Monday, June 23, 2008

Street racing

I'm reading a fascinating book right now called "The Driver". It's written by Alex Roy, a guy who became famous for setting the fastest time ever to complete the Cannonball Run, the drive from New York to Los Angeles. There's plenty of info about the origins of the Cannonball (and its successor, the US Express) here, but Roy did it independently of any organized event.

What's fascinating for me is what drives Roy. His book, which is very well written, captures the feelings of winning on four wheels that every racing driver strives for. The only difference here is that Roy does his racing on public roads. "That's terrible" you say. "He's putting the lives of innocent people in jeapordy!" True, but Roy's approach is exactly the same as any racing team: obsessive, over-the-top preparation, the spending of large amounts of money in an attempt to improve the chances of victory and a single-minded focus that seeks to eradicate any random factor that could disrupt his racing. To that end, you get the impression that his driving is probably significantly safer than the bulk of people he shares the Interstate highways with.

This is no mindless punk doing 100mph on a busy city street at 1am and mowing down pedestrians as they emerge from a local bar or taqueria. This is a man who compiles stacks of data detailing average speeds, expected weather, probabilities of detection and other pertinent info in an attempt to outwit The Man, Mother Nature and other monolithic opponents.

The outright Cannonball record was set in 1983, long after Brock Yates shut the race down, at a remarkable 32 hours and 7 minutes. That equates to 89mph average for the entire run, including periods where the car sits at 0mph getting filled with gas. As you can imagine, the real required speed is significantly higher. Factor in at least two rush hours and the potential for inclement weather and unexpected construction and it's unsurprising to find out that you simply must do sustained triple-digit speeds for much of the journey. Roy did just that, along with his like-minded co-driver Dave Maher. They managed to beat the record by more than an hour in their highly-modified E39 BMW M5. Their effort was captured in a soon-to-be-released movie called "32 Hours 7 Minutes".

So let me pose this question: is this racing? Is it any less racing than a World Rally? Some might say it bears more in common with the WRC of the 70s and early 80s than current WRC events do. I just watched coverage of the 1985 Lombard RAC Rally, the British round of the WRC that year. Teams were subjected to a huge mental strain, racing for countless hours every day for 5 days in a row. This is not something Sebastien Loeb has ever dealt with. Alex Roy, on the other hand, has.

The concept of vehicles at speed on public roads is something I find quite fascinating and I'm not quite sure why. It's slightly disturbing! I'm clearly not alone though - look at the legions of followers of real road racing (such as the Isle of Man TT), or all those who compete on events like the Silver State Classic, or anyone who has ever downloaded footage of the legendary Black Prince circumnavigating Paris' Peripherique in 20 minutes...


YORK Group Motorsport said...

IMHO, Alex Roy is no more a race car driver than an average, everyday idiot is.

As a matter of fact, he IS an idiot.

I will not read the book.

He offers a disservice to proper motor racing by making any correlation to his illegal antics and ego-driven pontifications.

As an unrelated side note, I very much enjoy reading your blog. Thank you for your ongoing efforts.


Anonymous said...

Ya, he is nothing more than an average person with an expensive car.

Additionally, the term to describe the cannonball run should not be "street racing" - as street racing is more associated with drag racing illegally on the street, not driving 5000 miles..


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Jimmy said...

I concur. They guy's a halfwit. There are enough idiots out there trying to kill us all without some moron who hasn't slept for 2 days taking insane risks to beat a stupid record.

The Lombard RAC rally was a real endurance event. On closed roads.

patrick said...

On the one hand, the guy's an idiot, needlessly putting lives at risk i9n pursuit of some insignificant personal ambition.

On the other hand, a part of me still can't quite help but admire the sheer audacity of what he was doing. Dimly reminds me of sitting alongside my brother when he was 17 or whatever, while he thrashed his old Peugeot 106 round the backroads of Derbyshire, which was both terrifying and stupid and undoubtedly exciting (albeit he really *didn't* know what he was doing)

Nicebloke said...

Reluctant admiration is a good term to use here, for sure.

In response to Kevin, I would point out that Roy himself doesn't represent that what he does is motorsport - that was in fact the angle I was offering.

And I do understand that "street racing" usually means something else, but I don't really know what one would call this. "Cannonballing" maybe?

Thanks for all the comments - it's clearly a contentious issue!

aussieaussieaussie said...

On the back of this post, I've ordered Alex's book from It sounds like a fascinating read and a wonderful journey (legal or not!), I can't wait to get my hands on it!

Nicebloke said...

I hope you enjoy Aussie. I blame Roy for my constant yawning these past few days, as I stay up long past my bedtime reading his book...

Rodney King said...

Yeah I wouldn't call this dude a race car driver but, might have to check out the book. It sounds interesting I would like know a little more about how they made it in like 37 hours.