Sep 17, 2016

Cannonball Day 8: Reaching the Halfway Point

I want you to know that I mean this in the best possible way, but driving the sweep truck today in the Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run was rather uneventful.

I’m not complaining. We’ve had entirely too much eventful in this year’s coast-to-coast ride for motorcycles made more than a century ago.

So it was exceptionally good news that, for today, our total haul of motorcycles and riders picked up after a breakdown on the 184-mile route from Wichita to Dodge City Kansas, was one each. Only Harry Verkuil and his 1916 Harley-Davidson came in on the trailer and the rider-transport bus.

But that doesn’t mean today’s stage was dull. In fact, it was anything but.

The main drama centered on Frank Westfall, who started the day in second place in the overall Cannonball standings, behind only Dean Bordigioni. Both of them, and 20 other riders, woke up this morning with a perfect score of 1,570 points, one point for each mile they have completed within the designated time limit.

We’ve talked about how the Cannonball tiebreaker system works before, but basically, Dean gets the top spot because he is the only remaining rider with maximum points aboard a Class I (single-cylinder, single-speed) motorcycle—in his case, a 1914 Harley-Davidson single. And Frank is in second place because he is on the oldest Class II (multi-cylinder, single-speed) motorcycle that has earned maximum points—a 1912 Henderson.

Basically, as long as Dean continues to cover every mile every day, there’s no way anyone can overtake him in the championship standings. But Dean is aboard an underpowered Harley single with primitive belt drive, and no Class I Cannonball bike has ever made it across the country without dropping some points along the way. So a lot of people have been thinking that Frank, aboard a four-cylinder machine that represented the height of two-wheeled elegance when it was made, will eventually seize the lead when Dean’s Harley falters.

That’s been the theory, anyway. But all that speculation was on the verge of collapse yesterday when it was Frank’s Henderson—not Dean’s Harley—that suffered a potentially fatal engine failure. During the afternoon part of yesterday’s ride from Springfield, Missouri, to Wichita, Kansas, the connecting-rod bearing on the front cylinder of Frank’s machine started to seize.

Frank spotted the symptoms immediately and stopped the bike before the damage became truly catastrophic. Under normal circumstances, he would have lost mileage and dropped out of contention for the championship. The only thing that saved him was that the afternoon part of the competition was wiped out by a deluge of rain that had cars pulling off the road and presented a serious safety hazard for riders. So Frank’s engine failure didn’t cost him anything, since he had already covered all the miles that would be officially scored for the day.

But a Henderson isn’t a simple machine, and even Mark Hill, the early four-cylinder guru who had a hand in Frank’s machine and seven other Hendersons entered in this year’s Cannonball, lacked the resources to fully repair the bike overnight. So Mark and Frank came up with Plan B, in which Mark removed the piston and rod from the Henderson’s front cylinder, basically turning the 1,000cc four into a 750cc three.

“We had no choice,” Mark said. “We didn’t the parts to put the bike back together as a four, so we made it a three. I’ve heard stories of this happening on ships at sea. When you have to, you do whatever it takes to get back to shore.”

So Frank rolled to the starting line in Wichita was a bike that had nothing inside the front cylinder. And when the time came for departure, he fired it up and very carefully got under way.

As he left, the question was whether 75 percent of a Henderson would be good enough to cover 100 percent of the miles in the Cannonball Stage 8. By tonight we had the answer, as riders arrived at Dodge City’s reconstructed Wild West town along Front Street. By carefully avoiding any undue strain on his weakened motor, he got the Henderson into Dodge still running and with no further damage.

It helped that today happened to be the shortest riding day in this year’s Cannonball with the exception of the opening and closing stages, and that the entire route was across the flat expanses of the Great Plains. But Frank also took very good care of a wounded machine.

Dean Bordigioni also recorded another perfect day on the road, meaning he continues to lead a group of 22 riders all ties with 1,754 points as the Cannonball passed its halfway point between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. So, as you’ll see from the points standings below, Dean is still in first place, while Frank holds down second ahead of two other Henderson riders—Byrne Bramwell and Jeff Tiernan.

The battle for the championship continues Monday, when riders will have to cover 272 miles, the most of any single day in this year’s Cannonball, from Dodge City to Pueblo, Colorado. And to make matters worse, the temperature is expected to be in the mid-90s.

But in the meantime, we have reached the one day in the Cannonball trek across America that every rider and support-team member looks forward to most of all—the rest day. That means we’ll all stay right here in Dodge City tomorrow, although rest won’t actually be on the agenda for members of many of the teams, who will be working diligently to get their bikes ready for the second half of this year’s ride that will include a climb to nearly 11,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies, then a trip through the scenic Four Corners region, a visit to the Grand Canyon, a crossing of the Mojave Desert and an arrival in the destination city of Carlsbad, California, on Sunday September 25.

I will do my best to get around together tomorrow and fill you in on the behind-the-scenes work that will likely make all the difference between a Cannonball victory and a trip on the sweep truck.—Bill Wood

Here are tonight’s results:

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