Story by Ray Seidel
Sept 10-25, 2016. 3,133 miles from Atlantic City NJ to Carlsbad CA on 93 100+ year old motorcycles ridden by riders from 8 countries.
Now after three successful events, the Cannonball has become an American institution, bringing in riders, and collectors from all over the world. Restorations have taken on a new meaning as skilled engine builders have had to reevaluate what it takes to put a 100 year old motorcycle coast to coast. Aside from using their machines for the purposes they were originally intended for, riders are also learning the meaning of the word endurance. Mainly that it pertains to them as much as it does their motorcycle. Nearly 300 miles per day is not easy.
In 2016 it’s something very special: A true Century Race. In order to qualify for this event riders are required to have a 100 year old motorcycle.
Class 1 are single cylinder single speed belt or chain driven pedal assisted motorcycles. Class 2 motorcycles are multi-cylinder with single speeds. Class 3 motorcycles are equipped with transmissions.
All motorcycles are pre-1917 manufactured. Various makes and models are represented in the Cannonball coming from Harley Davidson – Model J, Indians singles and twins, Thors single and twins, Reading Standard single cylinder belt driven, JAP twin, BSA singles, Henderson and Excelsior 4’s and multi other brands.
Sixteen days on the road with one day off. Most of the route on two-lane back roads with less than 100 miles on interstate highways. An ambitious ride to say the least, averaging around 300 miles per day, a true endurance run.
These machines are old and most are very rare. A lot of these early bikes would not be on the road today were it not for NOS or reverse-engineered parts. In a lot of cases only the motor survived to be resurrected into its former self. As long as the engine in the machine is original then it’s eligible to run for the prize.
No motorcycle built after 1916 can run for the prize. The machine must be powered by an original engine. Many things could be changed on a machine, and updates made for safety sake, but the core of the machine must be 1916 or earlier. Note: it is a competition but NOT a race. It could best be described as a timed and controlled endurance run, and was covered in QUICK THROTTLE first in 2010 (for pre-1916 motorcycles) from Kitty Hawk, NC to Santa Monica, CA. The second one (for pre-1930 motorcycles) was from New York to San Francisco, CA. And the most recent one was (for pre-1937 motorcycles) from Daytona Beach, FL to Tacoma, WA.
Each rider (and team support staff) has to supply their own bikes, parts, spares, gas, food and hotels.
SCORING. A rider gets a point for every mile ridden each day on course IF he (or she) leaves the start of the day on schedule, arrives at the end of the day on schedule and travels the entire distance under his or her own motorcycle’s power. If you are late you lose points. If your bike brakes and you can’t fix it enough to ride to the end of day you lose a point for every mile you do not ride that day. You can fix your own bike with parts and tools you have or can obtain from other riders or strangers. You are not allowed to ride with or deal with a support mechanic on the ride.
At the end of each day the scores and ranking are announced and posted at the “host hotel” for the day. The way this works is basically like this: Points (not necessarily miles) are the initial ranking criteria. Then, in case of ties, Class I bikes (smallest displacement) rank higher than Class 2 (medium size displacement engines), which rank higher than Class 3 (largest displacement). Then the older motorcycle ranks higher than a newer one. In case there are still ties the older rider scores higher than a younger one.
It was interesting in talking to owners/crews, about what they were riding, and how long they’ve had this particular bike. Often I was told there was a big leap in improvements between 1914 and 1916, so some of the people in the Cannonball had only acquired their bike in less than two years to get that cutting-edge 1916 technology!
Said #88 Doug Wothke from Alabama:
Doug: I’m riding a 1916 Indian racer replica in the Cannonball.
QT: And it’s 2 cylinders?
QT: How many cc’s?
QT: How many speeds?
QT: How much did you put into this bike, cost wise?
Doug: I have about twenty three or so in it, total. I count my time.
QT: When did you get it?
Doug: A year and a half ago; it came in six boxes of rusty crap. [Laughs]
QT: Did you do it – are you a wrencher?
Doug: I did everything but the motor. A friend of mine is much better at that than I am. So I let him do the motor. Good thing, the motor’s done great.
QT: So how do you like the trip so far?
Doug: It’s been…long.
QT: Has there been a challenging section of the trip?
Doug: The rain. No front fender, laid down style – race style, so…rain wasn’t fun.
QT: Any scenic spot that you liked?
Doug: Yeah, we went through the Grand Canyon in the rain, we went through south of the Rockies along Durango in the rain, we got to see north east Arizona in the rain, and West Virginia in the rain. So yeah, I got to see a lot of the scenic places, in the rain.
QT: Does this have good traction in the wet? Or you have to watch it?
Doug: Its got oil on the back tire so I go pretty slow on the curves, especially when it’s raining.
QT: Is this your only Cannonball?
Doug: No, this is my 3rd.
QT: Oh. What did you do before?
Doug: In ’12 on a ’28 Indian, and ’14 on a custom built ’29 Harley.
QT: Has this bike had any major issues, or mostly trouble free?
Doug: Tire issue! I’ve had tire issues. I’ve had four flats. I have no clue why. After lining with Gorilla Tape, no more flats.
And #20, Denis Sharon:
Denis: My wife and my dog [along for the trip] and I are from Western Connecticut. And this is our 2nd Cannonball. We rode 2014. Had SUCH a great time and SO many great people that we determined to do it again.
QT: And what year is that bike?
Denis: This is a 1916 Harley, with a little bit of a story behind it, and that is I didn’t get it until the end of June. And it’s the first Harley I ever rode, or ever worked on. And from the end of June to the beginning of September it was a complete Cannonball restoration so it was a somewhat of a panic. We got it from a fellow who had it in the family for 61 years.
QT: Are you a wrencher yourself ?
Denis: Oh yeah, I rebuilt the engine
QT: What do you do for a buck, if we may ask?
Denis: I’m a retired airline pilot. I’m a gearhead by birth.
QT: How many cc’s?
Denis: It’s 61 cubic inch, so a thousand cc’s.
QT: How many speeds?
Denis: It’s a 3-speed gearbox. ’16 is the first year Harley put a kick-starter or as they called it a “step-starter.” Prior to that the bike was started with pedals. This is a little closer to what we’re all familiar with.
QT: How has the bike been holding up?
Denis: It’s been pretty good. Actually we’re pretty pleased for having rebuilt it in such a short time, and being unfamiliar, and I was prepared for the worst. But in reality its held up pretty well. Its had a few hiccups but it’s still running.
QT: What’s the most fun you’ve had so far on this ride?
Denis: As my wife was saying, the best part is meeting the very interesting people. Not many dull people engage in such endeavors. So in 2014 we met some extraordinary people, and seeing them again has been by far the most rewarding aspect.
The Cannonball did have mishaps, most notable #93, Scott Jacobs. His story told from the Western Maryland Hospital:
Scott: I’ve been on morphine for the last 4 days. I’m going into surgery in about an hour, and they’re going to replace my right shoulder. What happened was I was coming down a road, Sharon’s [Jacobs] bike had broken down, and I was hanging out with her trying to get her bike going, and it wasn’t working, so I left her there with one of the staff members of Cannonball; Dave Jones and his wife and their little dog and sidecar. And I thought she was in good hands, so I took off, and about two miles down there’s this skinny road through the mountains – everything is backroads on the Cannonball race. And I went over a little hump – and as you come to the crest of the hump there’s a stop sign there – which I knew was coming up from my roll chart. Which for some reason, the town – the night before, which we found out afterwards, put gravel down on the road, from top to bottom, across the entire road. So – when I hit the brakes, it felt like I was on ice, I was going nowhere, I started skidding – my skid was over a hundred feet long. And I had two options, because I was coming to an intersection, and there were cars coming in both directions. So if I went straight, because I knew I didn’t…uh.. I don’t know if the timing would have been right I would have gone between the cars, or I would have got hit by one, or I would have been run over by one, or hit the side of one, so…
[Pauses to collect himself.] [Voice breaking]
I made the right decision. I laid my bike down. I slid. About seventy five feet. On the left side of the bike. And then…the reason I did that is because I thought if I slowed the bike down on the pavement that it would slow me down from going into the intersection. So I slid in – it kept me from going into the intersection. But unfortunately the bike caught, and it flipped me in the air, and landed on my head and my shoulder – mostly my shoulder. The top of my shoulder bone is in pieces – the top of my humerus and stuff – shattered. So they’re going to go in there and take pieces out and drill a rod down there, and put a new top on, and hopefully I’ll be better. I just want to tell everybody who rides how important wearing the right riding gear is. I was wearing a leather coat, gloves, helmet, and wearing Kevlar pants from a company called Revit. I have no road rash. I have some bruises and scrapes. But if I were wearing jeans and a T-shirt, like I see so many people do, I’d be in another wing in the hospital. Or if I didn’t have my helmet on, I’d be dead. Such a simple thing as gravel.
Later in the Cannonball Jeff Lauritsen was involved in an accident just miles from Lake Havasu City. He was hit by a vehicle that failed to yield at an intersection. He was transported to the hospital for precaution and released. Riding along with some of these guys on my 2015 Indian Scout, which is a pretty small bike itself, I can see how these look lost much like a bicycle on any kind of multi-lane road. For safety there is often a REAL motorcycle along as an escort, which has some girth and visibility to it – and the two are more noticed.
It’s not often you get to see this many RUNNING 100 year old motorcycles in one spot. It’s also a reminder how many different American marques were available back in the day, compared to the two survivors Harley-Davidson and Indian today. And Victory. As the bikes roll in from town to town, with the support crews waiting, it becomes a very different picture at night. The riders get to take a much earned rest, the sun sets and the darkened hotel parking lots begin to glow with campfires and electric portable lighting as virtually every part of these old motorcycles is disassembled and laid out on the ground. A tag team effort, cleaning and repairing, and to an onlooker appearing to be a giant jig-saw puzzle. At the end of the route in Carlsbad, California, there was a big crowd waiting in the Carlsbad Village parking lot. With a very unique sound from these old bikes to announce arrival, the spectators surrounded the riders as they rolled in, vying to get a close shot with their cell phones. The riders looked happy to answer questions from the admirers on hand, yet also glad they were finally finished!
Stay tuned, another Cannonball in two years. And you may be able to see them for yourself, and briefly step back in time to marvel at these wonderful old works of art, transportation, and a good companion.
Class I – Rank 17 – #13 – 1914 Harley Davidson, Dean Bordigioni
Class II – Rank 1 – #49 – 1912 Henderson, Frank Westfall
Class III – Rank 6 – #2 – 1915 Harley Davidson, Steve DeCosa
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