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Sep 12, 2016

Cannonball Day 3: The Hits Keep on Coming


As of tonight, the Race of the Century, the 16-day coast-to-coast Cannonball ride for motorcycles that are at least 100 years old, has covered exactly 600 miles of the 3,314-mile course from Atlantic City, New Jersey, to Carlsbad, California. In other words, we’re still less that 20 percent of the way across the country. And yet it feels like so much more.

Our three days on the road have brought us to Chillicothe, Ohio, the conclusion of today’s 218-mile stage that began in Morgantown, West Virginia. And this ride continues to live up to its advance billing as the motorcycle adventure of a lifetime.

Today, we saw the ranks of riders who have successfully completed every one of those 600 miles within the designated time period dwindle from 30 to 27. That means out of 90 riders who began the Cannonball Saturday, 63 have now lost points, either due to mechanical failure, time penalties or, in a couple of cases, crashes.

That’s a rate of attrition we’ve never seen in any of the three Cannonball rides (2010, 2012 and 2014) that preceded this year. And today, the list of on-the-road breakdowns even extended into our sweep crew, when the converted ambulance/bike hauler that is designated “Sweep One” had mechanical problems that seriously slowed its progress on the course. And, just like the riders, the Sweep One crew—Bruce Redpath and Ron “RJ” Julian—had to limp their machine to the finish line.

But the big news of the day came at the top of the Cannonball leaderboard, where problems struck two of the top three riders in the points standings. Norm Nelson, who held the overall lead by virtue of the fact that his 1911 Reading Standard was the oldest Class I (single-cylinder, single-speed) bike to have completed every mile for the first two days, struggled with mechanical issues all day. And he eventually had to put the bike on the sweep truck about 40 miles short of the finish. That almost certainly ends Norm’s quest to win the Cannonball championship this year after finishing second to South African Hans Coertse two years ago.

Meanwhile, the man who started the day third in the standings had a more-dramatic experience on the road. Frank Westfall, riding an exceptionally rare 1912 Henderson,—the first year of production for William Henderson’s elegant four-cylinder motorcycle—said he came around a blind curve to find that the one-lane bridge ahead of him was about 90 percent occupied by an oncoming semi. Frank steered the Henderson into the gap between truck and bridge guard rail, avoiding a head-on collision. But both he and the bike suffered some cosmetic damage.

So now you’re wondering who took over Frank’s place in the Cannonball standings. And the answer is—Frank Westfall. Yes, he picked up the bike, bent some parts back into shape and continued on his way, recording a perfect score of 218 points for the day. And with Norm Nelson dropping from the ranks of the perfect-points riders, Frank actually moved up a spot, to second overall.

Frank’s Henderson fits into Class II (for multi-cylinder, single-speed bikes). And he trails the new Cannonball leader Dean Bordigioni, riding a 1914 Harley-Davidson single that is the sole Class I bike still credited with every mile. In past Cannonballs, no Class I bike has ever completed the cross-country ride without losing points, but we’ve never seen so many Class I riders eliminated so early.

Meanwhile, while we’re on the subject of points, Mark Loewen has now moved up to third place on his Class II 1912 Excelsior twin.

This year’s high attrition rate has been the subject of much discussion in the hotel parking lot at night, with many riders and support crew members attributing it to a combination of the age of the motorcycles—the oldest field of machines every to attempt a cross-country run—and the difficulty of the conditions so far, with oppressive heat and traffic congestion on Stage One followed by steep hills through the Appalachians in Stage Two. The hope is that the next couple of days, during which the Cannonball will traverse western Ohio, all of Indiana and the southern tip of Illinois, will be a bit less difficult for both machines and riders (and maybe for us on the sweep crew, too!)

Meanwhile, the Cannonball is never only about the points competition. So here’s a little bit of what else has been going on:

Honeymooners split up: Scott and Sharon Jacobs and their friends, Pat Simmons, with his wife, Cris Somer-Simmons, have been riding buddies on the Cannonball before. And this year, they showed up with matching T-shirts designating them as the couples from the old “Honeymooners” TV show—Ralph and Alice Cramden, and Ed and Trixie Norton. But following Scott Jacobs’ crash in Stage Two yesterday, the Honeymooners were split up today. Scott is in a hospital awaiting shoulder surgery tomorrow (best wishes!) and Sharon is with him. Meanwhile, Pat Simmons’ 1914 Harley twin broke down yesterday and had to come in on the sweep truck. That left Cris Sommer-Simmons all alone on the road, and she completed every mile. But news tonight is that Pat’s bike is back together, meaning Ed and Trixie will be back together for tomorrow’s ride.

Birthday wishes: Buck Carson has ridden the Cannonball three times, tackling his first cross-country challenge in 2012, when he started the ride at age 20 and celebrated his 21st birthday on the road. Since then, Buck has turned over another digit on his personal odometer with Cannonball friends in 2014. And today, he reached the quarter-century mark in the company of other riders. Unfortunately, his birthday gift wasn’t a perfect day in the saddle of his 1916 BSA single. Instead, he spent much of it in the bus that transports riders after their bikes have broken down. We understand, though, that there was a cupcake and singing at a gas station!

Family affair: For many of us, the Cannonball almost feels like a family reunion every two years. But for Bill Rodencal, vehicle collection specialist at the Harley-Davidson Museum, that family connection is no exaggeration. Bill is riding a 1915 Harley twin in this year’s Cannonball, and his support consists of his two daughters, Cassidy, 17, and Willa, 15. Both of the Rodencal girls, then aged 11 and 9, went across the country with Bill when he rode in the original 2010 Cannonball. But as Willa notes, “Things are different this year, since we’re now the support crew, not just along for the ride.” Days on the Cannonball can be grueling, and nights can be short, but the two girls know what they signed on for. “We’re here as long as he is,” says Cassidy.

Boom: Usually, when a rider talks about blowing up a motor, it’s just an expression. But today, German rider Juergen Ullrich found out that term can mean exactly what it says. Juergen had gotten about 150 miles into Stage Three when his 1914 Harley twin began running badly. Juergen pulled into a gravel parking lot and tried to diagnose the problem. After checking the machine and finding nothing the looked wrong, he fired it up and “Boom,” the top end of the rear cylinder literally exploded, with an entire chunk of the cylinder top, along with the head of a valve, coming off, leaving a gaping hole into the combustion chamber.

Here are tonight's full results:


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