Motorcyclist Archives 1944: Cannon Ball Record Run and WWII Military Tribute

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Motorcyclist Magazine May 1944

1944 Cannon Ball record
For 20 cents (or two dollars per year), Motorcyclist readers got the May 1944 issue and the cover story of Alan Bedell's coast-to-coast record run.Motorcyclist Archives

Unknown Bedell… Smashes Trans Time of Great "Cannon Ball
Written in the tone of an "ole-tyme" radio broadcast, this May 1944 article tells the brief yet incredible story of an early pioneer of long distance riding. Motorcyclist storyteller J. J. O'Connor spins a tale of death defying feats and herculean tasks accomplished by Alan T. Bedell between 1916 and 1917 culminating in a transcontinental attempt.

Cannon Ball run
Two years of competitive riding, several records, and a tragic end for a rider who left quite an impression on the endurance riding community.Motorcyclist Archives

November 1916, Bedell began his endurance career as an amature in the Springerville-to-Flagstaff enduro. The race was was a two day, 423-mile event that “cactus-wise” promoters put together. According to O'Connor “they did not want any perfect scores; they did not want many survivors - and they were not exactly moronic in their reckoning on both points.” Bedell was not the winner of this event but he did manage to take the second position on the podium.

Second place is worth mentioning since during this; his first competition, he bested endurance racing legend "Cannon Ball" Baker. This seasoned vet had an accident on the first day where he twisted the frame of his bike and wrenched his knee pretty seriously. Baker was not out though, he finished the day and showed up to race on day two. The second day did not go well for old Cannon Ball either. While mixing it up with another seasoned rider near Flagstaff he went over a 12 foot embankment. Quickly returning to the fray, he was able to stay in contention until Black Canyon where: "Here his frame gave up the ghost and went from singular to plural. Obviously, two pieces of frame are not as good as one whole unit and all of Baker's ingenuity could not evolve a scheme to tie that tubing together to bring him home."

Score: Bedell 1, Baker 0. This was the beginning of a run of wins and records for Bedell over transcontinental record holder Cannon Ball Baker.

Clymer manuals in 1944
Who knew there was a Floyd Clymer at the helm of Clymer Manuals?Motorcyclist Archives

The next meeting took place in California in an 875-mile San Francisco-to-LA road race. Half of the competitors started in each city and followed the same route. When the race was over, of the 40 starters, only 17 crossed the finish line. This was Bedell's second race and one he started listed as a pro and instead of riding the Indian he chose a Harley for competition. The article is a little sketchy at this point, it appears that there was no winner, just 13 finishers. Two of which were our hero Bedell and respected veteran Cannon Ball Baker.

The same could not be said for the next outing. Baker and Bedell met at Ascot park in Los Angeles where at the end of 24 endurance race, Bedell had posted the fastest 1,000 miles and the greatest distance covered.

1,000 Mile
Bedell 20 hr. 42 min. 30 sec.
Baker 21 hr. 3 min.
24 Hour
Bedell 1153.5 miles.
Baker 1028 miles, 30 yds.

At the end of this race, 21 year old Bedell was considered to be a force in the long distance riding scene. At one point in time or another, the whole Los Angeles riding community had been to the track to witness the young buck best a man that few were competitive with.

Johnson Motors, 1944 Ariel and Triumph motorcycles
Johnson Motors, Inc. ran this two-page "$64 Questions" ad in the May '44 issue. A lot of reading just to find out where one could obtain literature and information concerning Ariel and Triumph motorcycles.Motorcyclist Archives

Three weeks after this event our young protagonist attempted something completely different. This time he tried to set a new record between Los Angeles and Needles, CA on a machine “sealed in high gear”. For this challenge he enlisted a Henderson that was his third manufacturer in three events. Motoring towards Needles, he encountered rain and mud which lead to a pile up on some rocks which wrecked his front end. He did manage to limp into Needles with a record set of 10 hours and 40 minutes.

Not satisfied, Bedell wired for a new front end and two days later, left Needles and managed to cover the 302 miles in 8 hours and 58 minutes thus establishing a second and substantially faster record. If you’re keeping score, this “bullet of the boulevards” had scored two endurance perfects, a world’s 1,000 mile and 24 hour record, and two “sealed in high gear” records.

Not bad for a 21 year old but why stop there? Our young hero focused on Cannon Ball Baker’s transcontinental record. This would be his record attempt but before becoming a pro, he had made two cross country journeys that could only be thought of as “sighting laps”.

Again on a Henderson, Bedell set off on June 5th after registering for the first draft of WWI. He left LA at 11pm with the news that there were substantial rains in the midwest that might impeded his progress. The wire stated that the roads were impassable but this news was able to diminish the optimism and force of will that was Alan Bedell and he left at the scheduled time.

Having scouted the routes through New Mexico and relying on local dealers and clubs for guidance Bedell did not encounter any obstacles of note until reaching Kansas City. Mud and water slowed him down but did not cause much concern. He also had ferry delays while crossing the Missouri but was ahead of schedule.

Showing up in Indy a day early than expected surprised Cannon Ball Baker who warmly greeted him. Baker was not able to escort Bedell east as his machine was dismantled. This was of little concern since there were plenty of local riders up for the task. Energized and ready to go, Bedell decided to try to make reach his destination a day early and did just that. He met his ecourts in Trenton, NJ and rolled into Staten Island at 6:14 pm on June 13. On the clock were 3,296 miles and the final time was 7 days, 16 hours, 16 minutes. The shattered the existing record set by Cannon Ball Baker by 3 days, 19 hours, and 54 minutes!

Taking some time with his parents in Montclair, NJ and planning his next attempts at the 24 hour and 1,00 mile records kept Alan busy until a letter from Uncle Sam came drafting him into the Army. This unfortunately was the end of Bedell’s riding career; and tragically, his life. He succumbed to pneumonia while serving. The motorcycling community lost a young and burgeoning talent that day. Just imagine what he would have accomplished if he had survived the war?

(Editor's Note: Bedell's 1917 four cylinder Henderson was resurrected by Dale Walksler and the crew at Wheels Through Time in the late 1990s. Walksler recreated Bedell's journey without incident and even managed to clock a time of 6 days, 1 hour and 22 minutes.)

Letters to WW2 servicemen
WWII letters from Motorcyclist readers to enlisted men and women fighting the tyranny of the Axis forces.Motorcyclist Archives

Letters to the Servicemen of WWII from the Motorcyclist Community
This article was a compilation of open letters sent to the troops who were defending America and our allies across the globe during WWII. It starts off with "Memories of Yesterday" by Francis Richardson, was a wonderful tale of a pre-war trip he had taken in New England. Richardson tells the tail of his journey from Waterbury, CT to Mt. Mansfield, VT. Along the way, he and his crew encountered a fairly substantial roadblock which nearly ended the trip. While "lunching" in Rutland, VT., a runaway truck took out two of the bikes. The owner of the truck offered to "on the spot" replace the machines and a hunt for replacements began. One was found quickly enough and the riders were about to give up when a second steed was sourced.

1944 Indian Motorcycle ad
Indian Motorcycle advertising during WWII was designed to sell war bonds. According to the fine print, all Indian motorcycles were going straight to war while they were blueprinting new, improved postwar designs. “They’re the motorcycles to wait for!”Motorcyclist Archives

The trip continued up to Bennington, VT (with some road repairs along the way) for a swim in Lake Champlain before heading to Mt. Mansfield. The author tells the tale of cities hit along the way and the memories it created. His tone was that of the freedom of riding and he tied it all together at the end to the freedoms our boy (and girls) were fighting for and encouraged them to remember that the freedom of motorcycling was one of the things they were fighting for.

"Reading, Pennsylvania, Reporting!" chronicled what the boys from town were doing. This letter from "Red" Wolverton of Reading, PA, listed all of the local riders he had information on. He listed where they were serving and in some cases, what was being done with their bikes back home. Among the machines was a husband's Harley-Davidson "61" that was being ridden by Stella Stedman to work.

Red was a Harley-Davidson dealer who had lost both of his men in 1942. One of whom (Irving Smith) had died at Fort Knox last Summer. He closed his letter with: “Well, boys, I think that is all for now. Those tracks are waiting for you speed kings so hurry back! My best wishes go out to you and Godspeed your safe return.”

In "Greetings To All Motorcyclist Overseas," Jo Folden was a worker at a Timken Roller Bearing plant in Columbus, Ohio. She told her story of a visit from the flyboys who flew the bomber “Hells Angels” over Stuttgart that bombed Germany’s only bearing plant. She told readers that the visit had increased her enthusiasm to pour her heart and soul into “keeping those roller bearings rolling.”