The pandemic lockdowns have reduced CO2 emissions and given us more room to walk, bike, and—for those of us able to go outdoors—breathe. For speed freaks, though, this morbidly idyllic state of affairs immediately presented a different kind of open space. Almost as soon as California issued the first stay-at-home order in the country on March 19, super speeders took to the roads. The Highway Patrol issued 87 percent more citations for triple-digit speeds in the thirty days following the order. The same insanity followed lockdowns across the country. Overall, traffic fatalities jumped 75 percent per mile driven. Somewhat unbelievably to those who have reacted to Covid with panic, anguish, depression, and anger, three new cross-country records—known colloquially as Cannonball Runs—have been set in quick succession since March. A team of three drivers holds the current record: twenty-five hours and thirty-nine minutes from Manhattan to LA at an average speed of 110 miles per hour. These records are self-reported because, of course, the entire exercise is illegal. Racers deploy countermeasures ranging from radar detectors to advanced scouts to elude the police. Even if they are caught, they hope to receive sympathetic treatment by rank-and-file highway patrolmen who share their love of speed and appreciate displays of driving skill.
Since the birth of the automobile, traffic police have been represented as predatory and corrupt. Cops pounced from the bushes on the edge of town, using the law as an excuse to extort revenue. (With the right connections though, you could get your ticket “fixed.”) In his classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, Hunter S. Thompson introduced a new genre of cop. Sports Illustrated had sent Thompson to report on a desert motorcycle race in Vegas, but he failed to complete the assignment, preferring instead to spend race days cruising in a drop-top Chevrolet land yacht. The father of gonzo found a higher purpose on the highway:
Old elephants limp off to the hills to die; old Americans go out to the highway and drive themselves to death with huge cars. But our trip was different. It was a classic affirmation of everything right and true and decent in the national character.
“I always drive properly,” Thompson assures us. “A bit fast, perhaps, but always with consummate skill and a natural feel for the road that even cops recognize.”
This self-assessment is offered as Thompson is crossing Death Valley at a felonious rate of two miles a minute. He’s also drunk, with an open can of Budweiser in his hand for good measure. A cop lights him up. He leans into his disquisition: “Few people understand the psychology of dealing with a highway traffic cop. . . . Never pull over with the first siren-howl,” he instructs. Instead, you should accelerate to the next off ramp. “No cop was ever born who isn’t a sucker for a finely-executed hi-speed Controlled Drift all the way around one of those clover-leaf freeway interchanges.” (Emphasis in the original.) It helps, he adds, to have a “badge in your wallet” when you turn over your license. You’ll be OK, because you are part of the brotherhood, the thin blue line between the average driver and the privileged few who have earned special dispensation.
It is appropriate, then, that Thompson gets off with little more than a warning, a restaurant recommendation, and a suggestion that he take a nap before continuing on his journey. But despite the sympathetic treatment, he feels aggrieved, even violated, by the experience. “I shook my head and got back in the car, feeling raped,” he writes. In the spirit of Thompson’s unsubtle declarativeness, let’s be clear about what’s at work in this scene: male privilege, white privilege, and American exceptionalism undergird both Thompson’s expectation of deferential treatment and his aggrievement. Data collected by the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics support this view. The traffic stop is by far the most common site of police-initiated contact with the public. At their wide discretion, police may ticket, detain, and even jail drivers for many violations. Data shows clearly that African Americans are stopped, searched, and threatened with the use of violence at significantly higher rates than are white drivers. Although we never think of it this way, that means the inverse is also true: white drivers are let by, let off, and less harassed by police than Black drivers. Car guy Thompson cannot see that police often deny Black drivers their due rights and freedoms—cannot see much of anything—because he is too busy griping that the special treatment afforded by his skilled driving has been questioned, however gently.
In 1971, the same year Thompson published Fear and Loathing (it ran first as a two-part article in Rolling Stone), Brock Yates, a founding editor of the Car and Driver, inaugurated the Cannonball Run. For Thompson, willful speeding was an act of patriotism and manliness, “a physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country—but only for those with true grit.” In the ’70s, speeding of the deliberate sort—not the casual act of flowing with heavy-footed traffic or the commonplace of inching over the limit—became a political act. For a certain breed of right-of-center driver it has remained so.
For his part, Yates sought to take a stand against what he described as government repression by way of environmental regulations, mandated safety features, and the indiscriminate enforcement of ill-conceived traffic laws. The ascendant big-government types who had orchestrated this monstrousness threatened our basic freedoms, Yates argued. “Why the hell not run a race across the United States?” he wondered, “A balls-out, shoot-the-moon, fuck-the-establishment rumble from New York to Los Angeles.” Car and Driver teased the first Cannonball on its March 1972 cover: “Coast-to-coast in 36 Hours, Dan Gurney and Brock Yates Race Seven Other Teams.” The third race, in 1975, earned the entire cover, complete with a glossy photo under a headline that read “Cannonball! These Men are Wanted for Breaking the Dumbest Law Since Prohibition.” Readers knew without being told that the law in question was the national 55 mile-per-hour speed limit law enacted in 1974.
The last race ran in 1979, but in the 1980s its reach spread far beyond the world of car mags. The first Cannonball Run film, starring Burt Reynolds, Roger Moore, Farrah Fawcett, Dom DeLuise, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Jackie Chan (and written by Yates) hit theaters in 1981. The star-studded schlock fest was the year’s sixth highest-grossing film. Two lame sequels followed.
Like Thompson, Yates believed that the rank-and-file cops were on his side, stuck enforcing laws they themselves liked to violate. In Quartzite, Arizona, one state shy of the finish line of that first race, an Arizona highway patrolman pulls over Yates and co-driver Dan Gurney for doing 140 miles an hour. “Just how fast will that thing go?” the trooper asks. He then proceeds to falsify his records to reduce the culprits’ speed and penalty; at 140 they might have gone to jail but instead escape with a ninety-dollar fine. As soon as they’re back underway, Gurney decides to answer the officer’s question: he hits 172 miles per hour, “and it’s rock steady.” Next Yates opines on traffic safety. “If we’re being unsafe at 120 miles per hour, isn’t he at least doubling the danger by driving faster to catch us?” he asks Gurney. “Those guys are just like you and me,” his co-pilot explains. “They like to drive fast. Imagine having a license to go flat-out anytime you wanted.”
The first image returned by a Google search for “Brock Yates” is a mug shot. We see him holding a tablet with his booking number and the letters “R.B.P.D,” a yardstick taped to the wall behind him. The conceit here is that the Redondo Beach Police Department nabbed him at the checkered flag. Yates looks out at the camera with the half smile of a man whose privilege lets him treat traffic stops as a playful game of cat and mouse.
Is there a straight line from the libertarian exuberance of the Cannonball Run to the political philosophy of the contemporary anti-masker? Yates made his politics known in his writings for outlets such as the American Spectator, but he left the scene before Republicans went full-on wack job. “Why should I drive at the same speed as some myopic moron or the least-talented driver on the road?” he once asked rhetorically. Other citizens are free to surrender their liberties to the lumbering, government-issued padded cells that constitute the typical vehicle today, Yates might have said. They are free to drive the speed limit. But the thrill of fast driving depends on its danger and has a real psychological basis grounded in science. He demands society trade safety for fun. There’s a connection here, but Yatesianism is somewhat different from anti-maskerism, which is both scientifically groundless and no fun at all.
For a more direct through line between car guy energy and today’s paranoid politics, we can turn to Matthew Crawford. Crawford earned a PhD in political science, denied the reality of climate science as executive director of the George C. Marshall Institute, and rose to fame with an autobiographical account of his transition from office worker to motorcycle mechanic. His 2009 bestseller Shop Class as Soulcraft argued that mechanics and tradesmen deserved more appreciation and support. Elites, he said, had made a religion out of promoting knowledge work at the expense of the nation’s soul. The book dropped shortly after President Obama announced new funding for community colleges and provided fodder for the penurious right-wing talking point that there are already too many kids in college.
In the Covid era, this putative gearhead has, ahem, unmasked his agenda. “The Dangers of Safetyism,” Crawford’s May 15 essay for the website Unherd, describes public health mandates as an elitist, big-government imposition of “social norms by fiat—whether that means using new pronouns or wearing surgical masks.” The pandemic has given “our ruling apparatus . . . a taste of extended emergency power” while the “Nation’s Newspaper of Record . . . fold[s] this emergency into the longstanding pseudo emergency of race.” Ostensibly about driving, his new book Why We Drive: Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road makes clear exactly how its author feels about that “pseudo emergency.” Despite Crawford’s long DMV rap sheet, a car salesman trustingly hands him the keys to a four-hundred-horsepower Audi RS3 (0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds) for a test drive. “It’s nice to be white!” he quips, not in awkward acknowledgment of privilege, but in triumph.
Crawford plays coy after a traffic stop in his home state of Virginia. “The officer was all right,” he relates, “He didn’t write it for reckless [driving] (they have discretion), and instead of eighty-six he wrote it for eight-four, which I’m guessing brought it beneath some threshold of badness.” As an experienced traffic scofflaw, he knows precisely how “all right” the officer was. Dropping two miles off the radar kept Crawford out of jail. Anything over eighty-five constitutes a Class 1 misdemeanor in Virginia, which carries a penalty of up to twelve months in jail and a fine of up to $2,500. Like Thompson and Yates, he’s gotten off easy, but he decides to plead his case in court anyway, perhaps hoping that he’ll get off entirely if the officer doesn’t show up, or because he simply wants to use the experience in the book. In any event, he ends up pleading no contest, which doesn’t prevent him from lecturing the judge on his alternative view of traffic jurisprudence. By Crawford’s way of thinking, riding his motorcycle as he does—not recklessly as the law would have it but with due care and attention, in his view—poses far less of a public health hazard than a car driven by someone distracted by a screen or “fussing with the kids in the back seat.” The contrast is “easy to grasp if you have ever been nearly killed in a parking lot by some upstanding member of the PTA backing out in her Suburban.” It’s his version of Yates’s question: how can it be unsafe for two skilled drivers to cruise at 140 when law enforcement does the same?
To protect us from the existential threat of mothers Crawford proposes “a regime of graduated driver’s licenses pegged to both the competence and involvement of the driver.” Among the “competencies” he lists are “your time through an autocross course” and “the prettiness of your bootleg turn.” It’s a strange argument for an anti-statist to make. Rather than the DMV conducting perfunctory exams and letting the masses sort themselves out on the open road, Crawford would have bureaucrats sit in judgment of their ability to drift through a corner. In point of fact, states already do have regimes of graduated licenses. These are pegged not to an imaginary and self-serving definition of safe driving but to the real factors that influence crash involvement: age (maturity), experience, and a clean record with the DMV.
Alex Roy, who featured alongside Crawford in a New Yorker profile in 2019, takes Crawford’s premise much further. In his 2018 manifesto for the Human Driving Association, Roy—an automotive journalist, race-car driver, and thought leader in the Yatesian mold—announced his support for “raising driver licensing standards,” also requiring periodic retesting. He has used his Twitter feed to promote the idea that a good driver can travel safely no matter how fast they’re going, while an unskilled or inattentive driver is dangerous at any speed. No doubt Crawford and Roy would pass their own licensing regime and periodic retesting. In so doing, they would rise to a higher class of motorized citizenship than the senior on the way to the gerontologist or the harried mother feeding squeezy yogurts to her kids strapped in the backseat.
As for traffic policing, “speed enforcement is a cancer,” according to Roy. But like Yates and Thompson, he considers the enforcement agents themselves to be fellow (automotive) travelers. “Law enforcement is supposed to be the enemy of all things Cannonball,” Roy wrote for the website The Drive in 2017, “so you can imagine my surprise when two men who claimed to be officers from California hit me up last year” asking if they could name their charity the Cannonball Memorial Run. (They thought he might have had a trademark on the name.) Soon he was on a ride-along to raise money for the families of “officers targeted or ambushed simply because they wore the badge.” Cops are “fans of the original Cannonball Run film and race, and huge car guys,” Roy tells us. “Officer Jason Hendrix would much rather talk about his Mustang GT350 than having suffered multiple gunshot wounds as a young officer.” The officers assured him it wasn’t a race. Still, Roy winks, “with two SUVs full of off-duty law enforcement driving cross country, and dozens of police agencies lined up to meet us along the way, this might go a lot faster than expected.”
This playful and privileged take on traffic law enforcement pervades the motor press. On Car and Driver’s website, editor Ezra Dyer can be seen trying to outrun a police cruiser (a Dodge Charger Pursuit with a 370-horsepower Hemi) in different cars: an econobox Toyota Yaris, a Chevy Camaro, and a Ferrari. Not to ruin a good joke, but the final sequence of Dyer—a white guy in a fresh T-shirt and khakis—being handcuffed and pushed onto the hood doesn’t seem that funny. It’s Yates’s mug shot wink and nod and Roy’s truck full of cops all over again, but these days it’s hard not to wonder how this scene would read if Dyer were Black.
A half century on from Brock Yates’s “balls out” race from New York to Los Angeles and Hunter S. Thompson’s discourse on traffic policing during his Journey into the Heart of the American Dream, and despite a deepening conversation about the relationship between policing and issues of race, inequality, and safety, the motor press car guys can’t seem to stop lionizing the Cannonball Run.
When the record fell last April, many commentators cried foul. Pandemic-era Cannonball records need an asterisk—like home-run records set during baseball’s steroid era. Car and Driver’s print director, Eric Tingwall, went further, noting that 336 people in New York City had died from Covid the same day one record setter reached the finish line:
This was the backdrop when . . . three (or possibly four) of this country’s biggest assholes loaded a luxury sedan with a trunk full of gasoline and charged across the country to claim a speed record that proves nothing other than their own self-importance. . . . We’re older and wiser today . . . no longer that same magazine that once campaigned against making cars safer.
Still, Tingwall cannot help offing a mathematically challenged apologia for the vintage Cannonball. The original outlaws averaged little more than eighty miles an hour at a time when the Kansas turnpike had an eighty-mph speed limit, he reminds us. Averaging 110, even in a car made infinitely safer thanks to the heavy hand of government regulation, is too fast for his sensibilities: “Hitting 150 mph or more on public roads isn’t something to celebrate.” This is a tight rope to walk when your magazine’s covers feature muscle car smackdowns, a Jeep called the Gladiator, and banners such as “350 Horses! Focus RS.”
Alex Roy similarly condemned the Cannonball racers who crossed the country in the current moment. “If you hit a truck moving medical supplies and people die because of it, that’s on you,” he told Autoweek. “People are counting on those trucks moving around right now. It’s not funny.” But the Cannonball Run had been relegated to ancient history until Roy revived it in 2006 with his own record run: thirty-one hours at an average speed of ninety-one miles an hour. He wrote about it in The Driver: My Dangerous Pursuit of Speed and Truth in the Outlaw Racing World. Since then Roy has kept the brand alive with articles titled “Alex Roy’s Cannonball Run Buyers Guide: The best cars to drive fast—very fast—across the U.S. of A.” and “Why You Need a German Sedan to Break the Cannonball Run Record.” Although, as he told his police friends, he doesn’t own the name, the Cannonball Run is central to his brand. Roy has his hand in a portfolio of projects, ranging from web properties and podcasts to clothing brands. He recently joined the driverless car company Argo.ai as director of special operations. On Christmas day he tweeted, “It’s been almost 15 years since Dave Maher and I set the #CannonballRun record. I’m still hoping to be the 1st person to set an autonomous cross-country record. Who wants to join me?”
The Cannonball Run cannot be dismissed as dumb, or discounted as a cheeky bit of adolescent ancient history. In 1971, Yates wanted the race to be “Truth and justice affirmed by an overtly illegal act.” It was of a piece, he said, with “blowing up ROTC buildings” and burning draft cards, with prisoners rioting at Attica, and “Redneck Klanners” burning churches. “Such was the unhinged fear and loathing that pervaded the land in 1971,” he recalled. “What better time to add to the national psychosis?” The past year too has been one of profound societal upheaval, when a raging pandemic and a national uprising revealed the staggering dysfunction of an emboldened kleptocracy and tore the scab off the long-festering wounds of white supremacy. What does the attenuated Cannonball Run and automotive outlawry in general add to the national psychosis today? We now recognize highway policing as a source of injustice. The science of safety proves that slowing down saves lives; boy racers who claim otherwise are spouting dangerous untruths. Promoting horsepower (gasoline or electric) and ever larger trucks only enables deniers. Moralizing about such things may best be left to others. We must, however, come to terms with the privileges that allow some the freedom to practice automotive outlawry. The Cannonball Run, in other words, must be confronted.