Erwin 'Cannonball' Baker

The modern era

After honouring the great pioneers of the Cannonball Run in my previous story, I'm going to jump forward over 20 years. Let's not forget that for a staggering 23 years, from 1936 until 1959, the Coast-to-Coast record remained unbroken. This, despite numerous daring attempts.

1959 -John Penton

John Penton

Let's talk a bit about John Penton. John was an ordinary guy hailing from rural America. He lived in Ohio, rode motorbikes with his brothers on the family ranch and they all competed in local enduros.

1949 marked his first major event, entering the 500 Miles Jack Pine enduro and finishing 4th, blaming his heavy Harley Davidson machine. However, the following year he finished 2nd on his BSA B33. He showed distinct signs of promise and from then on John continued to win.

Any money he made from racing was meagre and not enough to give him a decent lifestyle, so in 1950, aged 25, with the help of his brothers and the fame he'd gained, he started a motorcycle business.

Then in 1953 the Pentons and fellow riders formed a club, buying 38 acres west of Amherst, Ohio and carving out a race track. Their club, the Amherst Meadowlarks M.C. remains active to this day.

He went on to compete, all across the USA, most notably in his favourite discipline, the long distance enduro, (now called rally-raid), notching up many victories.

John Penton on his dirt bike NSU 175. He used it to win the Jackpine, the Corduroy, the Alligator and many other events

One favourite anecdote says everything about his character. In 1958 he won the Ohio State Enduro riding his trusty NSU 175. So the story goes; without getting off his bike he headed straight to Atlanta to compete in the Stone Mountain Enduro, which he also won. Then he rode down to Florida, won the Alligator Enduro and finally rode back to Michigan, to win the famous Jack Pine Enduro.

That same year, 1958, he left for a trip to Mexico with his BSA B33. Riding back home, he made a bet with himself to get back to Ohio in one go. A personal challenge that he achieved. It was at this point that Ted, his brother, suggested attempting the Coast-to-Coast record.

John Penton on his original BMW R-69 that broke the Coast-to-Coast record. His outfit perfectly reflects the magical look of the American motorcyclists of the 1950s

In 1959 John Penton succeeded in breaking the Coast-to-Coast record he coveted so much in 52 hours 11 minutes. His ride was his original, standard BMW R-69, the only modification being a larger petrol tank.

For the record, he was also the first to have his performance recorded by Western Union agents.

Following his performance, BMW USA used Penton and his record-breaking BMW bike in a number of its Stateside advertising campaigns.

The modern era of 'Coast to Coast' had begun.

BMW took advantage of Penton's record to promote the brand in numerous advertisements in the American press of the time.

John Penton didn't have much left to prove, but his nature kept him sharp and craving further adventures and success. The years from 1962 to 1970, saw him participating in the American enduro team, travelling worldwide to take part in ISDTs and other major off-road international events.

Put your mousepointer over the photo of John Penton to see another BMW advert.

In 1966 he became a KTM distributor for the USA, creating his own brand; Penton Motorcycles, based on a modified KTM. The brand went on to sell 25,000 units over a 10 year period in the US.

His enigmatic colourful career earned him a big-screen movie; an entertaining biography depicting his life before and after the Penton motorcycle days.

He was inducted into the A.M.A Hall of Fame in 1998.

1968 - Tibor Sarrossy

Almost ten years later, in the summer of 1968, after who knows how many unsuccessful attempts, a young 22 year-old student called Tibor Sarrossy crossed from New York to Los Angeles on his BMW R69S in 45 hours 41 minutes.

This giant of a man with the physique of a basketball player, and almost 2m tall, equipped his machine with a magnificent Glaser fairing and additional handcrafted tanks placed on the luggage rack; as shown in this BMW advertisement where he poses on his record-breaking machine.

BMW breaks coast-to-coast record. 45 hours, 41 minutes! BMW has done it again. On August 28-29, 1968, Tibor Sarossy, 22 year-old Ohio State student, rode a BMW R69S from New York to Los Angeles to break the 1959 coast-to-coast record of John Penton, also on a BMW, by fully 6½ hours. 2687 gruelling miles on all kinds of road. In all kinds of weather. Over cold mountains and through the hottest of deserts. And Sarossy's BMW had already traveled 22,000 miles before starting this punishing test. Traveling 100mph on open highways or 30 mph on rain-flooded roads in Texas and New Mexico, the BMW never stalled or missed a single stroke. And after more than 45 hours of a practically non-stop ride, it ran as quietly and smoothly as ever. Said Sarrosy, "The virtually vibration-free ride assured me maximum comfort and reliable performance." Back home in Cleveland, after a total of 5460 miles, a service check revealed that no repairs were needed. Not even a lightbulb had burned out. That's a BMW motorcycle for you. Remarkable!

Another BMW ad showing Sarrossy and his record breaking R69S. Note the DIY customisation of the two additional tanks.

Upon arrival, Sarrossy said he'd only stopped four times during the 2,687 mile crossing and hadn't slept at all. The only incident to report, close to the finish, was when he felt faint and nearly passed out. For the record, he was the first to wear a condom connected to a hosepipe to avoid time spent stopping to pee.

1983 - George Egloff

Once again, there's a large gap between Sarrossy's 1968 record and the next one, established in 1983. That year George Egloff set a new record of 42 hours on a Honda 6 cylinder 1000 CBX. However, there's very little evidence of this record and only three known photographs of George Egloff and his record-breaking machine. Interestingly though, he is reputed to be the first to have his performance validated by an invigilator, at the start, and again at the finish.

2015 - Carl Reese

Some 32 years later, more precisely August 2015, Carl Reese, on a BMW K1600, sets the record bar even higher with a time of 38 hours 48 minutes.

Carl Reese, new record-breaking Cannonball Run holder in August 2015

Upon his arrival, he exclaimed the famous phrase: "Twelve men walked on the moon, but only ten have broken the Cannonball Run record."

With this 2015 record, we enter a phase of professionalism involving meticulous preparation, studied diet, twelve control teams spread throughout the course and fuel autonomy giving more than 650km.

He had slept only fifty minutes in total during the entire trip, but upon celebrating his victory at a restaurant with his team he unsurprisingly fell asleep at the table.

2019 - Adam Frasca

In 2019, Adam Frasca, an amateur rider, (a true favourite of mine), completed the coast to coast trip from New York City to Los Angeles, in 37 hours 7 minutes on his trusty 2014 Yamaha Super Ténéré XT 1200Z; breaking Carl Reese's previous record of August 2015.

At the end of his record-breaking ride, Adam Frasca poses next to his over-burdened Yamaha Super Ténéré with which he broke the solo 'Cannonball Run' record by 1 hour and 42 minutes

His 2014 Yamaha, which incidentally he used every day, was a to say the least somewhat 'tired' and the only help he had was a free service. Apart from that, he accomplished the trip without any assistance from support crews along the way and neither did he have a home base of operations feeding him road reports for the way ahead. His goal was to eliminate all these outside distractions and focus on the road one mile at a time.

In preparation, 19 gallons of additional fuel capacity was added to the motorcycle in 3 separate tanks in an attempt to limit fuel stops to a maximum of 5. However, his 'jerry-rigged' system failed in Pennsylvania, pouring a gallon of fuel over his hot exhaust pipe, horrifying Frasca who feared a fire would end his record attempt almost before it had started.

Unfortunately, the fuel mishap completely doused the Spot GPS tracking unit in gasoline, destroying it completely and Frasca was forced to close off all the valves on the auxiliary fuel system and run exclusively on the 6-gallon stock tank. This completely dashed his plans, forcing him to make at least 25 fuel stops across and costing him hours of wasted time.

Without unexpected hassles, there is no doubt that the time for his record would surely have been much lower

The most challenging stretch of the trip came in Utah, where Adam Frasca faced an intense blizzard, covering the road markings, and blocking them from view. His speed dropped down to 35 mph, riding for 5 hours in freezing temperatures.

Leaving the snows of Utah behind, Frasca encounters the next challenge, bracing against 50 mph crosswinds in Nevada. It became so windy that riding a section of I15 South, (a long straight road), the bike had to be canted over to 45º angle to maintain a straight course whilst fighting the force of the wind.

Upon arrival he was greeted with respect by the former record holder Carl Reese, his rival but nonetheless his friend.

2020 - Calvin Cote

In May 2018, Calvin Cote set out on his first attempt to break the record. He had more than five years' experience riding bikes, but had never ridden a large bike capable of carrying extra fuel tanks that were required for the journey. He ended up getting stuck in a thunderstorm and failed in his record attempt.

Calvin Cote

On 20 April 2020, despite the pandemic in the US, he attempted the challenge for the second time; leaving Los Angeles on a BMW K1600 and hoping to arrive the next day at Manhattan.

The whirlwind journey spanning 2,772 miles took him 35 hours and six minutes and thus he becomes the new and current record holder.

Cote had everything going for him, with additional tanks holding 57 litres of extra fuel, powerful LED lights, 2 radar warning devices and special paint that made his motorcycle undetectable to these speed control devices.

The only incident along the route occurred when the rear tyre had to be changed having become completely smooth 500 km from the finish. He was only able to squeeze in 20 minutes of sleep throughout his coast-to-coast run.

Cote said that his accomplishment won't be recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records because he violated too many traffic laws

When he finally arrived in New York City, Cote breathed a sigh of relief. "I just thought, thank God that's over. I never want to do that again."

For now, the adventure ends. But for how long? Nobody knows.

If I have spoken more about some 'Cannonball Run' characters than others, it's simply because of the lack of documents available, and for good reason. This coast-to-coast run is completely illegal, sponsors being suitably cautious and media interest unwelcome.

Only a few invigilators note departures and arrivals, harassed by road safety associations, social networks fill in the blanks.

As for the dark side of the 'Cannonball Run', no one will ever know how many riders have died in motorcycle accidents...

Text: Gilles Gaudechoux
Images: Gilles Gaudechoux and Jean-Francois Helias
Translation: Jean-Francois Helias