The Motorcycle Cannonball II

Round Two of the Ultimate Antique Bike Endurance Event

By Michael Lichter, Photography by Michael Lichter

The 2012 Motorcycle Cannonball II Endurance Run had all the makings of an epic tale. It attracted participants from around the globe who shared a love for old motorcycles and were compelled to test themselves and their machines in a singular way. Nearly 70 bikes made it to the start in Newburgh, NY, creating an assemblage of museum-quality bikes the likes of which had never before been put together for a ride like this.

Could these antique machines survive bad weather, bad roads, and bad timing to make the grueling, 3956-mile coast-to-coast journey? Sleep-deprived riders dealt with seized pistons, flat tires, bad magnetos, bent forks, cracked frames, and left-turning drivers. Some had been through this before during the last Cannonball in 2010. Even though newer bikes were allowed in 2012 (pre-1930, compared to pre-1916 last time), the route was extended about 25 percent from the first run with bigger climbs, greater altitudes and longer days, all while keeping to the same 16-stage (plus one rest day) format. Points were awarded for miles ridden and deducted for penalties, with ties broken according to engine displacement (400-1000-plus cc), age of the bike (1913-1929), and age of the rider (20-70).

As we assembled in Newburgh, the excitement was tempered with a healthy dose of trepidation. Most teams made last-minute adjustments to bikes deemed Cannonball-ready weeks earlier, but some riders were still trying to get their bikes running. While one bike made it through just one mile and two bikes never left the start that day, 57 bikes successfully ran the entire 210 miles to Wellsboro, PA.

Stage one proved to be a good warm-up as the next two days got serious with increased mileage (320 miles on stage two and 300 miles on stage three), serious rain, some interstate riding, road closures, accidents, and a deadline to be at the ferry in Muskegon, MI. Serious challenges indeed, but they didn’t end there. Every stage that followed tested the riders in new ways as our pack crossed this great land.

There isn't really one tale of the Cannonball, but, rather, 69 tales, one for each of the incredibly diverse riders. Ages ranged from 20-year-old Buck Carson (#3) to 70-year-old Victor Boocock (#56), and motorcycles ranged from a very simple 1913 Excelsior single-speed twin to 1929 Harley-Davidson JDs or Henderson Inline-4s, the latter pair making up nearly a quarter of the pack. In addition to American-made Harley-Davidsons, Indians, Excelsiors, and Hendersons, other brands represented included Britain's Rudge, BSA, Triumph, Sunbeam, and Velocette, as well as German BMWs and Australia's Invincible JAP. Riders came from the U.S. and 10 other countries: Australia, Canada, England, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Poland, and South Africa.

The 2013 Victory Cross Country generously supplied for my use didn’t deliver the same wow factor as Carl Olsen’s 1953 Panhead that I shot backward from during the 2010 Cannonball, but the Victory offered something else—the ability to catch the best possible images from a smooth and powerful perch. Despite daily beatings due to quick accelerations and stops, and extended high-speed pursuit trying to catch riders miles ahead, the Victory did whatever my steady pilot Dave Przygocki asked. I also had help carrying my gear from Wolfman Motorcycle Luggage, and Cardo Systems’ Scala Rider TeamSet PRO Bluetooth headset allowed me to communicate with Przygocki. Lastly, Skeeter Todd at Orange Country Choppers set me up with two “Warp Drive Thrusters” to hold additional gear.

Each rider approached the Cannonball in his own unique way. Some had owned their bikes for many years and understood them inside and out. Some came with mechanics and trailers outfitted like mobile machine shops; others came with little more than a friend in a pickup truck. Diversity is the spirit of the Cannonball.

The youngest Cannonballer, Buck Carson, had worked on bikes with his dad since he was 6 years old. The low top speed and regular maintenance requirements of his 1927 BSA 500 single made Carson's days long. Then his motor seized, which required a complete teardown to split the cases. Thankfully, Carson had a great machine shop-equipped trailer and help from his dad and a number of friends-including fellow competitors. In the end the bike still got the best of Carson, but determined to make it into San Francisco, he got dropped off on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge and pushed his bike across the 1.7-mile pedestrian walkway into the city. That's the Cannonball spirit!

Another standout personality was Chris Knoop of Melbourne, Australia, on his Australian-made 1925 Invincible JAP. Knoop earned some miles in every stage and full mileage on more than half the days, but the JAP wasn't quite as invincible as the name implied. Knoop set out from Newburgh with his partner Christina Hemphill in the wicker sidecar that he made by hand, but the sidecar was more of a strain than this 1925 bike could handle. By stage four Knoop was riding on just two wheels, then he rode for two days without a clutch, until he could remanufacture the part in Lonnie Isam Sr.'s Competition Distributing machine shop in Sturgis, SD. Still, for all the problems Knoop encountered, his big smile never waned.

Shinya Kimura—the noted custom bike builder—participated not as much to win as to enjoy the journey. Kimura alternated riding days with his close friend Yoshimasa Niimi, despite the points deduction for sharing a bike. And Kimura’s 1915 C-3 Indian had not been internally modernized like many of the bikes on the Cannonball, so it suffered its share of problems. Still, both riders rode in period clothing every day of the run, including the 28-degree morning we left Yellowstone Lodge with Niimi wearing an ancient, full-length military wool coat. You could see the pain on his face as he rode through the chilling fog!

The foreign riders, perhaps because they travelled so far, sometimes seemed to be having the most fun. Andreas Kaindl of Germany seemed to never touch his 1924 Henderson Deluxe, and still covered every mile of the run. Hans Coertse, riding his 1921 Harley-Davidson J model, had to tear his bike completely down, missing one stage to weld a cracked frame, and he still achieved perfect scores on the remaining 15 stages. Claudio Femiano of Italy wasn’t so lucky, plodding along on his little 1926 Sunbeam until it finally gave out.

Gary Wright entered the run as a bucket list goal. He sold a truck and some equipment to afford a 1929 Harley-Davidson JD and a pickup camper so he could make the trip with his wife, Linda, and their aged Weimaraner dog. Wright wrenched every night and kept that bike running well enough to finish every mile and earn 17th place.

Victor Boocock crashed his 1914 Harley-Davidson in a wet second stage, and when I met him on the side of the road he was looking decidedly dejected. Boocock was looking forward to celebrating his 70th birthday during the Cannonball, but when his tire broke loose and bound up his back wheel it took the wind right out of his sails. Boocock was sounding like he would never ride again, but after arriving in California with him and his bike back in shape, he came out to ride for the last three days and was back to enjoying himself.

Bill Buckingham got his 1927 Harley-Davidson JD up and running with a borrowed front end the day after a car “left-turned” him during stage three, sending him to the hospital in an ambulance. Josh Wilson also had an inspiring story: He bought his nonworking 1929 Indian 101 Scout on eBay just weeks before the event and worked on it right up until the morning of the start to get it running. He had the least experience with his bike and a shoestring budget, yet his can-do attitude helped him complete every mile to finish fifth place overall.

Which reminds us, fun and games aside, the Motorcycle Cannonball is still a competitive event. Brad Wilmarth ran the #1 plate earned by winning the 2010 Motorcycle Cannonball on the very same 1913 single-speed Excelsior he was riding this year. Like his bike, Wilmarth's approach to the Cannonball was simpler than most. His support team consisted of just his nephew Ted in a small pickup truck. At the end of each day's ride, they would go through the bike in the hotel parking lot doing regular maintenance and making any repairs that needed to be done. There never seemed to be any rush, just the same cool manner with which Wilmarth rode. This seemingly uncompetitive person once again stayed on-target and took the overall win of the Motorcycle Cannonball II. Accolades go to him for winning the Cannonball twice, both times riding the oldest bike in this run, logging more than 7000 miles in total on this 1913 machine.

Of the near 70 bikes that started, 19 covered every single bumpy mile. Two more were shy by just 6 miles, and a total of 41 bikes ran more than 3000 miles. These are impressive numbers for antique bikes that most collectors would only take off their pedestals for the occasional parade.

I'm still exhausted from the long hours and day after day of hardly sleeping. But if the phone rings, I'll be there for Cannonball III. And I'll do everything within my power to encourage younger people to participate and keep this dream alive. There is nothing more immediate and gratifying than seeing these old machines running across the country. Will the Motorcycle Cannonball continue for a third running? That's up to Lonnie Isam, Jr., the man who first dreamed the dream that became the Motorcycle Cannonball. This much I know-if the event returns in 2014, I will be there. Maybe you will be, too?

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By Michael Lichter
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