Cannonball: America’s most intrepid vintage rider is...
This year’s edition of the Cannonball followed a nearly 4,000-mile route from Newburgh, NY to San Francisco. “California or Bust” indeed; barely a third of the pre-1930 bikes that started the ride completed all the miles.
“Google my name and ‘60 Minutes’ and you’ll get the story.”
As a motorcycle journalist covering the “Pre-1930 Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run”, there were at least as many great stories as there were entrants. But I have to say that in my journalistic career, that may have been the most tantalizing sentence I’ve heard.
Earlier this month, the 2012 edition of the Cannonball run crossed the U.S., from upstate New York to San Francisco. I met up with them at the halfway point in their trip as they rode into Sturgis
, South Dakota, for their one scheduled rest day.
The next morning I found Josh Wilson in the Holiday Inn’s parking lot by his 101 Scout. Most of the people who attempt the Cannonball are lifelong bikers who are intimately familiar with the veteran bikes they’re riding. Josh and his Scout had a more serendipitous story.
“Twenty-one years ago, I bought a T-shirt with a picture of a motorcycle like this one,” he said. “I told myself, ‘Someday I’m going to ride a bike like that across the country.’ The timing was right, I was between jobs, and I was going to go out to the west coast and buy a Gilroy Indian and ride it home to Virginia.”
Now, I guess if I was really a good journalist, I’d have stopped him right there. I mean, I’m sure that Charles B. Franklin, who designed the original Scout, spun in his grave when the hasty (and thankfully brief) Gilroy resurrection of the Indian
brand sold a machine powered by a Harley-clone motor.
While my inner voice was shouting, ‘Dude! You were going to ride across the country on a Gilroy Indian and instead you picked this
?!?’ what I actually did was smile, nod, and ask, “You say you were between jobs. When you are working, what do you do?”
Ex-fighter pilot Josh Wilson rode a ’29 Indian 101 Scout that had been fitted with later-model Sport Scout cylinders.
“I’m a fighter pilot.”
“What did you fly?”
How,” I asked, “did you come to be ‘between jobs’?”
“I’d rather not say.”
That was not really going to satisfy my curiosity, but I thought I’d let it lie.
“I bought this bike exactly a month before the Cannonball,” Josh told me. “Before that, the oldest bike I’d ever worked on was a ’77 Shovelhead. This is 50 years older. I’m kind of on a wing and a prayer. I went through everything but the motor and transmission. I figured if they blew I’d rent a U-Haul and tow it home. But I’ve got all the miles so far. It’s by the doing of the whole Indian tribe here. I’m getting a lot of help from the Internet, too. ‘Charlie 101’ from Sweden writes me every night, and tells me things to do.”
George Yarocki, a genuine Indian (motorcycle) guru, was tagging along. He bought a bike like Josh’s back when it was almost new. Nowadays, he’s a director in the Antique Motorcycle Club of America and might be the single best person to nurse an old Scout across the U.S.
“This thing is only 45 cubic inches, so I only run it at about 45 miles an hour. We’re the first to leave, and the last to get in. I skip lunch. I’m running on about five hours of sleep a night...” Yarocki walked up and interrupted us. (Or should I say ‘hobbled’? He’s in his mid-80s. He doesn’t ride too much any more, but even following the Cannonball in a chase truck is a grind.)
“We’re going to have to tear your motor down,” said Yarocki.
“Okay,” said Josh. I figured that was a good time to let him go, since it seemed he was going to be busy for the rest of the day. As I thanked him for his time, he suggested that if I wanted to learn more about his employment status, I could Google his name and ‘60 Minutes’.
Riding in the Cannonball is an exercise in sleep deprivation for competitors who ride all day and rebuild their bikes all night.
Tearing down and rebuilding a motor in a single day is chump change for many Cannonball riders. By around noon on that day off in Sturgis, at least a third of the machines were in a state of disassembly such that, if you saw a bike like that in your friend’s garage, you’d expect him to say, “Yeah, I bought that as two crates of parts on eBay last winter. I’m hoping to put it on the road next summer.” The thing is, all of the Cannonballers planned to ride out at 8 a.m. the following morning.
Some of the riders were being followed by luxury motorhomes and paid mechanics. Mike Carson, a Texan whose son Buck was, at 21, the youngest rider in the field, equipped a race hauler with a lathe, a vertical mill, workbenches and spare parts, even a refrigerated beer keg and 12-bottle wine cooler. It was glorious, and vainglorious; I came across Buck stopped by the side of the road with a seized motor in the Black Hills, and knew that if his bike couldn’t handle the road from Mt. Rushmore to Sturgis, it’d never cross the Rockies.
Those who didn’t travel with their own machine shops took advantage of access to Competition Distributing’s great shop in Sturgis. Mark Hill, who teaches motorcycle mechanics at State University of New York’s Canton College, was not just riding his own four-cylinder Henderson, he built no less than eight Henderson motors entered in the run. (There were 17 Hendersons entered in total; William Henderson would, no doubt, be pleased to see such a strong showing on the centenary of his design.)
Mark Hill (left) built eight of the four-cylinder Hendersons entered in the race, including Frank Westfall’s (right) book.
Hill and his helpers spent much of the day tearing down Henderson motors to install new output-shaft bearings. Although the Cannonball rules specified original engine cases, most of Hill’s Hendersons’ reciprocating parts were new.
“There just aren’t parts for these things,” Hill told me. He and a group of friends milled new cranks and rods, had pistons forged, and even cast new cylinders and heads, with ports and a combustion chamber designed on a flow bench. That would have impressed (or perhaps baffled) the original Mr. Henderson.
My own personal favorite, amongst the bikes, was one of the other Hendersons, a 1924 model, ridden by a German competitor named Andreas Kaindl. He told me that it was “a genuine barn find.” It certainly looked the part, with a marvelous patina that belied remarkably sound original mechanical parts.
Kaindl put in every mile on his machine, which proves that these big American Inline Fours were the Gold Wings of their day. Henderson started manufacturing in Detroit, but was bought out by industrialist Ignaz Schwinn (of bicycle fame) who moved production to Chicago. It’s a shame that the brand didn’t survive the Depression.
The Cannonball is the brainchild of Lonnie Isam Jr., who lives in Sturgis. His dad, Lonnie Sr., is the proprietor of Competition Distributing; a master craftsmen who has built a number of championship-winning top-fuel dragsters, and now devotes most of his time to restoring veteran bikes. It would be an understatement to say that Lonnie Jr. grew up surrounded by motorcycles, particularly vintage ones.
The first Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run, held in 2010, was for even older bikes. That time, the cutoff was ‘pre-1917’. The event was deemed a success, but many participants – even some of the ones who made it all the way across the country – felt that a 3,000+ mile run was too much to ask of pioneer-era machines, many of which were clutchless, and had belt drives.
Lonnie Isam Jr. is the organizer of the Cannonball event. He didn’t want to be quoted on it, but I’m guessing that it will be a biennial event.
When I spoke to Lonnie in 2010, he was not sure it was possible to make money promoting the event, nor that he wanted to repeat it. Indeed, a proposed 2011 run was canceled when too few riders were willing to register.
“In the end,” Lonnie told me this year, “I knew that if I didn’t put another event on, someone else would.” Although he wouldn’t confirm it, I got the feeling that, going forward, it will be a biennial event.
For the 2012 event, bikes were divided into three classes. Class I, under 750cc; Class II, 750-1000cc; Class III for bikes of unlimited displacement. It’s not a speed competition, competitors simply earn a point for every mile of the route they cover. Nineteen of the 69 starters covered the full 3,956-mile route this year, and among those, rankings were determined by taking into account the class of the machine. No Class I bikes were capable of covering all the miles, but Class II machines were ranked above the big Class III bikes. Ties within class were broken by ranking older bikes above newer ones. If there were still bikes tied after being ranked by class and age, the tie was broken by factoring in the age of the rider. To score, riders had to take the start in Newburgh, New York; they had to finish all the miles on at least eight days, and complete the final day into San Francisco (which was the shortest day by far, at 93 miles).
The entry fee was a bargain, I think, at $1500. But, by the time you factor in hotels, food, and fuel for a chase vehicle, most competitors spend ten times that on the event –and that doesn’t take into account the preparation of a machine, or wear-and-tear on bikes for which parts may be almost unobtainable.
When Buck Carson told me that his BSA had seized repeatedly in the Black Hills, I knew that it wouldn’t make it across the Rockies. No Class 1 bikes (of less than 500cc displacement) completed the ride with perfect scores. While it’s true that even the backroads of the Cannonball route are far better than the roads of the 1920s, today’s better roads actually make the event harder on the bikes. None of them were engineered to hammer along at 40-50 miles an hour for hours on end.
Not surprisingly, the Cannonball field is a powerful selective filter for rich, middle-aged (or older) white guys. Besides Buck Carson, who I’ve already mentioned and had his 21st birthday on the ride, there was at least one other 20-something: Matt Olsen, who recently won the ‘Born Free’ custom-building show, rode a 1928 Harley-Davidson JD (the most common model in the field.) He had a heartbreaking DNF, just 22 miles from the finish line.
Not everyone was rich, of course. Chris Knoop, an unemployed metallurgist, brought a fascinating ‘Invincible JAP’ from his native Australia. Basically, his bike was built with the help of many friends who passed the hat to collect his travel budget. The noted custom-builder Shinya Kimura competed in the 2010 event. Shinya took another shot at crossing the country on his 1915 Indian, and again looked to be doing it on a shoestring.
Motorcycle media were represented by the likes of Buzz Kanter, who publishes American Iron magazine. Buzz rode a rare 1929 two-cam Harley JDH. “Don’t call it a ‘twin-cam’,” he admonished me. “That’s a modern Harley motor.” Kanter’s JDH was a superbike in its day. Paul d’Orleans, who writes the excellent ‘Vintagent’ blog also attempted the ride on a production racer, a Velocette KTT.
The Cannonball is photogenic. Since many of the competitors adopt period dress and the route sticks to backroads, it often feels more like a time-warp than a vintage event. It makes stops in dozens of small towns, where it’s really popular. I actually talked my way out of a ticket when I explained to a South Dakota Highway Patrolman that I was a journalist covering it.
Lonnie told me, “I can’t believe I can’t find a title sponsor for it,” and I have to sympathize with him. It would be a natural for an oil supplier, or an insurance company, or even Harley-Davidson, which accounted for half the finishers.
One thing that might hold some potential sponsors back, though, is that a sponsor would want increased media attention, and that might bring some environmental critics. I shadowed the Cannonball with a friend who is both an avid motorcyclist and an environmentalist (no the two are not mutually exclusive). He was aghast at the way all the competitors drained their crankcases at almost every gas stop, spilling copious amounts of used oil onto the ground, and sprayed canfuls of solvents, letting that drip all over hotel parking lots. And I have to admit, when we were chasing bikes to photograph them on the road, we could often smell the Cannonball competitors before we saw them. (I think we were smelling the bikes, though I imagine a few of those riders got pretty ripe after a few thousand miles, too.)
And the winner is... Brad Wilmarth. Once again, the Richmond restorer proved his mettle by covering all the miles on the oldest motorcycle in the event -- a 1913 Excelsior that he’s been riding for decades. You can see the brake he added, at the top of the front wheel.
So, who arrived at Dud Perkins’ Harley shop in South San Francisco to claim the mantle of America’s most intrepid vintage bike rider?
The winner was Brad Wilmarth, from Richmond, Virginia. He rode the same 1913 Excelsior that he used to win the 2010 event. Wilmarth’s owned his Excelsior for about 20 years. He added a very discrete brake, a spoon shaped lever that drags directly on the front tire, concealed by the front fender. Other than that, the only concession he made was to fit aluminum pistons with an oil ring (the motor originally had iron pistons with compression rings only.) He relied on the original connecting rods, but had to make a new crankpin to account for big-end wear.
The Excelsior's oiling system was advanced for its day. The crankcase only held about two ounces of oil which, while the engine was running and up to temperature, was essentially vaporized. A dripper delivered several drops a minute to the main bearings. Wilmarth drained his crankcase every second fuel stop. “The goal,” he explained, “is to regulate the dripper so that when you drain it, you're removing the same amount you started with.” He also added one ounce of two-stroke oil to each gallon of gasoline. He averaged about a quart of oil per day.
“To prepare for the [initial 2010] run, we balanced the motor twice,” he told me. “The first time we balanced it, it had a vibration right at the speed I wanted to ride. So we took it apart and tried a different balance factor, so it was smooth at 47-50 mph.”
I guess the second trouble-free ride from coast-to-coast proved that the first one wasn’t a fluke, eh? That makes Wilmarth’s successful defense of his #1 plate a pretty good ad for his services – he’s a restorer specializing in pre-1920 motorcycles.
Oh, I almost forgot. A few days after Josh Wilson told me to Google his name and ’60 Minutes’, I did just that. I learned that he was one of two whistleblower pilots who went public with one of the U.S.A.F.’s dirty little secrets, the F-22 fighter plane had a defect that caused pilots to suffer from oxygen deprivation. One pilot was killed as a result, and others had some scary near-misses. Considering that the planes cost upwards of $350 million apiece, Josh’s appearance on 60 Minutes caused his employer some serious embarrassment.
I’m sure that was a career-limiting move, alright. And it couldn’t have been an easy decision to make. But after doing so, he cleared his head the way any of us would – by going for a nice long motorcycle ride. And in spite of tackling the Cannonball on a bike he’d only owned for a month, relying on the assistance of numerous strangers along the way, he racked up all the miles, earning a top-five finish.
On a wing and a prayer, indeed.