As it Happened: The Archive Edition - The Road Trip Episode
When Canadian Jim Hunt set out for California from Connecticut, in the spring of 1979, he aimed to make the coast-to-coast trip as fast as possible. To do that, he'd need to beat out dozens of other vehicles with the same goal — including an ambulance. Dozens of high-performance vehicles vied for the flag in that year's high-stakes — and entirely illegal — cross-country rally. The winner that year set a record of just over 32 hours — clocking an average speed of 87 miles/hour (140 km/h). Hunt was the first Canadian to enter the race — which inspired a hit film franchise, starring Burt Reynolds.
Hunt spoke with former As it Happens host Barbara Frum about his entry in that year's illicit "Cannonball Run". Here is some of their conversation.
Barbara Frum: What a marvelous caper! I haven't heard of anything this silly in a long time.
Jim Hunt: [laughs] Thanks very much. We thought it was a lot of fun, that's for sure.
They had a substantial amount of electronic equipment to protect them from the 'Smokies', who are patrolling the interstates.- Jim Hunt, the first Canadian to enter the Cannoncball Run, an illegal car rally across America
JH: Well, the people that did it — the first few — were very well prepared. They had cars that were capable of safe touring speeds at over 100 [mph]. They had fuel cells to increase their range, and a substantial amount of electronic equipment to protect them from the "Smokies", as it were — who are patrolling the interstates, of course.
BF: How big a role do electronics play now — to make sure you know when the police are on you?
JH: A company has spun off in the States now — which is formerly a group that built the radar equipment for the police. And now they're in the business of building detectors.
You meet an amazingly stable and sensible group of people — other than this one thing.-Jim Hunt, the first Canadian to enter the Cannonball Run
BF: What kind of people come out for a race like this? Do you meet marvelous characters?
BF: Some people didn't get much past the starting gate. What was the problem there?
JH: [laughs] Well, I think the saddest failure, if you like, was an ambulance — a full-dress ambulance, which was prepared at great expense, and which I think would have done extremely well, because it's sort of immune to problems with the police, and so on. They had technical problems, and it wasn't prepared thoroughly enough. And they sort of fell out.
BF: I believe they even had someone posing as a patient — complete with intravenous!
JH: That's true. And he hired a doctor — a legitimate doctor — with all the proper papers. There was an IV running, and oxygen, and the whole bit. And they got stopped in Ohio once, and questioned at length by the police — who finally had to just back off, because it looked so completely legitimate.
BF: How do you beat the speed traps? There must be some states you go through that are just notorious — that you can't win on.
JH: Well, the only time that you can't win is when they have a feel that something's going on. And the only place that it really went very badly is in Missouri — because people went through there sort of mid-morning. And there were a number of cars on the same highway — because it's one of the few routes that you can choose. And they just had to know something was going on, when a number of cars start running through at 100 miles an hour, plus — they sort of come out for you. But in general, a single car motoring through at those speeds doesn't create too much of a fuss.
Those toilet breaks must be a riot.-
BF: Is the car going the whole time — night and day?
JH: Yes, the car goes — with the exception of fuel stops — the whole time.
BF: Those toilet breaks must be a riot.
JH: Well somebody's putting the gas in, as it were, while you run to the station for a break. You have to integrate the whole thing fairly smoothly, or you won't get a chance — let's put it that way.
BF: Do you pick your own route?
JH: Yes. The only conditions are the starting place and the ending place — which was Darien, Connecticut, and Redondo Beach, California. You can do whatever you like in between — but there are really only three routes, really — that could possibly figure in. And from about the mid-point of the country, around Oklahoma City, west — there's only one road.
BF: Oh, what fun!
JH: Yeah, it was a lot of fun. Luckily, it's attracted a fairly stable and sensible group of people. This is a critical thing, of course — because if it's ever viewed as being irresponsible, I don't think it can continue. Luckily, there hasn't been any accidents yet — in over 300,000 miles of total driving.
You can hear more of Barbara Frum's May 22, 1979 interview with Jim Hunt — as well as the following stories, on this week's 'Road Trip' episode of "As it Happened: The Archive Edition":
- For three decades beginning in the mid-30s, the Green Book offered black motorists a comprehensive list of businesses along America's highways that were willing to serve them.
- More stories behind some of Canada's most colourfully-named places — like Punkydoodles Corners, Ontario (continued from Episode 1: Home)
- An Oldtimers Hockey League team in Dawson City, Yukon, retraces a legendary road trip their predecessors made — by bike, sled, steamer and train — 92 years before.
- The beetles that bring new meaning to the term "bumming a ride" — by hitching onto the backsides of their army ant hosts.
Los Angeles campaign to preserve historic "Negro Travelers' Green Book" sites
Is it a butt or a bug? Newly discovered beetle masquerades as ant's backside
The game that almost brought the Stanley Cup to Dawson
There was a real Cannonball Run?