Erwin Baker and the Origins of the Cannonball Run

If you grew up in the 1980's, you'll probably forever associate any cross country race with the Burt Reynold's classic movie, "The Cannonball Run."  Surprisingly, Hollywood was not the first to use the term "cannonball" to describe a transcontinental race.  This nickname was originally given to a pioneer in early cross country racing, Erwin Baker.

   Born in 1882, Erwin Baker gravitated towards competitive sports at a young age.  A natural athlete, Baker excelled at boxing, wrestling and tumbling.  His skills as a gymnast led to a stint with acrobatic drill team as part of a traveling vaudeville group in the early 1900's.  During that time, he also began competing in bicycle races, which naturally led him into the early days of motorcycle racing.

In 1908, Baker purchased an Indian motorcycle and began taking checkered flags in the local racing circuits.  His first major victory was at the inaugural race at the newly built Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1909.  He also got his start in endurance racing around this time, racing passenger trains from city to city.  This was actually fairly challenging as many of the roads connecting the cities were rutted out dirt tracks, giving the trains a serious advantage.

Baker continued to win at the race track and after he achieved another 53 victories, he finally got sponsored by the Hendee Manufacturing Company (Indian Motorcycles) in 1912.  He was given a two-speed, seven-horsepower model, which he took on tour through Cuba and Central America before getting back to racing.  Drawing on his showmanship skills which he developed in vaudeville, Baker made for an excellent spokesman for Indian motorcycles for the next twelve years.

1914 rolled around and Baker found himself entered in yet another transcontinental race.  This one totaled 3,379 miles, of which only four were on paved roads and another sixty-eight were on railroad tracks.  Baker completed the race in an astounding 11 days, 11 hours and 11 minutes.  This was a good 9 days better than the previous record!  It is this feat that led a New York newspaper writer to compare Baker to the "Cannonball" train operated by the Illinois Central Railroad.  The nickname stuck and from then on Baker was known as "Cannonball Baker."

As Baker continued to win more races, he began to draw national attention and with that came more opportunities for sponsorships.   This was not a common practice as it is with athletes of today and certainly not as lucrative, but Baker managed to land sponsorships for everything from tires to magnetos.  He also was sponsored by other motorcycle and car manufacturers to complete transcontinental runs with their vehicles.  Chevrolet, General Motors, Franklin, Cadillac, Stutz, Graham-Paige and many more manufacturers all sponsored Baker in 4 wheel events.

Baker continued to be involved in racing for the remainder of his life, first as an American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) racing official and then as the first commissioner of NASCAR.  During his career, he participated in over 143 long distance racing events, logging more than 550,000 miles.  Baker died in Indianapolis on May 10, 1960 of a heart attack.  During his 78 years, he clearly made a name for himself both in motorcycle and car racing circles, so much so that modern day transcontinental races are still called "Cannonball Runs" after Baker.