Living a Life of Thrills

Flirting with death for twenty-eight years

By Cannonball Baker, Photography by Unknown

From one o’clock in the morning until seven-thirty the rain came down in buckets. My leather suit got soaked and gradually melted to the consistency of messy glue. After that the rain stopped and a hot January sun turned on all its burners. (You know January is mid summer down there.) Riding in a cramped position, crouched low over the handlebars, the leather began shrinking and getting tighter. After a few hours I was practically baked into what might as well have been a suit of armour. When they lifted me off the cycle at the end of the run I was as rigid as a mummy. They had to cut the suit off of me.

While I was often lucky you must not think I always got the breaks. Bad breaks add to the toughness of an event. I remember in 1917 I was trying to break the transcontinental motorcycle record. At Williams, Arizona, headed west I was forty-eight hours ahead of the old mark with only 524 miles to go. It looked like a cinch. A few miles farther along I came to a piece of road that was being repaired and had to make a nasty detour over a rocky patch of ground. I was whizzing along faster than I should have been, when one of my wheels slipped on the edge of a gully and I was tossed into the middle of a pile of stones. My ankle was almost torn out of its socket and I was bruised all over. Three doctors who were out there patching up their weak lungs took me right in hand or I might have been a cripple today. I was in bed for a week and on crutches for six months.

The longest detour I ever had to make was on a grind from San Diego to New York. Out in Arizona a cattleman called me on the long distance telephone to tell me that there was a nine-foot fall of snow in the mountains where I was due to pass. (This snow, by the way, later caused the Roosevelt Dam to overflow for the first time after water was first let in it.) Rather than have the trip delayed several days I went 337 miles out of my way, boosting the total distance to 3, 724 miles. I beat the old record okay but this detour was the toughest ride I think I ever took on any of my trips.

On second thought I guess I’m forgetting my experiences in Hawaii in 1916 when I won the motorcycle championship of the islands. The ninety-mile course circled the island of Oahu which was nothing but a mess of mountains. The machine had to take all kinds of crazy slopes, and there were thousands of dangerous twists in the rough roads. On one slant I was riding with my right foot braced against the footboard when the road rose up and slipped the heel off my shoe as clean as if a butcher had done it with his cleaver. Three men have since tried to break that record... and all three landed in the hospital.

No, I am not superstitious. I’ve seen racers who would look all morning for a four-leaf clover to stick in their shoes, and others who shied at the number 13 like a scared colt. Why, 13 is my favorite number.

On my way to Los Angeles for my record transcontinental auto run in 1916, I had berth 13 in the sleeping car from Detroit to Trinidad, Colorado. At Trinidad-which is 1300 miles from Los Angeles I decided to get off and make the rest of the trip by motorcycle so I could look over that part of the route again. On the run to the coast I had to change my tires thirteen times. The company that made the car I drove had been in business just thirteen years. Even a Missouri cloudburst that flooded my route on the thirteenth day of May didn’t hold me as long as a deluge of that kind usually does.

Gaining weight finally forced me to give up motorcycle racing because I was too heavy to snake my motor around the curves as cleverly as the lighter boys. A 100-mile championship race in Columbus was my last. Since that time I have given most of my attention to endurance runs. These have plenty of thrills; don’t forget that! They have it on track racing in their variety and unusualness.

The motorcycle still has much to accomplish in competition. The machine of today is far superior to that of the past from the standpoint of mechanical achievement. It is up to the younger generation to go on with the establishment of the new records that are yet to come; to gain for themselves new glories yet to be gained.

By Cannonball Baker
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