Record driver Erwin “Cannon Ball” Baker: cannonball on four wheels

Als Erwin George Baker following in the pouring rain on May 3, 1914 in San Diego at nine o’clock in the morning with his approximately seven hp two-cylinder Indian new York he has at best a vague idea of ​​the route awaiting him. Although he knows that there are around 3,000 miles between his starting point on the Pacific and his destination on the Atlantic coast, he still has no idea how he will find his way there. There is no continuous road network from coast to coast, hardly any paved roads and no reliable maps. In many ways, his trip is a risky journey into the unknown.

However, that doesn’t stop Baker from making a fulsome announcement: well before takeoff, he had told reporters from the country’s major newspapers that he was breaking the existing record for a coast-to-coast crossing of the United States with a motorcycle – which stands at just over 20 days at the time – will undercut by a full three days. On top of that, he signs an extremely self-confident contract with his sponsors according to the motto: “No record, no money.” If he fails, they don’t have to pay him a cent. So the whole country follows if Baker actually makes his announcement come true.

Baker had worked hard for his great self-confidence. He was born in March 1882 in a simple log cabin in Dearborn County near Lawrenceburg in southeastern Indiana. He was twelve years old when his parents moved to Indianapolis. Shortly thereafter, he began an apprenticeship as a machine operator at the Indianapolis Drop Forge Company and from then on worked ten hours a day in the huge forge – for 88 cents a day. Soon he dreams of a different life.

He met the Indian in 1906

Baker is not yet 23 years old when he takes a risky cut and quits secure job to join a variety troupe. The traveling artists roam the country with a smorgasbord of circus acts, and because Baker has shown himself to be well-trained from the hard work in the forge and, on top of that, has great stamina as a passionate cyclist, they give him a chance. At first, Baker is a jack of all trades, until it turns out that he’s an excellent boxer. Nobody else can work on up to eleven sandbags at the same time like him. However, he is almost unbeatable in a much more mundane discipline: the sack race. He becomes a permanent member of the ensemble and learns all the propagandistic basics that are vital for the troupe’s survival. This includes the advance notice of a guest performance in the newspapers as well as the distribution of posters and flyers in the tour locations days before the performance. He would later benefit from this know-how.

Stations in a racing driver's life: Crossing the finish line in Los Angeles in 1923, ...

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Erwin “Cannon Ball” Baker

In 1906, Baker then bought a motorcycle, an Indian from the factory that had been founded in Springfield, Illinois, just five years earlier. He quickly developed into an accomplished driver and in 1908, while having a picnic at the Crawfordsville fairground, he spontaneously jumped at the opportunity to take part in a motorcycle race on a dirt track. He brings his Indian across the finish line first by a wide margin, pocketing the considerable prize money and believes he has recognized his true talent. Once again he gives his life a different direction, quits the variety show and works on a career as a motorcycle racer.

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