Cannon Ball Day Thirteen
Bill Wood is following the cross-country Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run for machines made before 1930 from its beginning September 7 in Newburgh, New York, through its conclusion 3,950 miles later in San Francisco on September 23. Here's his latest report from the road:
From the beginning, the most interesting points battle in the 2012 Cannonball has been the race for the Class I (less than 750cc) Championship, as riders on the smallest bikes have struggled to complete as much of the 3,950-mile route as they can. But now, this back-and-forth contest is winding down.
For a time, it appeared that 20-year-old Buck Carson, the youngest rider in the Cannonball, would claim the Class I title with consistency. Although Buck's 1927 BSA 500 single wasn't fast, he kept it rolling at a steady pace, managing to come in before the time limit each day.
But then, last Sunday, on the mountain stage from Sheridan, Wyoming, to Yellowstone National Park, disaster struck. Mike Carson, Buck's dad and support team member, reported that the engine came apart in a catastrophic way, destroying the top end, the bottom end and everything in between.
One option was to pack up and go home. Instead, the Carsons started assembling hard-to-find parts from sources all over. It took them three long days (including one false start when they had the engine complete only to learn that an oil control valve had malfunctioned), but Buck was back in the ride Thursday.
Unfortunately, the Cannonball rules require that each rider complete all of the miles in a majority of the 16 stages. And when Buck was able to ride only 95 of the 230 miles in Thursday's 13th Stage, from Hines, Oregon, to Klamath Falls, that gave him his eighth daily DNF, taking him out of the competition.
In the meantime, Jim Crain, from Santa Fe, New Mexico, has now positioned himself to win the Class I title. And one of the people most surprised by that has to be Jim Crain, who entered the event purely as an adventure, planning to ride across the country two-up with his wife, Sylvia, on their 1927 BSA.
Crain noted that the bike was a restored machine he'd never ridden before preparing it for the Cannonball, so there were a number of unknowns when the ride began September 7 in Newburgh, New York. The Crains got through the first days well, but by the time the ride got to Iowa, a number of broken spokes on the rear wheel of the BSA told them that two people was one too many on the 85-year-old BSA, so Sylvia switched to riding as a spectator on her modern Kawasaki KLR650.
Through it all, Crain has continued to accumulate miles. The organizers offered a shorter “bailout” route specifically designed to help riders avoid abusing their machines on two of the toughest stages, and Crain took advantage of both. As a result, he's now completed 2,973 miles out of the 3,146 he's attempted and finished 10 of 13 stages through Thursday.
Interestingly, the only other rider who still has a chance of catching Crain for the Class I Championship happens to be riding another BSA owned by Crain. Jimmy Allison, a friend of the Crains, joined them on the ride aboard a 1926 BSA that is nearly identical to the bike Crain is on. Allison lives in Roswell, New Mexico, but he moved in with the Crains for weeks prior to the Cannonball so he would have time to prepare the bike.
On the long Stage 6, from Spirit Lake, Iowa, to Murdo, South Dakota, it looked like Allison's ride might be over when the engine on his machine failed. But he used the rest day in Sturgis to install a spare motor and hasn't missed a single mile he's attempted since.
Still, with only about 600 miles left before the Cannonball rolls into the finish in San Francisco, Allison trails Crain by 421 miles, so it's unlikely there will be a change in the Class I points standings before the ride ends.
What is surprising, though, is that in a ride that has taxed these smaller bikes to the limit, some machines have actually gotten better as the Cannonball has proceeded. For instance, Mike Wild, a British rider who is part of the Carson team, failed to complete all the miles in five of the first eight stages aboard his 1925 Rudge. But since a major rebuild, he's been perfect five stages in a row and has now completed 2,307 miles.
Other machines have been through multiple mechanical failures and keep coming back for more. Darryl Richman has rebuilt his 1928 BMW—the only twin-cylinder bike in the class—a couple of times and is still running, with 2,273 miles so far. Italian rider Caludio Femiano's 1926 Sunbeam staged a major comeback after a rebuild that began on the rest day, although it has since succumbed to additional mechanical problems. The most dramatic example, though, has been Paul d'Orleans' 1928 Velocette KTT, the hot 350cc overhead-cam British machine that broke on the first day, returned for Stage 8 to run strong for three difficult days, then unfortunately, broke again.
In an event where many of the bigger bikes keep racking up perfect day after perfect day, the efforts of the Class I riders to keep their machines going has made for a fascinating battle between 80-year-old technology and the American continent. As Mike Carson notes, “This is the true spirit of the Cannonball—guys riding all day, then working on their bikes until late at night, just trying to get miles in.”
Speaking of those bikes at the top of the standings, the ranks of the “perfect” machines was reduced by two on Thursday, when Scott Jacobs and Kris Thompson both failed to complete a single mile.
Jacobs is most famous for his photorealistic paintings of motorcycles and automobiles, but he jumped into the Cannonball challenge in a big way, bringing along his family to experience the event with him.
Although Jacobs admits that his skills lie in art, not mechanics, no one escapes the realities of riding an 80-year-old bike across the country. During Stage 5, Jacobs' 1926 Harley had a flat tire, and fellow competitor Art Farley stopped to help Jacobs change it. Later that day, when the machine developed ignition problems, Jacobs used the “phone a friend” approach, calling famed builder Steve Huntziger for advice. Together, they worked through the problem and Jacobs brought the machine in without penalty that day. But the odds apparently caught up with him in Stage 13 and he failed to finish a single mile.
Thompson was at the opposite end of the Cannonball experience scale, having finished the ride in 2010 and getting through 12 stages this year without missing a single mile. But his bike, too, was missing in action for State 13.
That leaves 19 machines now tied with maximum mileage of 3,338, and just two full days of riding left, followed by a short, 93-mile, ceremonial stage into San Francisco Sunday. That total includes five Class II (750cc to 1,000cc) bikes at the top of the list, based on the tiebreaker favoring smaller bikes over bigger machines. Those Class II riders are: Brad Wilmarth (1913 Excelsior), Joe Gardella (1914 Harley-Davidson), Norm Nelson (1929 BMW), Jeff Alperin (1929 Indian) and Josh Wilson (1929 Indian).
They're followed by 14 Class III (over 1,000cc) machines, now split evenly between Harley twins (seven) and Henderson fours (seven). The class continues to be led by Frank Westfall on his '24 Henderson, with other Henderson riders including Andreas Kaindl, Richard Correia, Steve MacDonald, Byrne Bramwell, Mark Hill and Mike Fockler. The Harley contingent is led by Dave Kafton and also includes Art Farley, Rand Aron, Sean Duggan, Peter Reeves, Gary Wright and Jim Dennie.–Bill Wood
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