Erwin 'Cannonball' Baker
A life dedicated to records
1908 - Indianapolis.
Aged 26, Erwin Baker doesn't know what to do with his life.
Factory worker, jobbing actor playing downtrodden theatres, he does odd jobs to get by and has only one passion, motorcycles. He saved money as best he could and eventually managed to buy an Indian motorcycle, immediately entering into competitions and taking part in as many local races as he could.
Very talented, he quickly became successful.
In 1912, having already acquired a degree of notoriety after four years of racing, he signed a contract with Indian, thus becoming the first factory rider in history. His success continued and he recorded 53 victories across various disciplines: board-track, flat-track, desert races, speed records, etc.
Erwin Baker was certainly the most famous among young motorcyclists all of whom were searching for fame by attempting to set speed records. These records were mostly attempted over long distances on some of the newly built American highways. At first, it was city to city races, then longer stretches like the 'Three Flags Run, (from Canada to Mexico), and finally the ultimate challenge of the 'Coast to Coast', (crossing America from East to West).
Erwin though loved making money and came up with a brilliant idea. He figured motorcycle brands needed to prove the quality and reliability of their products. With this in mind, he performed a series of long distance runs, such as 24 hour races on tracks as well as rides across the American deserts, in Mexico, and throughout Central America too. His redoubtable tag line being: "No Record, No Money!"…which obviously implied: "If I Succeed,You Pay! "
Erwin Baker, one of the very first professional racers to make a good living from his passion
1914 - Erwin dreamed of a project for a long time: to do the transcontinental run 'Coast to Coast' of the United States, from one ocean to another, with the goal of setting the very first record time of this unofficial run.
Well prepared, he set off on his Indian and covered the distance of 3,379 miles (5,438 kilometers) in 11 days and 11 hours. This completely crazy feat for the time was unanimously hailed by all the media.
A reporter immediately nicknamed him Erwin 'Cannonball' Baker, after the bullet train of the time. He kept this nickname until his death in 1960, and even went so far as to have it deposed by his lawyers to protect it.
Young Alan Bedell smashes the record
But in the USA of those Roaring Twenties, there were many "pioneer-adventurers" like him; and the successes of Baker obviously very quickly make people envious.
So much so that in June 1917, a certain Alan Bedell, sponsored by the Henderson factory, in his turn set out to set a new record.
Departing from Los Angeles on a Henderson four-cylinder, he arrived in New York City on June 13, after covering 3,296 miles in 7 days, 16 hours and 16 minutes.
With three days and 20 hours less, he smashed the previous record set by Baker in 1914.
A rare photo of Alan Bedell on his 'Coast to Coast' record Henderson four-cylinder
His bike was strictly original, apart from a more comfortable air-cushioned saddle and more powerful lighting. On arrival, according to witnesses, his machine was running like a clock and only required the replacement of 2 sets of spark plugs along the way. As for its rider, he suffered a small fall, fortunately not serious.
This new feat, significant for the time, was of course extensively reported in numerous publications of the time, and the Henderson brand benefited greatly from Bedell's performance.
Sadly he did not enjoy his success and his 'Coast to Coast' record for long. At the time of the First World War, he enlisted, and was transferred in 1918 to an air force camp in Louisiana. And like many other young American servicemen of the time, he succumbed to the dreaded Spanish flu pandemic at just 22 years old.
140 records, 126 transcontinental runs, over a million miles in the saddle
One thing is certain: Irwin 'Cannonball' Baker was a fighter and he did not like to lose! This record of young Bedell haunted him. He suffered it as a painful personal affront. He had to prepare for another attempt to reclaim "Coast to Coast" record holder title.
In an advertisement of the time, a magneto brand took advantage of a new Baker record to praise the reliability of its products
In 1922, five years after young Bedell's success, he finally achieved this feat once again by setting a new record in just 6 days and 22 hours, this time on an ACE 4-cylinder motorcycle.
A 1922 4-cylinder ACE model almost similar to the one with which Baker set his second 'Coast to Coast' record
Baker had became the one and only rider in the history of American motorcycling to have twice broken the record for the legendary 'Coast to Coast'. A feat that will undoubtedly never be equaled.
Erwin 'Cannonball' Baker's track record over the course of his career speaks for itself: he established and broke an impressive total of over 140 records of all kinds, did the 'Coast to Coast' 126 times for several motorcycle brands, and traveled over a million miles in practice or racing.
As a complete and eclectic champion, he even held 3 records of the same type for automobiles.
Erwin 'Cannonball' Baker posing with a Stutz Bearcat ' Series F' roadster at Bisbee, Arizona, during a 1915 transcontinental trip from San Diego to New York
A record broken only 3 times in almost 40 years
Before we get to the second part of my article dealing with the modern era 'of the 'Coast to Coast' that I consider starting in the late 1950s, let's first take a look at the America of the 1920s and 1930s.
Imagine the bad condition of the roads, the equipment available to the motorcyclists, the non-existent logistics, the lack of re-fueling stations, the eventual risks of being attacked by bandits (in the 1920s, there were still brigands on the roads!) and all kinds of difficulties that make us admire these pioneers even more.
While these men were undoubtedly adventurers in search of fame and money, they were nonetheless true top athletes. Because all of them had rich track records in many disciplines very popular at the time such as 'flat-track', 'hill-climbing', or 'desert-race'.
You can reverse Start and Finish! The record will be valid!
As for Baker's second record set in 1922, it was ultimately broken only three times in almost 30 years, between 1922 and the end of the 1950s.
This proves the difficulty of that transcontinental 'run' as well as the quality of the performance. For it is certain that many attempts have taken place during this period lasting almost four decades, and most of them were undoubtedly failures.
This Baker's second record will nonetheless be broken very quickly, in fact in that same year of 1922; but narrowly, in the time of 6 days and 16 hours, by a racer by the name of Wells Bennett, riding an Excelsior-Henderson.
Later, the pilots will have their departure and arrival recorded by real bailiffs, obviously to avoid any possible disputes.
Wells Bennett posing on his'Coast to Coast' Excelsior-Henderson record machine
It was not until 1935 that a certain Earl Robinson on Excelsior pulverized it with a time of 3 days and 6 hours, but this time in the opposite direction, leaving Los Angeles for New York.
Finally in 1936, Rody Rodenberg on an Indian Scout did even better with a time of 71 hours and 20 minutes. But this record has always been contested, especially by the rival factory Harley-Davidson ...
A press extract from June 1936, from the Indian brand newspaper: 'The Indian News,' discusses Rody Rodenberg's feat.
He had taken care to leave New York with a document authenticating the time and date of his departure, signed by 4 experts, but that was not enough to dispel any doubts.
If I go over these three records fairly quickly, it is above all due to the fact that information and documents of that period are extremely rare. But I still wanted to pay them the tribute they deserve.
Text: Gilles Gaudechoux
Images: Gilles Gaudechoux and Jean-Francois Helias
Translation: Jean-Francois Helias
(to be continued)