You have to be a certain kind of crazy to tackle the Motorcycle Cannonball
Museums are great. They really are. However, there is a subset of enthusiasts who feel that no matter the monetary value of an object it does no one any good to let it just sit and rot. There is no greater visual explanation of that type of person than Motorcycle Cannonball participants.
Old motorcycles are a particular mania, contraptions that require focused coordination just to ride and unflinching dedication to keep roadworthy. No matter for the interpid souls that undertake the Motorcycle Cannonball event. This hardened group is currently traversing the U.S. from border to border and made a stop at the Hagerty office, so of course I had to go check out the story.
These hearty riders are tracing a route from Sault Saint Marie, Michigan, to Padre Island, Texas, over the course of 19 days. Akin to the automotive Great Race time-speed-distance rally, the Motorcycle Cannonball is more than just a road rally. The riders get the day’s directions first thing each morning before leaving in groups. Once on the route, it is up to the rider to get their machine to the day’s finish line. No external support can be had without a penalty. Of course, some riders take it very seriously, while others are not scared of the penalty that comes with being scooped up by the sweep truck that follows the route.
All the motorcycles on this year’s rally are 1929 and older, meaning there is little in the way of luxury for the riders. Simple paper rollers serve as navigations while computers adapted from dual-sport motorcycles and bicycles serve as trip meters. The rules try to keep the motorcycles as faithful to their production year as possible, but sharp eyes will notice a carb swap here or modern tires there. There were a few bikes running “modern” Honda hubs and brakes that were cleverly disguised. Most riders built their own machines in the lead-up to this year’s event.
Dana Lasher is one such example. I started talking with her after I noticed her Indian Scout was not nearly as loaded with luggage and gear as other competitors. “Well, I realized that it took me a very long time to demount and mount a tire at home in my shop, you know, perfect conditions. The thought of doing it on the side of the road in the hot sun with minimal tools is not something I’m interested in.” That kind of attitude is absolutely justified. Everyone has their line in the sand of what is still considered DIY.
She is also a Cannonball rookie, who built the dark blue Indian up from a mangled mess. She told me about how one particular Jay Leno’s Garage episode made her fall in love with the Scout, and then the search was on to find one. “I also don’t own anything that doesn’t go and do things. It was either Cannonball or The Race of Gentleman, and I didn’t get into that so here I am.” Hers was just one motorcycle in the parking lot full of machines with artfully positioned squares of cardboard to catch the leaking oil.
Bill Kitchen had a similar story, though he didn’t build his bike from the ground up. Rather, he purchased a bike at auction that appeared to be ready to go. “It wasn’t though. They tell us rookies to go out and ride a lot of test miles, and I am happy I did.” He went on to describe that the engine had been in and out of the frame at least three times, and the engine currently in the bike is the “back-up” motor after the primary had a failure. Old metal tends to do that.
The repairs that happen on the road pale in comparison to the overnight antics some of the hardcore competitors pull off. Entire engines will be scattered across a parking space, with three mechanics doing three different tasks in the hope of having it all back together in time to catch a few winks of sleep before departing for another day of riding. Days can feature nearly 300 miles of riding, which is tough on both rider and machine. Keeping both in workable shape for 19 days is not for the faint of heart.
In all, it was really interesting to go down and chat with these riders and their support crews. I’ll be following along with the adventure via the Motorcycle Cannonball Instagram and Facebook pages, and so should you. These folks are crazy in all the right ways to take on this kind of mileage on these machines, so if the route is anywhere close you should make time to check them out in person.