Cannonball

Article And Photos By: Felicia Morgan

Originally Published In The January 2016 Issue Of Cycle Source Magazine

When Lonnie Isam, Jr., a quiet, unassuming antique motorcycle aficionado from South Dakota, first started imagining a coast-to-coast ride on old iron with his friends, he had no idea what his daydream would eventually become. From the first Motorcycle Cannonball Run held in 2010, an event that was meant to be a once in a lifetime adventure for a bunch of riding buddies fashioned after Erwin “Cannonball” Baker’s escapades, to the epic ride held in September, Isam has watched the transcontinental run he’d always wanted to make morph into an event that has captured the imaginations of motorcycling fans from around the world. The MCR has turned into a biennial odyssey that draws participants from every corner of the globe. Riders arrive on America’s East Coast with their time capsule machines to travel some of America’s forgotten areas along country back roads to arrive, exhausted and accomplished, on the West Coast. During each of the four runs, the Grand Start has been at a different location along the shores of the sparkling Atlantic Ocean and ended on the shores of the shining Pacific Ocean some 16 days later. For this year’s iteration, the run from Atlantic City, New Jersey to Carlsbad, California would include an additional element of excitement: registration required motorcycles had to be manufactured before 1917, making the Motorcycle Cannonball Run that started on September 10, 2016 a true Race of the Century.

Never before has a 100+year old machine of any kind-plane, train, automobile or motorcycle-made it across this great country under its own power. So, it was a historical moment in time and a breath-taking sight to behold as riders took their place to be photographed at the East coast starting line. With riders from 9 countries across 4 continents anxious to hit the secret route laid out across 15 states, the starting day line up along the planks of the oldest boardwalk in America was mixed with early morning anticipation and high anxiety as nervous riders steeled themselves for the 3,306-mile trek. The course would include less than 100-miles of interstate (total) as motorcycles of all marques traversed the country. Weather was hot, humid and brutal as 90 motorcycles took to the streets in waves of three classes. Class l was comprised of 13 riders on singlecylinder, single speed machines with 750ccs or less. Class ll held 29 riders on multi-cylinder, single speed machinery from 750 to 1,000ccs, while Class lll included 48 riders with multi-cylinder, multi-speed engines over 1,000cc. The New Jersey coast’s heat and moisture wreaked havoc with the ancient machines immediately and several bikes broke down on the starting line, with 5 machines making it less than 5 miles. By the end of day one the sweep trailers would be full to capacity with disabled motorcycles. The carnage had both riders and staff rattled. Several rider’s support crews would double back to rescue broken motorcycles, including one bike that caught fire and would be left a crispy corpse melted into the pavement.

First time Cannonball participant, #36 John Pfeifer on a 1916 Harley- Davidson twin, stood on the side of the road just 91 miles into the run as his beautiful machine burned beyond recognition. The bike had erupted into flames as John was riding, leaving him barely enough time to leap off the rolling inferno before the entire bike was engulfed in a ball of raging fire that burned for over 20 minutes while the helpless Texas resident looked on. After recovering from the shock of it all, Pfeifer simply loaded up the wreckage and continued with the rest of the journey with friends on 4-wheels. By the second day rider #93, the well-known Harley-Davidson artist Scott Jacobs, lay in a Maryland hospital awaiting surgery on his shoulder after he laid his bike down in a gravel-strewn corner. His wife Sharon, one of just three women registered in the race, chose to withdraw from the competition to be beside her husband as he recuperated from shoulder replacement. Breakdowns and disasters would continue to plague the caravan through the first three days of the run before the machines, and their owners, settled into a cadence that became more about enjoying the miles and less about loading on sweep trailers. The Motorcycle Cannonball is an endurance run in every sense of the word. It’s a gentlemen’s (and women’s) competition between man, his machine and the miles and it is not an easy accomplishment. As a matter of fact, it can be grueling, but the friendships forged along the two-lane course while puttering along at 40-50 mph are forever relationships. Though riders may start out as strangers, the struggle to survive while coaxing a cantankerous old bike along an unfamiliar route thousands of miles from home tends to turn acquaintances into families and it’s that kind of camaraderie that the Cannonball is best known for.

The ancient bikes need constant tinkering and riders took the time to minister to the machines alongside the roadways, at gas stops, during breaks and in hotel parking lots in the evenings. By the time the group reached Dodge City, Kansas for the one day of rest, everyone was ready for a breather. Staff medic Vicki Sanfelipo, who rode her own modern bike along the route, tended to a variety of health issues for several of the riders and was kept quite busy since dehydration had been a key malady from the beginning. Between wet and wretched weather, wrenching, route and ride issues, everyone was exhausted. The Sunday off was a day of collecting themselves for the weary riders and staff as they all worked to prepare for the remaining 1,567 miles of Wild West that still separated them from the California coast’s finish line. Wolf Creek Pass, a steep incline that topped out at an apex of 10,857-feet, saw riders struggling with elevation issues for both themselves and their machines. Sanfelipo carried cans of oxygen and was kept busy tending riders who fell ill along the way. South African rider Hans Coertse, who won the 2014 race, was hospitalized for severe dehydration and other health issues after crossing the pass and would remain hospitalized as the group continued on to California. Several others were also treated for dehydration.

As riders neared the evening stop of Stage 13 in Lake Havasu, Arizona, one more disaster would rattle the group as #22, Jeff Lauritsen, was hit on his 1916 Henderson by a dune buggy driver who ran a stop light. Jeff was released battered and bruised and his bike was out of the running. On Sunday, September 25, an ecstatic and exhausted group of 74 machines made history as they crossed the finish line in Carlsbad with 21 motorcycles having been ridden all 3,306 miles across these great United States. Of those numbers, 16 riders had perfect scores. Riders solemnly pushed #22 across the line to sit next to its brethren bikes. Hans Coertse left the Colorado hospital in time to ride all the last day’s miles and both Scott and Sharon Jacobs flew in to share in the evening ceremony to honor four-time Motorcycle Cannonball competitor, #49 Frank Westfall who took home the bronze statue for first place on his 1912 Henderson four. “You know, riding, it’s what I do,” Westfall told the crowd as he hoisted the trophy over his head and beamed. This was the first time an American had won the Motorcycle Cannonball Run. www.motorcyclecannonball.com