As It Happens

As it Happened: The Archive Edition - The Road Trip Episode

Before it was a big-screen comedy smash, The Cannonball Run was an actual illicit cross-country car rally, complete with Ferraris and a souped-up ambulance — and Jim Hunt was the first Canadian to enter.
Cannonball inventor Brock Yates (R) and Cannonball Run movie director Hal Needham (L) with the “Transcon Medi-Vac” Dodge Sportsman fake ambulance. (Courtesy of Gero Hoschek/motorreporters.com)

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.

At the 1979 Cannonball finish in Redondo Beach, California (Courtesy of Terry Cook/motorreporters.com)


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
BF: Can you tell me how anybody could go coast-to-coast of the United States in only 32 hours?

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. 
Jim Hunt (R), the first Canadian to enter the Cannonball Run, at the finish in Redondo Beach, California. (Courtesy of Jim Hunt/motorreporters.com)

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?

JH: You meet an amazingly stable and sensible group of people — other than this one thing. There was an ad executive from Boston, there was a Pan Am 747 pilot. There was a lawyer from Texas. The only common denominator seems to be a love of high-performance cars. And money. Because it's pretty expensive.
At the start of the Cannonball Run, Mar. 31, 1979, in Darien, Connecticut. (Courtesy of Gero Hoschek/motorreporters.com)


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!
Long Beach, California, April 8, 1979: (L to R) Motorcyclist Loyal Truesdale, director Hal Needham, "patient" Pam Yates, actress Tara Buckman. (Courtesy of Gero Hoschek/motorreporters.com)


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.- As it Happens host Barbara Frum to Jim Hunt

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.

The Toronto premiere of the movie, "Cannonball Run" (Courtesy of Brock Yates archive/motorreporters.com)


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. 
Burt Reynolds, left, and Dom DeLuise in a scene from the 1981 hit comedy, "Cannonball Run" (AP)

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":

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