NEW YORK - It wasn't yet 6 a.m. on a Saturday and most of the country was still asleep - from the buildings scraping the night sky in downtown Manhattan to the white sands along California's coastline. Dmitry Cherkassky was eager to see all of it.
He slid into the driver's seat of the 1983 Mercedes 300D. Four energy drinks were in the center console and three devices were mounted on the dashboard. He plugged his destination into the GPS.
"Okay, we're going to the Portofino Inn," the computerized female voice said.
His was the first car off in the C2C Express, a cross-country road race that's a direct descendent of the Cannonball-Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash from the 1970s, which was made famous thanks to Hollywood and the "Cannonball Run" movies starring Burt Reynolds and an ensemble cast.
The race attempts to honor the spirit of the original Cannonball runs, relying on instincts and car smarts to traverse the country. Drivers faced a $3,000 limit when shopping for cars, though most put hundreds more - thousands even - into repairs and improvements. Once the race begins, anything goes, and drivers take whatever risks and precautions they see fit. Many will top 100 mph, and they all try to avoid road construction and speed traps, finding unique ways to fend off sleep deprivation, empty fuel tanks, pesky bathroom stops and law enforcement patrolling the highways.
"Two paths generally lead here," explains Ed Bolian, who holds the record for posting the fastest cross-country driving time. "One is an obsession with cars and road trips. The other is an obsession with police countermeasures. If you like either, this is the holy grail."
The technology has improved, but the basics haven't changed. The race starts at the Red Ball Garage on 31st Street in New York and ends at the Portofino Hotel and Marina in Los Angeles. The details and date are shared only discreetly. Speed limits are routinely ignored, and the event still attracts a cast of characters as colorful as ever.
Cherkassky, 40, runs his own small business outside Philadelphia, has a wife and two children. He moved to the United States at 14 from the area that's now the Ukraine.
"They told us to hate this country," he said of his childhood. "They said you should be grateful to God you were born in USSR. But this country gave me everything I have."
The race was a chance to take in the entire country, to search its hills and valleys and all the space that fills the giant divisive gaps separating the Donald Trump billboards in Indiana and Hillary Clinton bumper stickers in California. Drivers and organizers prefer to call it a "run," not a race, and it's a search for country and possibility as much as it is a search for self.
In addition to Cherkassky, four other teams would be on the road: a tactical group dressed as Blues Brothers driving a replica of the Bluesmobile; a veteran team in a Lincoln Continental with a unique waste-disposal system and a secret weapon in the back seat; a long-haired Brooklyn man who would find his journey interrupted by a police K-9 unit; and a pair of brothers from the Midwest who had more than 20,000 songs loaded on an iPod and a booming sound system in their van that they hoped would rock them from coast to coast.
They all had to leave to the Red Ball Garage in the same 24-hour period, getting a time stamp they'd carry across the country. Cherkassky and his 33-year-old Mercedes - price tag: $2,800 - were the first in the garage on a dark September morning, and he was eager to get going. He was the only first-timer in the field, and he had no idea how his car or his body would respond to whatever the next 2,900 miles held.
But he was ready to find out.
Cherkassky snapped a photo in front of the garage with his driving partner, the red neon sign glowing bright in the background, before climbing back in the car.
"Okay, let's go," he said. "Time's burning."
Eric Propst's van was well-stocked and well-outfitted. He sat behind an 11-inch chain link steering wheel. He had an extra gas tank and a spare tire, of course. He also had a microwave, mini-fridge, solar panels, a Kenwood speaker system and a couple hundred feet of wires under the carpeted floor to keep everything purring nicely. He'd packed two coolers of drinks, six pounds of candy, 30 packs of nuts, 54 bags of chips, plus beef jerky, chocolates, cookies and enough snacks to feed an entire summer camp.
Strategies and motivations varied from team to team. The Propst brothers wanted an adventure and a good finishing time, but they also hoped to avoid police lights. They didn't want to pay any fines and certainly didn't want to lose time on the road because of a traffic stop. Other teams were more comfortable taking risks, but they insist every decision is a calculated one with safety in mind.
This year's run was preceded by a series of calamitous events that cut in half the number of participants: a co-driver no-showed, a 1956 Chevy was rear-ended, two teams that flew in from New Zealand pulled out after a near-fatal accident that landed three Kiwis in the hospital five days before the race. The list of injuries was a reminder of the dangers posed any time on the road: a broken femur, pelvis, clavicle and ribs, a lacerated liver and ruptured intestines.
There are 17 races recognized as Cannonball or part of the lineage. Since the first run in 1971, there has been only one reported accident: a car that ran off the road in 1975 and resulted in a broken arm.
"I think people have this knee-jerk reaction: 'Oh, you're out endangering people's lives,' " said Arne Toman, who was competing in his second run. "Our No. 1 rule is we don't put anybody's life in danger, including our own. At this level we've never been at a point where you feel unsafe. You're so focused on what you're doing - way more focused than someone texting and driving 60 mph."
The Propst brothers remained focused on the GPS and stereo system, blasting a soundtrack that would've fit in well during the original Cannonball runs four decades earlier. Eric, 51, wore a Cheech and Chong T-shirt, and Kevin, 47, a Michigan ballcap. They playfully bickered about driving directions and Arlo Guthrie.
Just three hours into their journey, the Rolling Stones were blaring from the speakers when Eric said, "Uh-oh," and turned down the volume.
"I [messed] up somehow," he said, studying the map on his phone. "It wanted me to get off there. I heard her talking. I just didn't know what she was saying."
He corrected his route but had lost seven minutes. Through the van's speakers, Mick Jagger sang, "You Can't Always Get What You Want."
While the Propst brothers rocked out, the Blues Brothers took a different tack: They wouldn't turn on the radio once for their entire trip. They couldn't afford any distractions. Despite their familiar costumes and eye-catching car - a perfect replica of the 1974 Dodge Monaco made famous in the "Blues Brothers" film with the words "We are on a mission from God" stripped across the back window - the three men were a business-like unit, a dream team of sorts.
In 2013, Bolian drove across the country in 28 hours, 50 minutes, a time many think will never be surpassed. Toman holds the record for building the world's fastest hearse, which goes 137 mph, and Forrest Sibley is a mechanical engineer who's working on a high-tech device that disrupts police radar detectors. A competing driver noted that when the Blues Brothers show up, "It's like bringing a nuclear weapon to a knife fight."
They'd put together a race plan months earlier, and no detail was overlooked. The dashboard alone was more elaborate than the Starship Enterprise: one phone mounted left of the steering wheel; high-powered stabilizing, binoculars by the passenger seat with a backup pair nearby; radar detectors on either side of mirror; two toll passes; a timer; a mounted iPad and another mounted phone. There was a police scanner in the center console, two navigation systems running at all times and another device that detects aircraft that might be monitoring speed overheard. In the trunk was a fuel cell, which would allow them to carry more than 30 extra gallons.
The day before the race, they made practice runs out of Manhattan, in search of the fastest way to the Lincoln Tunnel. Their drive plan had gas stations already chosen along the route and identified friends in different areas who could drive ahead and help scout the roadways during the race. While Cherkassky left first thing in the morning, the Blues Brothers would leave 14 hours later, maximizing their driving at night, which they felt could boost their average speed by 10 mph.
"It's not analogous to anything you'd normally do in a car," Bolian said. "It feels more militaristic because there's so much effort going into preparations and making sure the car is safe."
The few stops they make for gas are carefully coordinated and rehearsed. They'd jump out of the car and two men would grab gas pumps, one filling the car and the other tending to the extra tank. One man literally sprints to the restroom, while another cleans the windshield and the third disposes of garbage. Then they pull back onto the highway and the gadgets all begin to whir - all of them except the car's radio.
"It's like a cat-and-mouse game," Toman says. "You want to go fast to make good time, but not so fast where you're in big trouble. If you get arrested, that will surely screw up your time."
The Bluesmobile was near Philadelphia when the roads were clear and the group decided to test the car. They watched the speedometer climb to 133 mph. It meant a busy, productive night was ahead. At least they hoped.
Not long after, Bolian saw flashing lights behind them. The radar detectors never went off. The highway patrolman said the Bluesmobile was going 90 in a 55 mph zone. He was unimpressed by the car or the costumes.
Bolian took the ticket - only the second he's received in the past decade - and lost 12 minutes while the car sat idle on the side of I-76.
That certainly wasn't part of the plan.
West Virginia / Ohio
While the Blues Brothers were making trial runs through Manhattan, Roscoe Anderson's pre-race prep was simple. Before his team pulled out of New York, he went to a nearby liquor store, purchased two large bottles of vodka and then filled up empty water bottles, his personal fuel to help get across the country.
Anderson had no driving responsibilities, but he was still his team's secret weapon of sorts. The 1978 Lincoln Continental was a classy ride, and the three team members dressed similar to Thurston Howell III with ascots and shades. With Anderson in the backseat, the Lincoln would be driven by Carl "Yumi" Dietz, who holds the record for driving across the country solo, and John Ficarra, who was making his eighth coast-to-coast run, more than any Cannonballer ever.
Passing the time is key, and all three men had collected a variety of cassettes for the car's eight-track player. The Herb Albert tape broke and Aretha Franklin exploded, but they had other options. There was an acoustic guitar, harmonicas, and Anderson brought along his banjo.
Anderson's job was to keep the others entertained, via songs, stories or jokes. The South Carolina native is blessed with Southerner's knack for storytelling, a battle-tested liver, a mop of shaggy dark hair and a gregarious laugh.
"It's like having a Muppet in the backseat," Ficarra said.
The team had one other proprietary novelty at its disposal. Most Cannonball teams plan on nine or so stops to address two crucial areas: empty gas tanks and full bladders. The more competitive teams tend to be creative in these areas, though.
When Dietz bought the Lincoln three months earlier and overhauled the brakes and suspension, he also drilled holes into the floorboard. All three team members traveled with a funnel that was attached to a tube. The end of the tube was fed through the floorboard and the nattily-attired members of the Lincoln team were able to urinate into the funnel: Voila! no time lost to nature's call.
"It works great," Dietz said. "I don't know why more people don't do it."
Each team had its own strategies. The Propst brothers used gas station restrooms. The Blues Brothers pulled off to the side of the road to relieve themselves. Ben Preston's team had an extra fuel cell in the trunk and packed several TravelJohns, a handheld urinal of sorts that absorbs liquid and can be disposed of later.
"Goddammit," Preston's brother and driving partner barked early in the trip. "I can't do it with you guys here."
They'd soon learn that'd be the least of their problems.
Preston, 38, bought the 1974 Oldsmobile Omega off Craigslist for $700 three years earlier, intending to run it across the country. But in his two previous runs, it just wasn't ready. He ended up buying a second Omega for parts, replacing brakes, rebuilding the suspension, overhauling the steering system. Still, as he raced it along the highways, it handled like a small airplane gliding through a storm, he said.
Preston and his brother - a federal employee who shall remain nameless in order to protect his security clearance - picked up the lone New Zealander who made it to the starting line and their three-man team had zero complications over the first 600 miles. Preston drove that first leg before ceding the steering wheel to his brother.
At around 9 p.m., outside of Spiceland, Ind., red and blue lights started dancing in their rear-view mirror. The radar detector didn't go off, and they didn't feel like the car was going much faster than the rest of the traffic: 84 in a 70-mph zone.
The sheriff's deputy had a bright flashlight and was direct: "Get your hands where I can see them."
Preston was lying down in the backseat, resting. He felt the deputy spotted his long hair and became suspicious. The deputy told the driver to step out of the car and then questioned all three men separately about where they were going, where they were coming from and what they were doing on the road driving so fast in such an old car.
It became clear quickly that the interrogation wasn't about speed. They'd been stopped in an area where meth problems are prevalent. The deputy called for a K-9 unit to search the car for drugs. Meantime, the clock was ticking.
By the time the dog sniffed its way through the Omega and it was clear the car was clean, a half-hour had passed. Preston's team was given a written warning, but the damage to their time had been done.
Illinois / Missouri
A red sun was setting on the horizon, as the van pulled off I-70 for its third stop of the run. The Propst brothers bickered over which exit to take.
"Just follow what it says," Eric said.
While Kevin pumped gas, Eric bought a couple of energy drinks and then checked the oil, preparing for the night shift behind the wheel.
After 10 minutes, the Propst brothers were back on the road at 8 p.m., about the same time the Blues Brothers were pulling out of the Red Ball Garage, 734 miles away in New York. In many ways, this marked the real start of the race. As day-trippers clear off the highways, the road opens up, and Cannonballers feel more comfortable challenging the posted speed limits.
Every team would be driving straight through the night. The Blues Brothers planned to switch drivers every 200 miles. Cherkassky had replaced his car's engine just a week earlier and was way too anxious to sleep. In the van, Kevin was in the passenger seat and turned up the volume on some Led Zeppelin.
"How can you go 13 hours with the music jamming the whole time?" Eric asked.
"Oh, I live for it," Kevin said, reminding his brother that they weren't allowed to play instruments when they were younger. "We asked mom why and she said, 'Because they make noise.' "
"You should get some sleep," Eric told him. "Remember you'll be driving in the wee hours when I need to nap a bit."
When Kevin stirred awake around dawn, the van had been on the road for more than 21 hours. They were just as close to the start of the race as the finish.
"Where are we?" Kevin asked, staring out the window at an endless brown blanket of the Midwest.
With a vanity plate that read "ELWOODS," the Bluesmobile wasn't exactly inconspicuous on the road. Averaging more than 85 mph, it was a blur to many as it zipped by in the left lane. While some managed to snap a quick photo, an Oklahoma officer on I-44 had just enough time to note the unseemly speed.
After catching up, the officer approached from the passenger side. The occupants were all still in costume with their white shirts and black neckties.
"I know I wasn't doing the speed limit, so I sure know you all weren't," the officer said.
Sitting in the passenger seat with all their electronics on full-display, Bolian piped up and said they were headed to visit friends.
"What are you doing today?" he asked the officer.
"My job is to cruise up and down this road," the officer replied.
"Well, beautiful day for it," Bolian offered.
The small talk continued, and the Blues Brothers dodged a second ticket but lost even more time.
The other teams avoided police in Oklahoma but steered through either fog or rain or monotony. The van was in a mellow mood, and the Beatles' classic "The Long and Winding Road" played. The Propst brothers had been in Oklahoma for awhile and would be in it for awhile still. The scenery didn't seem to change.
"You start to appreciate just how hard it is and really how big the country is," Eric said. "For months you look at the map or the atlas and go, 'All right, we're gonna go here, here and here. And now it's like, get us out of Oklahoma already!' "
The Cannonball is a tour of America, but one that takes place at warp speed where the scenery all becomes a blur of motion and time. Roadside America reveals something about what we do and what we want as we travel. It's an assemblage of quirks, interests, oddities.
The world's largest indoor miniature village in Pennsylvania. A McDonald's in Oklahoma that was once the world's largest. A toy and train museum in West Virginia and the Wilbur Wright Birthplace and Museum in Indiana. The Cannonballers zipped by the largest cross in the nation on I-70 outside of Effingham, Ill - 198 feet tall and 113 feet wide - and also the second-largest, a 19-story cross along I-40 in Groom, Texas.
In between it all were football fields, gentlemen's clubs, churches, schools, casinos, Waffle Houses, Cracker Barrels and outlet stores.
As the clock ticked, it became apparent that the Cannonball was as much a journey as it was a race. Finishing first didn't matter as much as simply finishing .
People have been making some semblance of the trek west, if not the exact route, for a couple of centuries: settlers, explorers, opportunists, tramps and people seeking out some form of freedom. This mission was one of adventure, something raw and visceral. They sought speed and experience, a checkmark on a bucket list and story they could forever tell.
Texas marked the ninth state on the trip. As a rule of thumb, Cannonballers feel they can drive faster west of the Mississippi River and generally make better time on the last half of the run. The Propst brothers had been averaging 68 mph for most of their trip, much slower than the other competitors.
"Just because I'm a Cannonballer doesn't mean I'm a rule-breaker," Eric said.
In Texas, he hit a stretch of highway where the cows far outnumbered the humans. The van was pointed downhill and Propst pressed the gas pedal to the floor. The speedometer slowly climbed: 92 . . . 96 . . . 100. Finally 104 mph, the fastest he'd ever gone in the van.
"Okay, now I'm happy," he said, letting off the pedal and settling back down at 85.
New Mexico /Arizona
No Cannonball trip is without complication. The C2C Express calls for older, cheaper cars, which means mechanical mishaps are inevitable.
Hours removed from the K-9 searching his Omega, Preston sent a message to the group letting them known his alternator was cooked and he needed to stop at an automotive store. "Should have it done faster than a drug-sniffing dog stop," he told them.
About an hour later, Preston reported the second alternator was also toast, and he started to worry about ever getting out of New Mexico. Repairs are usually done on the roadside with whatever tools and parts each team has at its disposal.
Fortunately for Preston, he happened to pack the original, greasy 1974 alternator from the Omega. He replaced the part for a second time and his team came up with another idea. The Kiwi he picked up, Mason Hart, happened to be an aircraft mechanic. The team stopped by a tractor-supply store in Gallup, N.M., and picked up some hoses. They used a McDonald's cup with the bottom cut out to connect the tubing and create a makeshift funneling system that would keep the car from overheating. It seemed to work, and the Oldsmobile was back on the road and back in the race.
The Bluesmobile also ran into problems. About 140 miles shy of Albuquerque, Bolian reported to the other teams that they'd apparently lost their fuel pump on a desolate stretch. They had no backup and no simple contingency plan in place.
Advice started pouring in - some of it sarcastic and designed to slow the pre-race heavy favorites.
"I recommend removing the fuel tank and letting it cool off for 2 to 3 hours," Ficarra told Bolian. "Then take the fuel pump apart, look at it a bit and try to reassemble it with nothing but a butter knife and some duct tape. That'll do the trick."
The Blues Brothers considered their options and started estimating the time they'd lose by towing the car and fixing it in Albuquerque. Sibley, the engineer, had another possible solution: He began hitting the fuel pump with a hammer. It worked.
"We're back, baby," Toman reported to the other drivers once the Bluesmobile was again cruising west on I-40.
Crossing into California brings each team a sharp jolt of adrenaline. The finish line might still lie 275 miles away, but most of the country was in the rear-view mirror.
Cherkassky hoped to finish the race in under 40 hours, and he'd spend the last couple of them sweating. He encountered an accident on I-15 west of Los Angeles and knew he'd be cutting it close. He was the first to leave New York and the first to arrive at the Portofino 39 hours and 58 minutes later, two minutes under his goal. He saw more than 2,900 miles of America, stopping just twice to fuel up and never sleeping a wink.
Ninety minutes later, the Lincoln rolled in. They lost their AC, and the cigarette lighter in the backseat broke. Leaving a trail beneath the floorboard that stretched from one coast to the next, they clocked in with a time of 37:05. The crew averaged 76 mph, and the Lincoln got 13 miles per gallon.
Late at night, the Los Angeles roads are busy but navigable. Eric Propst was driving the van as intently as ever, determined to beat his mark from last year and hopefully break the 40-hour barrier.
"Dammit!" he yelled, slamming the steering wheel.
The map on his phone looked like a series of overlapping ribbons and Propst took a wrong exit, just his second wrong turn of the journey. At 11:10 p.m., the van pulled into the Portofino, 41 hours and 18 minutes after leaving New York. No music was playing.
They were greeted by the Lincoln crew, which was firing bottle rockets in the air, pouring vodka and shouting "Congratulations" into the night.
With the fuel cell in the trunk of the Omega, Preston needed to fill up four times to cross the country, but he lost too much time with the K-9 stop and the alternator fiasco. All things considered, he was pleased with his time of 40:55.
The Bluesmobile was the last to start the race and would be the last to finish. Their race was always one against the clock. They were pulled over twice, faced a 45-minute backup because of a traffic accident and then dealt with the fuel pump issue. Altogether, they sat idle for 2:16, which would doom most teams.
But around 3:15 a.m., the Bluesmobile pulled into the hotel with an elapsed time of 34:16. The crew averaged 82 mph, which jumped up to 88 mph when they weren't sitting idle.
At the end, the windshield of Propst's van was splattered with the vestiges of a 2,900-mile road trip, a Jackson Pollock canvas of bug remains. Having fallen 1:18 short of his 40-hour goal Propst already was identifying spots along the route where he lost time.
"You know what means?" he said. "I'll have to do this again next year."