"After we got past St. Louis and onto the Kansas Turnpike we just buried the needle on the Coupe de Ville. The speedometer only went to 120, so we didn't really know how fast we were going. How'd she handle? Oh, steady as a rock. Tracked like a dream.
"The craziest part was going over the pass near Ash Fork in Arizona. It was snowing, with a heavy fog. On the right-hand side of the road there's a 5,000-foot drop, and the other side is a cliff. We're going 85 miles an hour. Steve Behr was driving, but he couldn't see a thing. I'm in the passenger seat with my head out the window. Turn right a little! Turn right a little more! We gained a lot of time going through that pass.
"Of course, all that was really our of character for me," Bill Canfield added, as he drove quasi-sedately up Georgia Avenue to the movies in Wheaton. Canfield is a mild-mannered attorney for an important Senate committee, redheaded, 35 years old and married to an Episcopal priest. The buoyant Canfield is now an upstanding member of the community. To the casual observer, he appears to have eaten the "Preppy Handbook" for breakfast.
Nevertheless, in 1972, the second time it was held, Bill Canfield won the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, a wild-mannered, some would say downright illegal, others might add reprehensibly sociopathic (that is, crazy-crazy rather than crazy-ha ha) automobile race on the public roads between New York and Los Angeles.
He was now off to see the movie.
"The whole thing was organized by Brock Yates," Canfield explained, expertly swerving to avoid an indecisive driver and reasoning together with her by gesture through his open window. "Yates wanted to prove that competent drivers can safely travel at speeds higher than the posted limits. His point was that speed doesn't kill, it's driver error that kills."
Canfield was a second-year student at the University of Detroit Law School at the time, and entered with his pal Fred Olds. Since they didn't have a racing car, they offered to transport a brand new Cadillac to its waiting owner in Los Angeles.
"We picked up this Coupe de Ville in Detroit, hot off the assembly line. It had 63 miles on the odometer. We disconnected the odometer, then drove nonstop to the Red Ball Garage in New York. We didn't have a third guy, so Yates hooked us up with Steve Behr, who'd raced open-wheeled cars and other stuff."
Canfield and Olds had not taken the Cannonball very seriously, and were quite surprised to find the start an integral part of a publication party for Yates' book "Sunday Driver," and were quite surprised to find the start an integral part of a publication party for Yates' book "Sunday Driver," and attended by television cameras, Gene Shalit, Jim Bouton, Jean Shepherd, the entire staff of Car and Driver magazine and unlimited beer and hot dogs.
They were also interested to see that Yates was driving a Dodge Challenger capable of 130 mph, fitted with a 35-gallon auxiliary fuel tank, Goodyear wide-track G-60 tires, an array of headlights totaling 1.5 million candlepower, Scheel GT racing seats, a military-grade radar "snooper" and a telephone for calling in weather reports.
"You got the impression that Brock was planning to win," Canfield said. "Also he made us sign all kinds of release forms, especially release forms giving him all rights to any movie ever to be made."
Other competitors had other strategies: Three contestants in a Mercedes-Benz sedan wore clerical collars, and were entered as "The Flying Fathers"; the "Right Bra Racing Team" comprised three females in form-fitting pink driving suits piloting a limousine; the Polish Racing Drivers Association vehicle was a Chevrolet Vega with a Corvette engine stuffed under the hood. The field also included a motor home and a 1951 Studebaker.
"We were pretty impressed," Canfield said. "These were pretty specially equipped cars. Our Cadillac had a power-adjustable nine-position seat, but nothing like this . . . However, the beer was free, so Olds and I started drinking it. We drank quite a lot of beer, and it was getting to be fun. "Steve Behr saw us and said, 'Holy gee, you're drinking the beer?' "Then Fred Olds explained to Behr that he valued his driving license and did not intend to drive over 77 miles an hour. Behr was astounded. 'Oh, no,' he said. 'We have to go flat-out. Don't you want to win?'"
Armed with a large number of gratis BLTs from a neighborhood tavern, and $400 in small bills and change, Canfield, Olds and Behr punched out of the Red Ball Garage and motored into the night of Nov. 13, 1972, bound for glory, or at least Los Angeles.
"We could only hold about 85 all the way to St. Louis," Canfield said. "We got stopped by a dump fire in New Jersey, we made a wrong turn in Philadelphia, and then again in Columbus, and it was raining all the time and there was traffic. Yates and some others headed south first, trying to avoid the bad weather."
It was not weather that stopped Yates and the other hotshots, it was the constabulary of the fruited plain and the purple-mountain magistrates. Yates passed one police car at 114 mph; The Flying Fathers entered a radar trap at 110, but God was on their side and the ticket was only for 90; the Right Bra women were charged in Baltimore with attempting to pass a police car in the rain on the left shoulder of a bridge; and when the Polish Racing Drivers posted a three-digit Vascar reading in New Mexico, they got stopped thrice more betwixt there and the border.
"Those guys all got stopped half a dozen times and hauled into court, and that cost them plenty of time," Canfield said. "We never got stopped once. We were intelligent about it, and inconspicuous."
Thirty-seven hours and 16 minutes after leaving New York, the Cadillac Coupe de Ville motored up to the Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach, having driven through morning rush hour on the L.A. Freeway along the berm, past thousands of immobile commutors, at a tilt of 45 degrees.
"We beat Yates by six minutes," Canfield said. "Boy, was he mad. He had intended to win it all along, and now us nobodies were there before him."
Victory had its complications, however. "All of a sudden it dawned on me what winning meant. My parents, who were in Europe, were bound to find out. The law school would find out. And sure enough, my grandmother in Florida heard Paul Harvey read my name on the radio. Meanwhile, we hadn't even delivered the car yet."
An hour after arrival, Canfield and Olds drove the Cadillac through a $1 car wash. It was only a short drive from there to the proud owner's house. They parked the car in front, its hood still steaming. They had reconnected the odometer while passing Detroit so it read about right. They knocked on the door. Here's the car you ordered from Detroit, sir. "He seemed very pleased," Canfield said.
At the movie house in Wheaton, Bill Canfield sat politely through "Cannonball Run," written by Brock Yates, starring Burt Reynolds and Farrah Fawcett and featuring Yates playing himself in a bit part. The Flying Fathers are portrayed by Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.; there is an all-woman team driving a cleavage-powered Lamborghini, and the film ends at the very restaurant that the actual race did in 1972 and in three subsequent runnings.
He thought the race was a lark. He thinks the movie is awful.