Out­side Line

The ero­sion of our abil­ity to en­joy the open road isn’t new – it’s been go­ing on since the ’70s

Evo India - - DRIVEN - RICHARD MEADEN @Dick­ieMeaden

THIS YEAR MARKS THE 20TH AN­NIVER­SARY of the Gum­ball 3000. I’ve never cared for it much. In fact it’s al­ways been my idea of hell. As an ad­vert for fast cars and the peo­ple who drive them (of­ten badly and, trag­i­cally, some­times with reck­less aban­don) it has al­ways done the wider car com­mu­nity a dis­ser­vice.

It’s in stark con­trast to the event which (loosely) in­spired it. For­mally known as The Can­non­ball Baker Sea-To-Shin­ing-Sea Memo­rial Tro­phy Dash, but ab­bre­vi­ated by all to sim­ply the Can­non­ball, it was con­ceived by Amer­i­can mo­tor­ing jour­nal­ist Brock Yates as an un­der­ground ‘up yours’ to the in­creas­ingly dra­co­nian (for the time, at least) traf­fic laws and speed lim­its. Par­tic­u­larly those that gov­erned the coun­try’s sprawl­ing free­way sys­tem.

I sus­pect most of us – at least those of us out­side of Amer­ica – first be­came aware of the mav­er­ick event as a re­sult of the Can­non­ball Run movie, which though ac­cu­rate in its coast-to-coast New York to LA for­mat painted a brasher pic­ture of the ‘race’ than the su­perbly low-key re­al­ity of Yates’s pedal-to-the-me­tal protest.

For a much bet­ter idea of what it was all about I can thor­oughly rec­om­mend the late Yates’s book, Can­non­ball! World’s Great­est Out­law Road Race, which doc­u­ments its ori­gins and de­scribes the five run­nings (plus the first re­con­nais­sance run) held be­tween 1971 and 1979. It’s a hel­luva read. Aside from the com­pelling no­tion of cross­ing Amer­ica as quickly as pos­si­ble, it’s the pre­science of his ob­ser­va­tions and the rel­e­vance al­most half a cen­tury later that re­ally res­onates.

Some of this is def­i­nitely due to ’71 be­ing the year of my birth. It’s also be­cause, like Yates, I hap­pen to be a mo­tor­ing jour­nal­ist with a love of fast cars and the free­dom a car and an open stretch of road rep­re­sents. How­ever, what seems most re­mark­able to me is that he per­ceived the threat posed by many of the road traf­fic laws and ‘ad­vances’ in tech­nol­ogy that are turn­ing driv­ers into skil­l­less, va­cant-minded au­toma­tons, and long-dis­tance jour­neys into an or­deal by ar­bi­trary speed lim­its, Smart mo­tor­ways and al­most con­stant sur­veil­lance by the au­thor­i­ties.

Ad­mit­tedly his so­lu­tion, or at least his protest, was ex­treme, but it was also sym­bolic. Look­ing back from 2018, where moral out­rage is the norm, it seems in­cred­i­ble that his ef­forts were taken in the cor­rect spirit, at least by the pub­lic and wider me­dia. I sus­pect this is be­cause he didn’t make a song and dance about it, with the only pub­lished ac­knowl­edge­ment of his first coast-to-coast run be­ing a col­umn he wrote upon com­plet­ing the trip.

Of course, he and the event it­self gained some celebrity, or rather no­to­ri­ety, but in the few years Yates ran the Can­non­ball it man­aged to re­tain its in­tegrity. Largely be­cause he re­stricted the en­try to a small cir­cle of trusted friends, col­leagues and like-minded in­di­vid­u­als, but also be­cause it wasn’t her­alded by a mass-me­dia hoopla or punc­tu­ated by end­less par­ties and photo op­por­tu­ni­ties. There sim­ply wasn’t time for all that crap.

The first of­fi­cial run­ning (also in 1971) is the stuff of leg­end; Yates part­ner­ing with the then re­cently re­tired rac­ing hero Dan Gur­ney in a dark blue Fer­rari Day­tona. They won, in a record-break­ing time of 35 hours and 54 min­utes, with Gur­ney imp­ishly stat­ing ‘at no point did we ex­ceed 175mph’. Sub­se­quent Can­non­balls saw the record low­ered, but its last­ing legacy was to in­spire younger gen­er­a­tions to con­tinue in the spirit of Yates and, in­deed, Can­non­ball Baker, the first great coast-to-coast pi­o­neer. I only wish I had the spuds to try it my­self.

I’ll leave you with some lines from Yates (who sadly died in 2016) and his own sum­mary of his fa­mous Car and Driver mag­a­zine col­umn, writ­ten af­ter his first re­con­nais­sance run in early ’71: ‘Oh, God, the an­ar­chis­tic bar­bar­ity of it all! Out there on Un­cle Sam’s own 31,000 miles of su­per­high­ways driv­ing at speeds some­times beyond the le­gal lim­its, in ac­tual con­scious vi­o­la­tion of our traf­fic laws. That’s the way it’s go­ing to be, car freaks, in the first demon­stra­tion that some peo­ple are aware enough to han­dle their own des­tinies be­hind the wheel of an au­to­mo­bile…

‘If the move­ments of au­to­mo­biles can be mon­i­tored and con­trolled (as with good­ies like VASCAR and ORBIS) we are a long way down the road to 1984. There­fore this mind­less gov­ern­ment urge to make us safe from our­selves can, in the long haul, lead to an elec­tronic night­mare whereby you couldn’t buy five gal­lons of gas or run a half-mile over the speed limit with­out ring­ing a gong in the Big Mutha com­puter in Wash­ing­ton.’

Forty-seven years later our per­sonal free­dom as driv­ers has been al­most en­tirely eroded. I’m sure Yates would take no plea­sure in say­ing he told us so. ⌧

‘It’s the pre­science of his ob­ser­va­tions and the rel­e­vance al­most half a cen­tury later that re­ally res­onates’

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