Sep 17, 2016

Cannonball Day 7: Drama on the Plains

Well, we made it.

Tonight, the riders in the Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run have reached Wichita, Kansas, the ninth state in our 16-day journey from Atlantic City, New Jersey, to Carlsbad, California. But it wasn’t easy.

In the four Cannonball rides so far, there have been two days that stand out as the most dramatic from an organizational standpoint. There was a day when a deluge of rain in Lake City, Florida, required the organizers to eliminate half of that day’s ride. And there was a day in Colorado when one of the two sweep trucks broke down, requiring a scramble to recover the bikes it was carrying and the trailer it was towing, then arrange another tow vehicle that could be ready for duty just hours later, when the bikes would be on the road again.

Today surpassed either of those in organizational challenges. Not only did yesterday’s severe storms return, resulting in the decision to wipe out the second half of the planned 250-mile ride from Springfield, Missouri, to Wichita. And not only did one of the two trucks that can carry broken-down motorcycles suffer a mechanical failure of its own. But on top of all that, the Cannonball team had to handle a serious traffic accident that happened within feet of a Cannonball rider and the support crew (but fortunately, did not involve anyone from the ride).

So let me try to lay this out chronologically. First, there was a scary incident just 35 miles into the day. Rider Harry Verkuil of Scotland had pulled over alongside a county road to work on a recurring problem with the carburetion on his 1916 Harley-Davidson. Polina Marinova, one of the sweep riders on a modern motorcycle, stopped to check on Harry, then notified the “Sweep One” truck, driven by Bruce Redpath and Cole Deister, which arrived at the scene, ready to carry the bike the rest of the way to Wichita.

All that is pretty normal, and it happens dozens of times a day. But then, a passing pickup truck stopped and the driver rolled down the window to ask if he could help in any way. And while he was stopped, a car approached at full speed, apparently without realizing the truck wasn’t moving. At the last minute, the car driver tried to brake, and it slammed into the back of the pickup truck, within 10 feet of where Harry, Polina, Bruce and Cole were standing.

The force of the collision was so great that the car ended up wedged under the rear end of the truck, with parts flung all over the road.

I was driving the “Sweep Two” truck, located just a couple of miles away at a turn where some riders were getting gas. And traveling with me these days is Darlene Jones, wife of sweep rider David Jones and an experienced emergency-room nurse. Also at the gas station was Vicki Sanfelipo, the EMT who rides with the Cannonball on a modern motorcycle. So when Bruce called to report the crash, we immediately headed to the scene, arriving well before the police.

Vicki and Darlene both jumped in to help the four occupants of the truck and car, while other members of the support crew donned our safety vests to control traffic through the accident scene. We ended up managing the scene for more than 10 minutes until the first emergency vehicles rolled up, and our crew continued to help until ambulances were on the scene and enough police had arrived to take over traffi-control duties.

Fortunately, it appeared that none of the injuries were life-threatening, although all of the car and truck occupants were transported by ambulance. But the crash certainly left an impression on those who witnessed it from the roadside.

Bruce and Cole had barely gotten another 40 miles up the road when suddenly the converted ambulance that serves as the Sweep One vehicle died and refused to start. It was the final sweep truck on the course at the time, and it was already carrying two competitors’ bikes. So when we got word that it was DOA, we had to recover those bikes, and the six-bike trailer we’ll need for the rest of the trip.

None of that would have been possible without the generous assistance of AMCA member Dave Monahan, who volunteered his support-team van to haul one of the trailers, while we went back to get the other trailer with Sweep Two. As of tonight, a rental truck has been added to the fleet, allowing us to maintain a full support team as the Cannonball heads into its second week.

It was just about the time that Sweep One was turning into Sweep Done when the skies opened up again. Yesterday, rain hit with an intensity that instantly flooded fields and forced cars to pull off the road. Today’s storm was just as strong, and Cannonball Operations Director Jason Sims made the decision to collect all the motorcycles as the lunch stop, 120 miles into the day, then let support crews haul them the rest of the way to Wichita.

As a result, any rider who made it to the lunch stop was awarded the full 250 miles for the day. That gave 59 of the 71 riders who started the day a perfect score of 250 points. And the number of riders tied with a perfect score (now 1,570 points—one for every mile covered within the designated time limit) remains at 22.

But it might not have, as a result of a final dramatic development today. Frank Westfall, who is currently ranked second in the overall standings, was one of a handful of riders who decided to tackle the second half of the day in spite of the fact those miles would not count. And about 30 miles from Wichita, something broke inside the engine on Frank’s 1912 four-cylinder Henderson.

If that engine failure had occurred during the points-paying part of the day, Frank would have lost his shot at a Cannonball championship. Instead, he received the same 250 points awarded to all riders who made it as far as the lunch stop. But Mark Hill’s Henderson support crew faces a major challenge tonight to track down and fix the problems with Frank’s machine.

After a tough day, Stage 7 of the Cannonball ended in a truly appropriate place—the Twisted Oz Motorcycle Museum in Augusta, Kansas, owned by Cannonball rider Kelly Modlin. The museum served up a steak dinner for all the riders, and everyone was invited to explore the museum’s collection of one-of-a-kind machines.

That’s it for tonight. Tomorrow, we’ve got a short 184-mile route from Wichita to Dodge City, Kansas, host city for one of America’s most important motorcycles races when these 100-year-old machines were new. And then on Sunday, Cannonball riders get their one and only rest day on their trek from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Let’s hope we can get there with a little less drama.—Bill Wood

Here are tonight’s results:

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