Cannonball Baker’s Racing Legacy Lives On

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BIKES AND BEYOND: Cannonball Baker aboard an Indian motorcycle during the early 1900s. (Bob Gates Collection Photo)
BIKES AND BEYOND: Cannonball Baker aboard an Indian motorcycle during the early 1900s. (Bob Gates Collection Photo)

Cannonball Baker is an iconic name in the annals of motorcycle racing. The early 20th century rider was one of the sport’s first true heroes, possessing a celebrity that transcended his field of endeavor. His renown was such that President Herbert Hoover once said, “More people know Cannonball’s name than mine!”

Baker competed in the first motorized event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway Aug. 13-14, 1909. Riding an Indian motorcycle, he won the closing race of that disastrous, yet historic weekend.

Born Ervin George Baker on March 12, 1882, in a log cabin near Lawrenceburg, Ind., Baker earned the nickname Cannonball after a record-setting 11-day transcontinental motorcycle run in 1914.

His two-wheel accomplishments were such that he’s been inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame, the Motorsports Hall of Fame, and his name has remained a part of American culture for more than a century.

What is not as well known about Baker is the fact that his achievements on four wheels were just as unique and as trendsetting as those on two. He holds an unparalleled place in motorsports history as the only individual to have competed at Indy on a motorcycle and in a car.

His Indianapolis 500 appearance came in 1922. Driving a Frontenac he ran the entire 500 miles and finished 11th. Although that was his lone 500, Baker remained prominent in performance auto circles until his death May 10, 1960.

Baker became adept at cross-country runs. He drove a huge variety of cars, as manufacturers clamored for the famous Cannonball to handle their machines. And in 1933 he drove a Graham-Paige across the continent in a record-setting 53 and a half hours.

It was a remarkable achievement and a record that stood for 30 years. The media dubbed it the Cannonball Run.

Almost 40 years later, the Cannonball Run was still so fixed in the American conscious that it inspired a series of books, movies and TV shows, as well as a revival of the run, conceived in 1971 by Brock Yates. Those, too, have become a part of American culture.

Baker’s involvement with automobiles led to him being named as NASCAR’s first national commissioner in 1948. Between his passenger car and motorcycle runs, Baker established 143 transcontinental records and travelled more than 5,500,000 miles.

Baker’s backwoods birth makes all these motorized accomplishments seem even more remarkable. But Baker had the good fortune, especially considering his craving for speed and things mechanical, to be born during an era when the world was in a dramatic revolution toward the machine age.

Seeking to rise above his poverty-stricken upbringing, Baker drew on his natural showmanship and athleticism and performed for a while as a vaudeville acrobat.

During that time a motorcycle to him was simply an exciting mode of transportation. But when he won his first motorcycle race in Crawfordsville, Ind., in 1904, his true destiny was set. His fame and fortune were forever linked to motorsports.