Living a Life of Thrills

Flirting with death for twenty-eight years

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.

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.

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.

Cannonball” Baker

“CANNONBALL” Baker, known as the meteor of the motor world, has among his other achievements written a huge chapter in world-wide motorcycling. He holds more automobile and motorcycle records than any other rider in the world. He has emerged from twenty-eight years of flirtation with death the veteran of more than 500 contests on road and track and has made more than 100 cross-continent trials in America. His records are so numerous he can not remember them all ; his awards in medals alone fill a half-bushel basket.

“Bake” has carved a glorious niche in the annals of competition and a place in the hearts of all who have known him. At present he lives in Indianapolis where he is developing and manufacturing miniature racing cars.

He is still a devotee of speed, endurance and mechanics. Justly proud of his own accomplishments he looks forward with the keenest interest to the records yet to come.

Motorcycle Records Set By “Bake”

Neracar Economy Record-New York to Los Angeles-3,364.2 miles on 45 gallons gas 45 pints of oil. Running time, 7 days, 5 hours, 28 minutes.

World’s Transcontinental Record-Los Angeles-New York-3,332 miles. (Ace.) 6 days 22 hours, 52 minutes.

World’s 12-hour (track), Cincinnati-321 miles. (Indian.)

World’s 24-hour (track), Cincinnati-1,534’,4 miles. (Indian.)

World’s 500-mile (track), Cincinnati-6 hours, 59 minutes, 15 seconds.(Indian.)

World’s 1,000-mile (track), Cincinnati-16 hours, 14 minutes, 15 seconds. (Indian.)

Tasmania Island Road Championship-124 miles, 2 hours, 36 minutes. (Indian.)

World’s 24-hour (road record), Mortlake, Australia-1,028 miles. (Indian.)

All World’s Road Records-200 to 1,028 miles, Mortlake, Australia. (Indian.

Hawaiian Road Championship, Oahu Island Circuit-90 miles 2 hours 4 minutes 36 seconds. (Indian.)

Three Flag Sidecar, Canada-Mexico-1,716 miles, 2 days, 17 hours, 53 minutes. (Indian.)

New York-Indianapolis, Sidecar-889 miles, 27 hours, 5 minutes. (Indian.)

New York-Indianapolis, solo-802 miles, 21 hours, 20 minutes. (Indian.)

New York-Albuquerque, N. M.-2,368 miles, 3 days, 19 hours, 22 minutes. (Indian.)

El Paso-Phoenix, Borderland Derby Race-537 miles, 15 hours, 52 minutes. (Indian.)

34 Perfect Scores in 40 Interstate Endurance Runs since 1909

All the above records were made with 61 cubic inch displacement motor

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