to California before and it seemed like a good reason to go.”

Following Warner and co-driver Tom Nehl’s first fuel stop, at 2 AM in Tennessee, they switched seats and Nehl took over driving. Within five miles Nehl began dozing off and Warner had to wake him and asked what was wrong. “I never could drive at night,” replied Nehl. So it was left to Warner to drive both night legs and half of the day stretch.

Cannonball logo

While most of today’s Gumballers and Bullrunners are part of the “gold-chain, Gucci crew” looking to be famous because money isn’t enough, “We ran under cover, we didn’t put any decals on the car,” Warner explained, “We just ran looow profile. Now they’ve got these clowns that slap decals all over their Lamborghini.” At this point Warner paused and considered his word choice, “They’re too high-profile, too showy,” disapproval dripping from his voice. “With the original Cannonball it was run silent, run deep.” The point was to go quickly and police stops cause delays. And when asked about recent cross-country record setting runs that employed jammers, night-vision, spotter planes and computer programmed scanners, Warner simply replied, “no, it’s got to be pure.” When the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash (its official name) was organized, it was Brock Yates' protest against the (now overturned) federally mandated 55 MPH speed limit. Warner said, “you’d think that the Cannonball guys would be these wild-haired rebels. It wasn’t. It was pretty much a cross-section of society.” Then he added, “nut cases!” with a laugh.

Car and Driver Cannonball Cover

August, 1975 Cover of Car and Driver magazine with Bill's Porsche front and center (© Hearst Magazines)

So did Warner win? Who cares?! He raced from New York City to Los Angeles in a four year old Porsche driving three quarters of the way in forty-one hours! Additionally, he and Nehl opted to go south of Ohio due its notoriety as a cash-hungry, speeder’s hell, which extended the route by about one-hundred fifty miles.

The Cannonball Run was a futile, adventurous, rebellious act. Yet it has captured so many imaginations because of the allure and challenge it represents. There are infinite routes, strategies and reasons not to do it. Sure, almost anyone can run. “I give speeches to Rotary Clubs and they ask, ‘but how do you do it?’ You just do it,” Warner explained emphatically. How many have?

Perhaps one day... [kiWO]