Dr. Frazier: Cannonball Extreme Adventure

October 17, 2014
Dr. Gregory Frazier
Dr. Gregory Frazier
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Having made multiple runs across the globe, round-the-world adventurer Dr. Frazier imparts some of his motorcycle traveling wisdom in his monthly Dr. Frazier Rides column.

“Adventure? This is more an experience than an adventure,” said Norm Nelson when asked what his biggest adventure had been halfway through the 2014 Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run.

The experience began with a pre-1937 motorcycle the rider or team wished to enter. Then came the money, an easy $20,000 and upwards, sometimes reaching six figures, not counting the price of the antique motorcycle. Added to the hard costs was the time for preparation. In some cases there were the additional expenses of shipping motorcycles and rider across oceans from countries like Germany, Great Britain, Italy and the Republic of South Africa. And then there were the 17 days of gas, food, motels, and incidentals while traveling across the U.S. from Daytona Beach, Florida to Tacoma, Washington for the rider and their support crews, as well as travel costs to return home. Those costs were the adventure of spending.


The Cannonball experience also included a high degree of risk, an element within the definition of adventure. In many cases it was the risk of mechanical failure, that some part on the antique equipment would leave the entrant broken down on the side of the road to be collected by the sweep truck and trailer.

The risk factor also included crashing, which several entrants did. Their 75-100 year old brakes would sometimes fail to scrub off enough speed in tight corners and before slippery surfaces, or a connecting rod thrown through the bottom of an engine case would bring the pilot and motorcycle to an immediate halt if they did not slip, slide and fall first from oil being spewed on the rear wheel.

To listen to the tales of near death experiences at the end of a riding day was an adventure in itself. One entrant recounted how his 1926 Harley-Davidson caught fire when he stopped. Thinking he had forgotten to turn on the petcock for the gasoline from the tank as he left the morning checkpoint he looked down as he made the change from Off to On. Fire was what he saw. Barely able to jump off the burning motorcycle before flames engulfed him, he could only stand well away and watch his highly valued Harley-Davidson melt. He later said it would be less costly to replace than attempt to repair it, adding that he had been lucky to escape being trapped under it as he tried frantically to pull his leg over the motorcycle and gas fueled flames.


Another parking lot tale was that of the rider from South Africa who suffered from the security gate of his hotel starting to come down as he tried to exit the garage. The metal gate knocked him off his 1926 Indian Scout. The Indian fared well; escaping serious damage, but the rider, Brian Wallace, became a DNF from that day forward.

Henderson rider Clyde Crouch, on a 1929 Henderson Deluxe, also became a DNF when he came off his motorcycle at speed. An ambulance ride during Stage 9 to a hospital in Denver, Colorado saved his life as doctors managed to stop internal bleeding. They removed Crouch’s spleen and also discovered a collapsed lung and five broken ribs.

Stage 10 was from Golden, Colorado to Grand Junction, up over high Rocky Mountain passes. Compared to the previous day’s journey over the flatlands of Kansas, the crawl over the Rocky Mountains for a 278-mile day was predicted to be a hard one. The evening before the mountainous route, riders and mechanics worked frantically in the motel parking lot changing gearing, carburetor settings and jets to adjust for altitudes rising from 5200 feet above sea level to nearly 12,000.

One entrant and his 1929 Harley-Davidson had been off the road during Stage 9, and when looking at the engine cases, connecting rods and flywheels on a table in the parking lot it appeared as if he would be back in the truck for at least another day. His mechanic was optimistic, saying that by morning the motorcycle and rider would be back on the road. The overnight surgery looked like more than a simple engine rebuild but the onlooker remained silent, respectful of optimism. The next three days the Harley-Davidson underwent more internal surgeries and was eventually breathed life. However, the end result was a DNF in Tacoma, with the team dubbed Team Optimistically Determined.


Recognized for a heroic effort, Shinya Kimura and his support crew of two, kept the #80 machine, a 1915 Indian, rolling to the finish. In doing so they did not sacrifice the 1915 vintage to modernization and an advantage, using tools and attire from the 1915 era. Of all the entrants, Team Shinya, Nimi and Ayu stood out as a representative team of a period when motorcycle adventure across American had recently started to gain avid pursuers and was done without many of the advantages of upgrading and modernization.

Some days were catastrophic for entrants, like Stage 13 was reported. That day 21 riders did not start, and another 10 were collected along the route, dead or wounded for various reasons and tossed onto the Cannonball Ambulance (the chase vehicle with trailer). Three riders came into the last checkpoint late and were penalized points, while five earned penalty points for leaving the hosted finish early, a final checkpoint.

While there were heroic efforts throughout the event, one unsung story was that of Buzz Kanter. His 1936 Harley-Davidson VLH completed 3921 miles of the 3938 needed for a perfect score. Kanter was docked a few points when he stopped to help a broken rider on Stage 3, causing him to check-in late that day, and then on the next to the last day his Harley burped, but not enough to keep him from completing all the miles on the final day. Tales like those of Kanter went under published or seldom reported, not recognizing the degree and personal stress levels to which riders experienced their adventure.


Of the more than 100 entrants in the 2014 Cannonball, 32 completed every one of the 3938 miles, and of those only 24 were awarded perfect scores, or about 25%. However, one could argue that all rolling entrants lived an adventure, possibly the most difficult antique adventure of the 21st century to date, whether they finished in the 25% group or DNF’d. When congratulated on his adventure or experience, Kanter captured the spirit of the 2014 Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run when he quipped, “It was a tough one.”

Final results and some interesting reportage can be found at the Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Rally (www.motorcyclecannonball.com).

Cannonball Adventure Photo Gallery

Mark Hills 1936 Indian had a vintage aircraft paint scheme The 2014 route was east-to-west  3 938 miles from Daytona Beach  Florida to Tacoma  Washington over 17 days  with 16 on the road. A 1936 Sokol  995 cc  made in Poland  looked like it was receiving major repairs in the motel parking lot  but the mechanics assured followers it would be back in the running next morning  which it was.
This 1928 Harley-Davidson was to be surgically operated on for the next three days and nights  and finally got back on the road to tag Tacoma  Washington  although its overall score was a DNF. An embarrassing moment for one BMW rider was when his motorcycle got away from him at a photo-op point with a collected crowd watching  an Oopps moment. The macadam in the top of the 1928 R 52 BMWs cylinder head and scratched front fender indicated the pilot had adventured beyond the upright status sometime during Stage 9.