Living a Life of Thrills

Flirting with death for twenty-eight years

By Cannonball Baker, Photography by Unknown

I had hardly turned by head when a big gnat smashed me plumb in the eyeball. It couldn’t have hurt more if someone had jabbed me with an ox goad. My hands jerked from the pain, and for a fraction of a second I lost control. The motorcycle shot up the incline like a rifle bullet, and banged into the guard rail. I grazed the rail, turned a half somersault, and went shooting feet first off into space. The last thing I saw was a flash of the motorcycle which had righted itself and was smashing along wide open with the exhaust leaving a trail of flame like a Fourth of July “Nigger Chaser.”

For a second things went black. Then I came to in a panic. Suppose the little ol’ boat fetched up on the right-of-way and piled all the other boys in a heap. I rolled over and held by ears tight. One ... two ... three .. . they whizzed past. My stomach caved in way to my backbone. But, there was no crash. The machine had jumped the track, thank God!

I had landed on some tall grass and sod, and as they found out at the hospital wasn’t much hurt except that I was as blind as a bat in the eye the bug had hit. I went to sleep for about an hour but woke up as one of the pit boys came running in.

“Bake,” he panted, “you’re still two hundred and twenty-eight miles ahead of the record. If you could make only sixty miles an hour from now until daylight, you’d cop the race. We’ve gone over the old machine and she’s in shape again.”

Right there the doctor butted in. “Man alive,” he protested, “you can’t ride any more in this race. You’re stone blind in one eye.”

I got up and stretched. I was sore but sound. “Quit fussing and give me my specs,” I said, “I’m going for a ride.”

Getting back astride the old war horse I clocked off sixty-eight miles an hour up to day break. Then I hit it up to seventy-five miles an hour which pace I was able to hold through to the end of the race. About nine o’clock my sight had come back and that helped a lot. At the finish I found that I’d done 1,534 3/4 miles in twenty-four hours, with a 61 cu. in. Indian motor.

Often I’m asked if I was ever seriously hurt. Only once or twice. And then it wasn’t in my worst smashes. At Marion, Indiana, for instance, I was taking part in a ten-mile motorcycle race. After a few laps, four of us were strung out tandem. I was running fourth and trying to figure out a way to “ease by” when the lead man took a spill on a turn. The second man ran over him and went flying. Number three nicked both of ‘em and shot up into the air, coming down on his head and shoulders. I jammed into the general mess and took an air trip of my own. Fortunately the rest of the boys were far enough behind they were able to steer clear of the wreckage.

Number one was out with a fractured head and had his mail addressed to the hospital for six weeks. The second man had a broken arm. The third had a fractured leg. My injuries? All I had was a bruise on my right calf the size of a two-bit piece and an eighth-inch nick in my left ear.

In 1922 with nothing else to do I took a shot at the 500-mile automobile classic on the Indianapolis speedway. The car hadn’t been on very long when my engine began acting up. That forced me to spend thirty minutes in the pit trying to iron out ignition trouble; then back on the track at ninety miles per hour.

Suddenly something went wrong with the engine. I never did find out just what. The old boat seemed to leap out of control and head for the fence. Quick as a flash I jerked over the front wheels. The back wheels skidded and the whole car reversed itself heading back in the direction it had just come ... with the other riders tearing down the track toward me. At that very instant the crazy boat skidded again, and once more I had to throw the wheels at right angles to the fence. We turned another half circle so that once more I found myself ·pounding along in the original direction at ninety per. All this happened in a wink without change of gear ratios or anything else except handling of the wheel. My instinct probably saved my life.

The toughest ride I ever took? All long distance rides are tough. I got my worst punishment, however, the time I was petrified in Australia. Petrified is the only word I can think of to describe it. I hung up a new twenty-four hour motorcycle record at Mortlake over a macadam course.

By Cannonball Baker
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