Between 1910 and 1940, Erwin “Cannon Ball” Baker clocked over 5.5 million miles driving across America in a quest to set point-to-point driving records. Alternating between motorcycle and automobile racing, Baker became legendary for his many record-breaking runs. The dirt-road daredevil and Hoosier was the only man of his era to become a winning racer in the automobile and motorcycle circuits.
Erwin George Baker was born in a four-room log home near Weisburg, Indiana. From a young age, his aptitude with machines was obvious. His family moved to Indianapolis in 1893, where Baker eventually found work as a machinist. He also traveled throughout the United States to appear in Vaudeville productions as a “champion bag puncher.”
In 1904, Baker entered a motorcycle race in Crawfordsville and finished first. He was hooked. Baker eventually saved enough money to purchase an Indiana motorcycle and began racing in earnest.
On August 12, 1909, Baker competed in a 10-mile motorcycle race at the newly opened Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Baker won first place in the first event ever held at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Over the next few years, Baker traveled across the country to compete, amassing victories and setting new records.
In January 1912, Baker left Indiana on his Indian motorcycle, destined for Florida. His journey eventually took him to Cuba, Jamaica, and Panama, before he eventually landed in San Diego. Baker clocked over 12,000 miles on his motorcycle.
In 1914, Baker completed a record-setting transcontinental drive from San Diego to New York City in 11 ½ days. The trip broke the previous record by almost nine days. Baker crossed 12 states on his Indian motorcycle. In his home state of Indiana, state police increased speed limits for the day to aid his journey through the Hoosier state. The trip earned Baker the nickname “Cannon Ball*” after a newspaper compared him to the famous Cannonball Express Train run by the Illinois Central Railroad.
As Baker’s fame increased, vehicle companies clamored for him to test or endorse their products. Many of Baker’s record-setting drives were made as part of promotional contracts. Baker attracted sponsorships with his slogan, “No record, no money.”
In 1922, Baker competed in the Indianapolis 500 for the first and only time. He was hired by Louis Chevrolet to drive a Frontenac in the race. Baker finished in 11th place.
Baker continued to attract fame for his dare devilish drives. In 1924, he became the first racer to cross the continental US in the dead of winter, no small feat in the dirt roads of those days. He rarely carried more than a camera, canteen, extra chains and tubes, and his .48 caliber revolver. In 1928, he beat a Twentieth Century Limited train from New York to Chicago. Out of all his record-setting drives, however, he might be best remembered for his 1933 trip from New York City to Los Angeles.
Driving a Graham-Paige Model 57 Blue Streak 8, Baker reached his destination in just 53.5 hours, a record that remained for four decades. This drive later inspired the famed Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Trophy Race (often called “The Cannonball Run” today) which in turn inspired several Hollywood movies.
By the end of the 1930s, point-to-point racing began to fall out of favor. Better roads combined with an increased push for enforcement of speed limits rendered the sport obsolete. Baker found other ways to stay active in racing. In 1947, he became the first chairman of NASCAR, a position that he held until his death in 1960.
In his lifetime, Edwin “Cannon Ball” Baker made 126 cross-country trips and set at least 55 records. He remains an important figure in early racing history. Baker was inducted into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame in 1981. A historic marker commemorating his lifetime achievements sits in front of his former Indianapolis residence.