A group of adventurers was scheduled to leave here Saturday morning for a motorcycle ride commemorating Erwin G. “Cannonball” Baker’s historic, record-setting, cross-country journey 100 years ago.
The assemblage, led by Hall of Fame motorcycle racer and historian Don Emde, was to leave at 9 a.m. sharp – exactly to the minute, 100 years after Baker left from the same spot. Some 11 days later, they were scheduled to arrive in New York at Battery Park in Manhattan.
Baker wasn’t the first person to cross the country with a motor vehicle – Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson did that in 1903, but it took him months to do it. Others soon followed.
But when Baker took off on a 7-hp Indian motorcycle, the record was still nearly three weeks for a bike, and more than two weeks for an automobile.
Baker arrived 11 days, 11 hours after he left; that cut the motorcycle record nearly in half, and it was four full days faster than any car had crossed the country.
It was startling, front-page news (especially the part about a motorcycle beating the automobile record), and earned him the “Cannon Ball” nickname (or “Cannonball” as it is more popularly known), after an Illinois Central train that was considered unstoppable. Baker left with only a canteen full of water, and a few dollars in his pocket; for the most part, he relied on the kindness of strangers for food and shelter along the way.
Baker’s epic accomplishment proved a point – not only about the durability and usefulness of a motorcycle as a motorized form of transportation – but also about the improving – but still woeful – state of America’s roads.
Baker would go on to cross the country dozens of times in his driving career, on a variety of motorcycles and cars; by the 1930s, he managed (by eschewing amenities such as stopping to sleep for the night) to get the record down to three days and change – a record that would stand until the early 1970s, when clandestine speed runs named in his honor would become part of pop culture.
Remember movies like “The Cannonball Run”?
Baker, who would also set 143 different speeds, distance and endurance records, was born in 1882 in a log cabin in Dearborn County, Indiana. His family moved to Indianapolis when he was 12 years old. A machinist by trade, Baker was extremely athletic and an early bicycle racer. When bicyclists started attaching motors to their bike wheels, Baker transitioned to powered travel, and soon thereafter to motorcycle racing.
In 1908, Baker soon began winning local races – one of which was in 1909, in the first race ever held at the newly built Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It was during this time that Baker began his endurance runs. Most of his early records were city-to-city runs. One of Baker’s well-publicized stunts was racing passenger trains from town to town.
Baker, who also ran in the 1922 Indy 500 and finished 11th, would be closely associated with Indian for the rest of his motorcycle endurance career, although he was independent and also undertook record rides for other motorcycle and automobile makers.
Although there are no historic Indian bikes in the lineup for the commemorative ride, Emde’s family has a strong connection to the brand: His father Floyd won the 1948 Daytona 200 on an Indian – one of the marque’s most famous, and final, victories before going out of business a sort time later.
Emde himself won the 1972 Daytona 200 (on a Yamaha) – becoming the first – and still only – instance of a father-son combination winning that motorcycling classic.
The ride will re-trace Baker’s route, as best as can be determined – following sections of the old Butterfield Stagecoach route, historic trails like the Santa Fe, and the Lincoln Highway. Overnight stops will be in Yuma, Ariz.; Phoenix; Dodge City, Kan.; Kansas City, St. Louis and Indianapolis, where Baker (who died in 1960) is buried.
The entourage will visit his grave and pay its respects, before continuing on to the completion of the ride May 14 in New York.
It seems a fitting tribute to an automotive pioneer, one of America’s most famous endurance racers, and a great ambassador for the transportation industry.
May 2, 2014