Sep 9, 2016

Cannonball Preview: The Calm before the Storm

Tomorrow morning, 91 bikes—all at least 100 years old—will take off from the famed Boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to start a 16-day, 3,314-mile ride to Carlsbad, California in the 2106 Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run. The significance of that was a major focus of events today, as the riders and support crews for those bikes gathered at the Golden Nugget in Atlantic City to make final preparations for what is being billed as the Race of the Century.

John Classen, the course master for all four of the coast-to-coast Cannonball rides and the cross-country Great Race for automobiles that has been going on for decades, made note of the historic nature of this year’s ride in tonight’s opening banquet.

“To the best of our knowledge,” Classen told Cannonball riders and friends, “no 100-year-old motor vehicle of any kind has ever gone all the way across America. In two-and-a-half weeks, that will no longer be true.”

It’s an amazing adventure, and it gets under way in about 12 hours. So here’s a little of what we learned today:

Looking out for No. 90: The Race of the Century is more than a ride across America. It’s a competition event in which someone will end up being crowned this year’s Cannonball Champion September 25 in California. Riders earn a point for every mile they cover each day within the time period set by the organizers, so a perfect score at the end will be 3,314 miles.

In past Cannonballs—the ones in 2010, 2012 and 2014—more than one rider has completed the entire route each time, so the championship has come down to tiebreakers based on the size of the motorcycle, the age of the motorcycle and even the age of the rider.

Tomorrow morning, when the bikes fire up to start the ride, every rider will be even, but those tiebreakers mean they won’t have an equal chance of winning the Cannonball. In fact, based on tiebreakers, it’s already possible to set the Cannonball standings from first all the way down to 91st place.

Steve Norton and his 1904 RexSo who will be the leader in the Cannonball tomorrow? As long as his bike is running, it will be Britain’s Steve Norton, who is riding the No. 90 bike, a 1904 Rex single-cylinder British machine that is, yes, 112 years old. Because the bike fits into the Cannonball’s Class I (for single-speed, single-cylinder machines), and because it is the oldest bike in Class I (or for that matter, the entire Cannonball), Norton wins all the tiebreakers. Essentially, the Cannonball is his to lose, and until he misses the first mile on the road, no one else can overtake him for the lead.

The pressure did not seem to weigh heavily on him as he gave the bike its final pre-ride inspection today.

“If I can get home without penalties on the first day,” he said. “I’ll be great. I’m not thinking beyond that.”

The Last Guy: Just as the tiebreakers determine who’s in first place in the Cannonball, they also determine who’s in the last places. And that distinction belongs to Justin and Jared Rinker, along with Eric Trapp.

Because they are all riding twin-cylinder bikes with three-speed transmissions (Jared and Justin are on Indians, while Eric is on a Harley) they are all in Class III, which includes the most-capable motorcycles here. And as 1916 models, they are all on the newest machines in this year’s Cannonball, which means they lose the tiebreakers to every older machine. But the final part that clinches their spots at the end of the line are their ages. Like his twin brother, Jared is 31 years old, but he loses the final tiebreaker to his brother by three minutes. And Eric, who is younger yet, loses the tiebreakers to every other Cannonball rider, putting him in 91st spot starting the ride tomorrow.

Of course, between Steve Norton and Eric Trapp are 89 other guys who all come into the Cannonball with their own goals for the next 17 days. For some, it’s the chance to win the overall title or a championship in Class I, II or III. For many, it’s the hope of completing every mile of the coast-to-coast route, no matter how well they finish in the final standings. And for others, it’s the challenge of the motorcycle adventure of a lifetime, for themselves and their machines.

Going young: As you might imagine, many of the Cannonball competitors have a few miles on their personal odometers as well as the ones of their bikes. The average age is, well, old enough to know better.

The Rinker family, dad Steve, Justin, grandfather Buck and JaredBut if there’s one interesting trend this year, it’s a bit of a Cannonball youth movement. As noted, both Jared and Justin Rinker are the sons of Cannonball competitor Steve Rinker, and they’re tackling this year’s ride as a family team. Other father-and-son teams include Germany’s Thomas Trapp, who competed in 2014, and his son, Eric, along with Herbert and Juergen Ullrich, who will be sharing time on one bike for the ride across America.

And then there’s Mike Carson and his son, Buck, from Texas. Buck actually got involved in the Cannonball first, starting the 2012 run when he was just 20 years old and celebrating his 21st birthday on the road. By 2014, he had convinced dad Mike to ride with him, and this year the two of them are back, with Buck aboard a 1915 BSA single and Mike “riding” a machine that started life as a 1914 Warrick Motor Carrier, a three-wheeled (two in front, one in the rear) British delivery vehicle. Mike’s version has been heavily “adapted,” with the addition of a 1915 Harley motor and frame, along with new bodywork, a large cooling fan and a serious sound system.

Buck will turn 25 during this year’s Cannonball. But for the first time, he won’t be the youngest rider. That distinction goes to 23-year-old Tanner Whitton, a protege of Henderon guru Mark Hill.

Four years ago, Mark was teaching courses in mechanics at the State University of New York, and Tanner was one of his students. When Mark prepared a fleet of elegant four-cylinder Hendersons for the 2012 Cannonball, he invited Tanner to come along as part of the support crew. Since then, Tanner has continued to work with Mark, helping him prepare an amazing eight Hendersons, ranging from two 1912 models, the first year of production for the brand, up to 1916. And when they completed that work, Tanner got his reward—he will be riding a 1915 Henderson carrying No. 4, Mark Hill’s number in previous Cannonballs.

How does it feel to have an exceptionally historic—and exceptionally valuable—motorcycle entrusted to him for 16 days and 3,300 miles of riding?

“It’s OK,” says Tanner, “I know how to fix it.”

And then there were three: This is the fourth Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run, and the event has attracted an incredible family of diehard fans. But it’s also an extremely demanding event that can begin more than a year ahead of time as potential riders search out just the right machines, tear them apart and carefully rebuild them to be as mechanically perfect as possible, then test-ride them for hundreds of miles before rebuilding them all over again. And then, of course, there’s the actual expense of a 16-day ride across America, with hotels for yourself and a support crew and the costs of meals, fuel, time off work, etc., etc., etc.

So it’s hardly a surprise that the number of riders who have competed in every Cannonball continues to shrink each year. This year, that exclusive club is down to just three—Frank Westfall, Shinya Kimura and Doug Feinsod. Jim Petty was scheduled to be the fourth four-timer, but a foot injury just before the ride began forced him out at the last minute.

Frank deserves recognition since this is actually his sixth antique-bike cross-country competition. Before the Cannonball began, Frank competed aboard motorcycles twice in the Great Race, a similar event designed mostly around cars.

But Shinya also has a special distinction. He is the only rider who has competed in every Cannonball aboard the same motorcycle, a 1915 Indian twin. Each time, he has worked to make the motorcycle better, but so far, he has been unsuccessful in completing all of the miles without a mechanical breakdown. When asked tonight if this is the year it all comes together, he was cautiously optimistic.

“I hope so,” he said.

Remembering Bill: This year’s Cannonball would have had 91 competitors. But two weeks ago, rider Bill Buckingham died in a motorcycle crash in California. Tonight’s banquet was dedicated to his memory, and this year’s riders will recall him in a special way. In the morning, Scott Byrd will start the ride carrying Bill’s No. 40 Cannonball number plate. He will then pass it on to another rider, and another rider, and so on, until every entrant in the 2016 Cannonball has participated in a coast-to-coast relay ride to deliver that number plate to the Pacific Ocean.

Thanks, Lonnie: The Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run didn’t just happen. It was the vision of one man, AMCA member Lonnie Isam Jr., who conceived of the idea and made it happen for the first time in 2010, then again in 2012, 2014 and this year. Lonnie was honored during tonight’s banquet with a standing ovation after AMCA President Richard Spagnolli spoke to the riders about how this night and this ride would never have happened without Lonnie, who has been given the AMCA’s highest recognition, being named an Honorary Member of the Club.

Tomorrow, we set off to fulfill Lonnie’s vision all over again, with a 154-mile ride from Atlantic City to York, Pennsylvania. After the ceremonial start on the Boardwalk, the rest of the day will be a real taste of how tough the Cannonball can be. The mileage isn’t high, but riders are going to face a level of traffic congestion these machines never saw in their prime, and the weather is expected to be brutally shot and humid. Come back tomorrow night to see how it worked out.

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