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'The erosion of our ability to enjoy the open road isn’t new – it’s been going on since the ’70s'

It’s the prescience of his observations and the relevance almost half a century later that really resonates

Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the Gumball 3000. I’ve never cared for it much. In fact it’s always been my idea of hell. As an advert for fast cars and the people who drive them (often badly and, tragically, sometimes with reckless abandon) it has always done the wider car community a disservice.

It’s in stark contrast to the event which (loosely) inspired it. Formally known as The Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, but abbreviated by all to simply the Cannonball, it was conceived by American motoring journalist Brock Yates as an underground ‘up yours’ to the increasingly draconian (for the time, at least) traffic laws and speed limits. Particularly those that governed the country’s sprawling freeway system.

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I suspect most of us – at least those of us outside of America – first became aware of the maverick event as a result of the Cannonball Run movie, which though accurate in its coast-to-coast New York to LA format painted a brasher picture of the ‘race’ than the superbly low-key reality of Yates’s pedal-to-the-metal protest.

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For a much better idea of what it was all about I can thoroughly recommend the late Yates’s book, Cannonball! World’s Greatest Outlaw Road Race, which documents its origins and describes the five runnings (plus the first reconnaissance run) held between 1971 and 1979. It’s a helluva read. Aside from the compelling notion of crossing America as quickly as possible, it’s the prescience of his observations and the relevance almost half a century later that really resonates.

Some of this is definitely due to ’71 being the year of my birth. It’s also because, like Yates, I happen to be a motoring journalist with a love of fast cars and the freedom a car and an open stretch of road represents. However, what seems most remarkable to me is that he perceived the threat posed by many of the road traffic laws and ‘advances’ in technology that are turning drivers into skill-less, vacant-minded automatons, and long-distance journeys into an ordeal by arbitrary speed limits, Smart motorways and almost constant surveillance by the authorities.

Admittedly his solution, or at least his protest, was extreme, but it was also symbolic. Looking back from 2018, where moral outrage is the norm, it seems incredible that his efforts were taken in the correct spirit, at least by the public and wider media. I suspect this is because he didn’t make a song and dance about it, with the only published acknowledgement of his first coast-to-coast run being a column he wrote upon completing the trip.

Of course, he and the event itself gained some celebrity, or rather notoriety, but in the few years Yates ran the Cannonball it managed to retain its integrity. Largely because he restricted the entry to a small circle of trusted friends, colleagues and like-minded individuals, but also because it wasn’t heralded by a mass-media hoopla or punctuated by endless parties and photo opportunities. There simply wasn’t time for all that crap.

The first official running (also in 1971) is the stuff of legend; Yates partnering with the then recently retired racing hero Dan Gurney in a dark blue Ferrari Daytona. They won, in a record-breaking time of 35 hours and 54 minutes, with Gurney impishly stating ‘at no point did we exceed 175mph’. Subsequent Cannonballs saw the record lowered, but its lasting legacy was to inspire younger generations to continue in the spirit of Yates and, indeed, Cannonball Baker, the first great coast-to-coast pioneer. I only wish I had the spuds to try it myself.

I’ll leave you with some lines from Yates (who sadly died in 2016) and his own summary of his famous Car and Driver magazine column, written after his first reconnaissance run in early ’71: ‘Oh, God, the anarchistic barbarity of it all! Out there on Uncle Sam’s own 31,000 miles of superhighways driving at speeds sometimes beyond the legal limits, in actual conscious violation of our traffic laws. That’s the way it’s going to be, car freaks, in the first demonstration that some people are aware enough to handle their own destinies behind the wheel of an automobile…

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‘If the movements of automobiles can be monitored and controlled (as with goodies like VASCAR and ORBIS) we are a long way down the road to 1984. Therefore this mindless government urge to make us safe from ourselves can, in the long haul, lead to an electronic nightmare whereby you couldn’t buy five gallons of gas or run a half-mile over the speed limit without ringing a gong in the Big Mutha computer in Washington.’

Forty-seven years later our personal freedom as drivers has been almost entirely eroded. I’m sure Yates would take no pleasure in saying he told us so.

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