Monday, November 12, 2012

Return from the Motorcycle Cannonball, Pt. 1 of......?

Riding through the plains of South Dakota, on my
way to Badlands National Park. Photo Credit: Felicia Morgan
Well folks, I owe you all an apology. First of all, long before the Motorcycle Cannonball, I promised you guys daily video, photo, and written updates. I had no idea how tough the Cannonball would really be. The mountains of time that I thought we would have at the end of the days turned out to be non-existent. Each day turned into a constant battle with mechanical issues, and both road and weather conditions. These long days were followed by marathon sessions of nightly wrenching until the wee hours of the morning, just to grab a few hours sleep to be ready for the next morning. Essentially, there was no spare time, and I was usually so dead tired by the time I made it into the hotel rooms that the only thing on my mind was sleeping.

September 12th, 2012: Spirit Lake, Iowa to Murdo, South Dakota.
Celebrating my 21st birthday with a ride in the rain. This photo showed up on the
 Harley Davidson Facebook page. Photo Credit: Michael Lichter
All of that being said, I apologize to my fans for not keeping you updated. Now that things have quieted down, it is my plan to go back and review the whole event. I'm in the process of writing a book about the Motorcycle Cannonball Run before I go back to finish up my bachelors degree in January, so I have time to really detail things for you guys. To start it off, I wanted to attach a copy of the article that I recently was asked to write for a couple of national motorcycle magazines. I hope this gives an introduction into what we faced day in and day out for 17  wild days across the United States.

"I remember sitting in a pool of sweat and grease on the side of the road in Michigan, trying to re-time my engine. I was two hours and 60 miles behind schedule and that gap was widening every minute. Someone stopped on the side of the road to make sure I was okay and to offer help. The first thing they asked was “What are you doing?” It was at this point that I took a moment to ponder that question myself. Here I was deep in the middle of Michigan on a broken down 85 year old motorcycle up to my elbows in oil and grime, trying like mad to beat the clock for the day’s finish. “Well, I’m racing this 1927 BSA from New York to San Francisco with 70 other old motorcycles. We’re trying to re-create a cross country endurance ride from 1913,” I said. “You guys must be crazy….” was the response. Yeah, that’s closer to the truth than you might believe….
In September of 2012, 78 riders from 15 different countries congregated in Newburgh, New York with an amazing group of motorcycles, all of which were built before 1930. Our mission was simple enough: Over 17 days we would jockey our machines across 11 states through any and all weather conditions, headed west to San Francisco. Our route would take us through the Great Lakes, the plains of Iowa and lonely roads of South Dakota, the Rocky Mountains and Grand Tetons of Wyoming, and finally through the legendary Redwood forest on our path to the Pacific Coast Highway. All in all, our journey was set to cover 3,956 miles from coast to coast, with an average mileage count of 300 miles per day. This can be a long day on a modern bike, but on a machine that is 83+ years old it makes for a battle to beat the setting of the sun. Constant repairs and adjustments on the roadside, 50 mile an hour (that was the hope anyway) average speeds, and nightly parking lot rebuilds to be ready for the next day. Okay, so maybe it wouldn’t be that simple.
The idea behind this crazy cross-country run came from the history books. In 1913, Erwin “Cannonball” Baker set out on his brand new two-speed Indian Motorcycle to attempt a record for the fastest trans-continental journey by motorcycle. Baker and his machine faced incredibly difficult conditions and many problems along the way, but made the journey from California to New York in a record 11 days, 12 hours, and 10 minutes. In 2010 Lonnie Isam, Jr, a renowned restorer of early motorcycles, announced his plans to conduct a similar commemorative run from coast to coast. This Cannonball was open to machines manufactured prior to 1916, and a field of 45 entries soon joined. Due to the success of this race (more than 30 machines completed the journey from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to Santa Monica, California), Lonnie opened up the competition again for 2012. This second race would allow motorcycles built before 1930; however the race was longer and crossed much more difficult terrain. By no means would Cannonball II be easier.
Entrants into the race were divided into three separate classes, determined by the engine displacement. Class I was for motors under 750cc and subsequently turned into the hardest class, as most competitors, including myself, were riding single cylinder motors capable of 45 miles per hour. Class II allowed bikes that displaced 750-1000cc; Class III, unlimited displacement. Competitors were allowed to modify and update the safety of their motorcycles by fitting new brakes and installing modern tires and rims, but the engines and frames had to remain mostly original. All entrants had to be licensed motorcyclists and all bikes had to be registered and insured with working lighting systems. While commonly referred to as a race, the event was actually an endurance run. For each mile completed riders receive one point, with a total of 3,956 points possible. Older bikes were placed above newer bikes in the classes, and tie breakers were determined by the age of the machine, then age of the rider. During the day, riders were unable to be helped by their support crews in the event of a breakdown. The only help entrants could receive was from passersby, other competitors, and official Cannonball staff acting as “sweepers.”
The 2012 Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance run has already been named as the “hardest race in the world.” (Bike UK, October 2012) 17 days of adhering to the mantra of “Ride, Wrench, Repeat” can take its toll. There are also the dangers of motorcycling itself; along the route, we had three accidents which resulted in twisted machines and visits to the emergency room. You may be asking yourself, “Why in the world would anyone want to subject themselves to a ride like this?” The answer is simple: we were time travelers, coaxing our antiques along the route in a journey to discover the back roads of this great country, as well as to discover a little bit more about ourselves. We set out to prove that antique motorcycles are still a very feasible mode of transportation. Plus, it was for the glory. As Buzz Kanter, editor of American Iron Magazine, said: “We are doing something that 99.9% of motorcyclists will never attempt or think about accomplishing.” It did help that we all were minus a few grams of sanity at the start…
Representing the great state of Texas, I entered into the Cannonball run with the rest of my team. My dad, Mike Carson, has been right beside me for years restoring and preserving classic motorcycles, and jumped on board immediately after hearing of the race. Like me, he is a little bit crazy too. The team crew chief, Shawn McGarry II, has been my best friend for years and has a passion for vintage bikes too. Our last team member was a close friend from England who was looking to see the USA…little did he know that a leisurely holiday was not in store. Looking to extend our famous Texas hospitality, our team offered to host two other international teams; the “Roaring Rudges” from Derbyshire, England, and “Southern Cross” from Melbourne, Australia. Our rig was elaborately set up to be a 30 foot rolling machine shop with a full complement of heavy manufacturing and welding equipment, air tools, and a few luxuries such as air conditioning, 12 bottle wine cooler, and refrigerated beer tap. Of course we had to glorify our Texas roots, so our truck soon sported a six foot set of steer horns and a giant Texas flag flying from the bed.
Entrants from all over the world brought out a variety of early American, German and British motorcycles in all kinds of conditions, from museum-quality to “barn fresh.” Marquees such as Harley Davidson, BMW, Indian, Henderson, and BSA were represented by a vast group of riders and teams of all different walks of life. Multiple-time inductees to the Motorcycle Hall of Fame could be found sharing wrenches and the same patch of ground with riders who had never ridden or worked on old motorcycles. High dollar semi truck RVs shared space with riders sleeping next to their bikes. Our group was a travelling circus that left a flurry of valuable parts, tools, and oil stains in its wake. However, we were a family; everyone helped everyone. Although it was a race, we all pushed each other (literally and figuratively) to make the finish line.
Our group raced through all conditions imaginable. Stage Two of the race in Pennsylvania saw freezing rain, flooding roads, and 40 mile an hour winds that nearly blew us off the road. Riding through the plains of Iowa and Wisconsin, we encountered blazing temperatures and blinding sun. Roads in Yellowstone National Park were blocked by 2000 pound buffalo, and freezing rain overnight dropped the temperature to a cool 21 degrees for the next morning. We crossed lakes, farmlands, deserted country roads, and 10,000 foot mountain passes. Along the route riders were treated to the landmarks of America; we passed through Badlands National Park, the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore, Devils Tower, and Yellowstone National Park. The race just didn’t stop rolling, and neither did us Cannonballers.  All throughout our journey, small towns welcomed us in with open arms. Businesses and schools shut early, just so folks could see the traveling motorcycle show. Mayors and Chambers of Commerce toasted us and treated us to homecooked lunches and gifts. Several prominent motorcycle museums and shops, including Orange County Choppers, Harley Davidson and the National Motorcycle Museum, opened their workshops and borrowed parts from bikes on display to keep us going.
I joined the race with two goals in mind; I wanted to make the trip of a lifetime, but more importantly, I wanted to get younger people interested in vintage motorcycles. It’s a good, clean hobby that is just as addictive as any drug or alcohol out there. Plus, the skills and knowledge to keep these old bikes alive won’t always be there unless younger people get involved and learn from the legends of motorcycling. As it turned out, I was the youngest to ever attempt a journey such as this; halfway through the race I turned 21 years old, celebrating by rebuilding my engine in a Sturgis, South Dakota parking lot. Happily, a ton of youngsters from all around the country have contacted me asking for help in getting their first old motorcycle. Additionally, I was honored to be asked by the Antique Motorcycle Club of America to join Mrs. Britney Olsen as an assistant coordinator for the club Youth Program. Now it is my hope that I can use an experience like this to promote the club and old motorcycles to the younger generations for years to come.
In retrospect, the race really can be considered the “hardest in the world.” No one was without problems. While some teams had multiple spare engines, other groups had few to no spares. My own motorcycle, a 1927 BSA S27 that I named “Elizabeth” was completely rebuilt from the ground up on two separate occasions with a small selection of spare parts. Night after night my team and I wrenched on the bike until 1 or 2 in the morning to be ready for the next morning. Memorable moments include seizing the engine four times in less than two miles in the Black Hills, losing my magneto points cover in the middle of a rainstorm, riding with one hand while holding loose parts on the bike with the other hand, and constantly being covered in black engine oil from the “total loss” oil system. Although I retained a smile through most of these setbacks, there were moments of complete and utter despair, to be followed by heartbreak.

Having been off the road for several days to rebuild the motor, I was disqualified in Fortuna, California, two days from the end. Even with this setback, I was determined to continue riding. Alas, it was not to be; my motor blew again on the night before the end. Our team had no more spare parts, and we put out an emergency distress call to all collectors on the west coast to no avail. With as much pride as I could muster, I put on my cowboy hat, attached the biggest Texas flag we had to the back of the bike, and pushed my mount 3 miles across the Golden Gate Bridge with my crew behind me and my fellow Cannonballers riding next to us. Our team finished the race, one way or another. In case you didn’t know, Texans don’t give up.
The conclusion of the event was an emotional one for our team. Unbeknownst to us, a secret vote had taken place amongst teams and riders to see who helped out others the most, and with more than a dozen documented cases of us loaning equipment, time, or other types of assistance, we were selected to receive the “Spirit of the Cannonball” award. During the closing banquet, we were called up to the front of the room to a standing ovation by the rest of the entrants and their teams.  Our prize was a handmade wicker sidecar body, crafted by Australian Chris Knoop. Looking back, I don’t think there was a dry eye on our team at receiving this honor.

The overall winner was Brad Wilmarth, who actually won the first event on the exact same motorcycle; his 1913 Excelsior 61 cubic inch twin purred all the way across the country for the second time. Coming in second place was Joe Gardella on his 1914 Harley Davidson that also completed the first Motorcycle Cannonball. In Class I, our very own Mike Wild from the Roaring Rudges race team grabbed a well-deserved third place on his 1925 Rudge Four. Regardless, everyone attained their own victory in reaching the destination; the ultimate bragging rights had been achieved. Happily, even the three riders who had been involved in accidents were at the closing banquet, casts, crutches and all! Everyone was extremely vocal at the idea of bringing the race back in two years, and there have been rumors of a run from Key West, Florida to Anchorage, Alaska. You’d have to be crazy to do that one…..but it’s a good thing there are others like us who consider sanity to be overrated. The show must go on."

Elizabeth and I have our own "Close Encounters" moment at Devil's Tower,
Wyoming alongside fellow Cannonballer Art Farley
Until next time,
Buck Carson
Cannonball Rider #3
Carson Classic Motors Race Team


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