May 1, 2020
Tires scream as the transformed Mercedes E63 screeches around a bend as its pilot accelerates even more, blowing past other vehicles on the road at a speed that makes it seem they are standing still. The rush is irresistible. With hands tightly anchored to the stirring wheel, the wind in one’s hair, driving at speeds where the driver becomes one with the road and curves around each bend, dangerously crossing the center line into oncoming traffic, the race is on. The Cannonball Run race that is! Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: the Cannonball Run is illegal, and it is publicly disavowed as an actual race. The official Cannonball Run website explicitly states that it does not condone breaking the speed limit or any traffic laws.1 You will find no enshrined world records for it anywhere, because it invariably involves making a mockery of speed limits and dodging the police, and since it does not officially exist, its participants know better than give Law Enforcement the ammunition to be hauled to jail.2 Unofficially…. let’s just say it is a different story.
The Cannonball Run is a coast to coast cross country speed record, commonly understood to be from New York City’s Red Ball Garage to the Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach, California. It was immortalized with a 1981 Hollywood movie named after it ten years after the first race, and the last officially sanctioned race took place in 1976. There are also illicit organized Cannonball Run races, but those have some limits and restrictions. The solo record however? No holds barred. Anything and everything goes as far as speed and tech is concerned. And in 2019, three men, Arne Toman, Doug Tabbutt, and Berkeley Chadwick, set out to break the record. It was mostly Toman and Tabbutt’s brainchild, as Chadwick was a relatively late addition to the team, a college student tapped to man the binoculars and look for police cars. Toman and Tabbutt put most of the plan together, with Toman handling getting the vehicle ready while Tabbutt handled logistics and managing the information flow.
They started with a car. They wanted something that was not too obvious or eye-catching, so they decided on a Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG that they retrofitted to look like a simple Honda Accord, and they heavily modified it to increase its fuel capacity and horsepower.3 Toman then changed the car’s registration right before the attempt so he had two sets of documentation and two license plates they could use, and inserted some brake light and taillight kill switches. Then came the equipment, which covered a broad spectrum of uses. They had a plane crash avoidance system for monitoring police aircraft. They used multiple navigational systems at the same time, including multiple phones running Google Maps, an iPad running Waze, and several Garmin GPS units, with the idea that they had fallbacks and alternatives in case any one router stopped working or was inaccurate. They also had military grade image stabilizing binoculars, as well as a separate pair of binoculars on a gyro stabilizer. Then, they added a radar detector and laser gun jammer to try to avoid getting ‘painted’ by any police cruisers that they passed. To make sure they knew what was going on around them, they brought multiple police radio scanners, as well as a ceiling mounted CB radio with whip antenna.4 Doug Tabbutt had insisted on bringing the Citizen’s Band radio, despite knowing it would not likely be necessary, because he had grown up seeing it in movies, and he wanted to continue the tradition. In addition, the car also had LCD dashboard screens and high powered thermal cameras for spotting deer and animals in the road. Finally, the engineered speeding street rocket was ready.
The preparation was exhaustive, as the three spent hundreds of hours planning out everything they could. They consulted weather forecasts to try to find the ideal day with no rain, and picked a day in November, before Thanksgiving, in anticipation of the highways being relatively clear. The route they would take was selected ahead of time, and they made sure there was no construction ongoing that could choke up traffic. They opted for the Northern route, which involved taking Interstate-80 through Nebraska, I-76 down to Denver, I-70 to the middle of Utah and I-15 down into L.A, for a final distance of 2,825 miles.5 However, their plans were almost thrown into chaos. Three days before the attempt, the weather forecast was showing heavy snowfall and rain along the northern route, and the three men prepared to switch to a more southern route. Luckily for them, however, with under 30 hours to go before the planned departure time, the weather forecast drastically shifted, and now showed clear skies to the north.
Over the course of their preparations, they loaded spreadsheet after spreadsheet with the exact coordinates and location of gas stations, stretches of highway that tended to be empty, and areas that were heavily patrolled by police.6 Their objective was simple: Crush the record! “I didn’t want to break the record by minutes,” Toman said. “I didn’t want anyone else trying and I didn’t want to do it again.”7
They also got some help along the way. Utilizing their network of fellow car enthusiasts and business associates, the team placed 18 volunteer spotters along their route. Tabbutt, in particular, was the owner of a company that sold fast and exotic cars. “There were a lot of phone calls where I’d say, ‘Hey how’s that car I sold you three years ago? By the way, what are the cops like where you are?’” Tabbutt said. “There’s no replacement for boots on the ground and we had lots of information from people everywhere—stuff you can’t get from the Internet.”8 The volunteers drove hundreds of miles from wherever they were based to help, and, in a carefully timed bit of coordination, would pull onto the highway several miles in front of the E63, floor the pedal, and scout the road ahead for police. The spotters would then escort them until the E63 passed them up, before decelerating and turning for home.9
The run started smoothly enough, as the trio managed to stay clear of any snarls that would have slowed them down. They managed to keep their overall time spent on stopping for gas shockingly low, clocking in at just over 22 minutes at gas stations for their countrywide trip. But their luck would not last long. The car ran into trouble in the Rocky Mountains, when some combination of the low-octane fuel being used and the thin air caused engine problems. Fortunately for the team, fully shutting down the car and restarting it seemed to temporarily fix the problem. There were other issues as well – some of the equipment they had brought with them was not providing much help. The thermal scope, which had proved its worth by spotting deer and other animals on the road consistently, was too obvious mounted on top of the car in the daylight, so they were only able to use the scope at night.
In addition, if the scope was turned too far off center, the force of the wind generated by the speeding car would cause the camera to get stuck, unable to rotate back.10 The CB radio, as expected, did not add anything of value, and the plane crash avoidance system did not detect any aircraft for the duration of the run.
Despite how fast they were going, with their average speed north of 100 miles per hour, they did their best to be careful around other drivers and be courteous in their driving. Aside from just being nice, there was also a reason for it, said Tabbutt. “[We] typically drove [our] fastest — with a top speed of 193 mph, according to a GPS readout — on long, empty highways, slowing down for congestion. [We] also endeavored to pass cleanly without surprising other drivers. It’s courteous, but also strategic. Driving too aggressively [could] anger other drivers who may dial highway patrol on [us], putting the entire run in jeopardy. And over-correcting at high speed after freaking someone out would mean likely death for both [us] and other drivers.”11 They were also extremely lucky at one crucial point in their trip. All their tech, radios, and spotters somehow missed a cop car coming the other way in one state, who painted them with a radar gun. The team slowed down, expecting to get pulled over and having no intention of trying to outrun the cruiser, but, despite a spotter picking up radio chatter about a speeding car, they were never chased or pulled over by the police. Ironically, in Arizona, which is known for ticket-enthusiastic police, a car going even faster than the E63 sped past them – and got pulled over instead of the E63.
In Redondo Beach, California, a police officer pulled them over in a Denny’s parking lot. But it was too late – Toman, Tabbutt, and Chadwick had absolutely shattered the previous Cannonball Run record by over an hour and a half, finishing in a grand total of 27 hours and 25 minutes after averaging 103 mph. They had been actually going the proper speed limit and were going to grab a meal in celebration of their accomplishment after reaching the end point, and had been pulled over so the officer could inform them that their license plate holder was partially blocking their license plate. They were let off with a warning.
To make sure there were no questions about the legitimacy of their attempt, they had filmed every second of the run, and had several past holders of the record watching along via a GPS app, in addition to other evidence. However, they will not be releasing the footage for at least a year. Though nobody has attempted to tag them with a retroactive charge of their traffic violations, they plan to sit on the footage for a year to wait out the statute of limitations – just in case. There are doubts if anyone would try, even if they released the footage. “Every cop I know saw the story of the record and said ‘Aw man, that’s so awesome,’” Tabbutt said, when he was interviewed by the Washington Post about the accomplishment.12
In the end, there are many mixed feelings about the Cannonball Run. Average drivers worry about the danger to other motorists, as well as its legality, irrespective of the willingness of the runners to pull over and own up if caught by law enforcement. On the other side of the aisle, the auto racing community vehemently argues that its the skill of the driver, not the speed limits, that truly matter. To them, breaking the speed limit isn’t that unsafe. “In America, we have allowed ourselves to believe that we cannot be good drivers,” Alex Roy, a previous holder of the Cannonball Run record, said. “But in Germany, people hit speeds faster than Arne’s average Cannonball speed just driving home from work on the Autobahn.”13 In the end, to some, traveling at those high speeds on America’s highways will always be like climbing Mt. Everest without an oxygen tank, or scaling Yosemite’s El Capitan without a rope. Not a good idea, an extreme form of sport that provides its drivers with extreme thrills by increasing the odds of an accident. Yet, it is irresistible for those who love taking risks and challenging themselves by literally taking a run on the wild side at cannon ball speeds: a Cannonball Run!
Howdy. I’m Stephen Talik, a native Texan born in College Station, and an Eagle Scout. I find history – especially the World Wars, Cold War, and the espionage world – fascinating. I also enjoy learning about the newest and coolest gadgets for technological use and internet security, and watching sports. I have also interned in the Washington D.C. office of a member of Congress, and I am a Political Science Senior at St. Mary’s University.Author Portfolio Page
Lulu Guadalupe Avitua-Uviedo
I remember watching the movie Cannonball Run in the 80’s but I never knew people actually did that, I thought it was for movie viewers. This article gave such depth into details of what is inside the cars and how each driver was connected to someone to help them as they went from location to location. I’ve heard of friends across country but never in a race across country. Very interesting and informative article.