Living a Life of Thrills

Flirting with death for twenty-eight years

By Cannonball Baker, Photography by Unknown

From the February 1935 issue of Motorcyclist Magazine

Up to now I have crossed this continent 106 times in gasoline propelled vehicles and estimate I’ve covered 3,000,000 miles on road and tracks in the U.S.A. and four or five other countries. That is comparable to about 120 times around the world, at high speeds and under trying conditions.

During all these miles I have smashed so many automobile and motorcycle records that I have lost count of them. The medals awarded for speed and endurance victories would fill a half-bushel basket. But, out of all those many contests remain memories of exciting, thrilling experiences which will never be forgotten.

One of my funniest experiences came on a trial motorcycle spin on a country the beginning of the second day there checked in for the night, patched it up as road in Indiana. I turned a sharp corner were two of us way ahead. Speeding best he could. About noon I passed the to find my way blocked by a herd of cows. Naturally I tried to dodge them but one stubborn Jersey blocked me off. Just then the cycle struck a greasy puddle and skidded against a wire fence. The wire sagged in and bounded out like rubber. On the rebound I left the machine and lit on the cow’s back where I hung for a second as limp as a sack of wheat. The surprised Jersey plunged forward five or ten yards and then kicked up her heels. I went sprawling into the ditch.

A less humorous incident occurred on a three-day motorcycle race from El Paso, Texas to Phoenix, Arizona. At the beginning of the second day there were two of us way ahead. Speeding along close to the lead man I was just getting ready for a spurt when the front wheel jammed the taproots of a dead tree and I was tossed over the handlebars. Sliding along the ground and into a mesquite bush, a thin twig was stabbed into my arm running about five inches under the skin. It stuck so fast that it took pair of pliers and all the nerve and elbow-grease I could muster to yank it out. I was fifty miles from the nearest town; so there was nothing to do but let the cut bleed...and ride like blazes!. It was pretty tough going the next day with that sore arm, in spire of the fact that a doctor in the town where we checked in for the night, patched it up as best he could. About noon I passed the lead an mending a puncture by the roadside, crashed on through and beat him by hours.

One of my most treasured possessions is a six-barred medal that was won in Australia. Each bar represents a new world’s record for motorcycle road racing.

Many say my capacity for speed is overshadowed by an almost incredible endurance. Endurance certainly counts. On one transcontinental automobile trip, I left Lost Angeles at midnight and drove forty-four hours without sleep before arriving in Las Vegas, New Mexico, 1200 miles distance. Following a 60-minute cat nap I turned an additional 430 miles to Dodge City, Kansas. After resting four hours I made Kansas City, Missouri, another 400 miles. From there on the same sort of pace was held through to New York City-all with nine and one-quarter hours of sleep for the entire cross-continental trip.

A few years ago, through mud, fogs, cloudbursts, washouts, forced detours, desert heat and the zero chill of high mountain passes I drove a regular stock automobile across the continent in 60 hours and 51 minutes.

Unless too badly injured in an accident I always try to keep on. In Cincinnati, Ohio in 1916, I hung up the world’s 12-hour, 500-mile, and the 24-hour, 1,000-mile motorcycle track record. One of the narrowest of many narrow escapes marked the performance during which I was shooting for the 24-hour record. It was about one o’clock in the morning, with the race well along and the bunch of us tearing around the track was the stiffest pace we’d set up to that time. I was far enough ahead that I felt I had things pretty well sewed up.

The night was muggy-and it seemed that millions of gnats and other flying insects had settled down in the racing bowl. The air was full of them. I was reeling off better than eighty miles per hour ... and they were smacking against my goggles like raindrops in a Nor’east gale.

After a while I could hardly see at all, so plastered were my goggles. “Just one more lap,” I thought, “and then I’ll slow up for a clean pair of goggles.” So, I cocked my head sidewise, looking past the glasses out of the corner of my eye.

By Cannonball Baker
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