Erwin “Cannon Ball” Baker, vaudevillian turned NASCAR icon

In life we choose our own paths, but some are better at doing it than others. No one can say that Erwin “Cannon Ball” Baker didn’t live his best life after so he had so many different experiences. He went from vaudevillian act to transcontinental explorer, to a NASCAR icon. This is the life and times of Erwin “Cannon Ball” Baker.

Vaudevillian extraordinaire

Before he was known for racing and driving motorcycles across the country, Erwin Baker had his very own vaudeville act during the early 1900s. Vaudeville acts were essentially variety performers, and Baker had one that probably wouldn’t make America’s Got Talent today. His act was basically to keep multiple punching bags going at the same time.

Baker got his first taste of competition on the vaudeville circuit and was challenged by another, who had the same routine. The man who would become known as “Cannon Ball” proposed to keep 12 bags going, while his rival could only stretch to eight. Baker got his first nickname and was billed as the “champion bag puncher.”

Passion for bikes

Baker earned some fame and recognition as a vaudeville act, but it was his skill with a motorcycle that truly made him famous. In 1909, Baker competed alongside a group of drivers at the freshly opened Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Motorcycle races were held at the famed speedway, and Baker took first place at the inaugural contest.

At this point, he was already regarded as an excellent daredevil rider, but now he was also fast. Only two months later Baker would compete at a series of races at Dayton, Ohio, and took home another couple of victories.

His reputation as a skilled rider was growing, and he would travel all over the country to compete in races, setting course records practically everywhere he went. In 1912 he would begin an association with Indian Motorcycles after sealing 53 victories in his early racing years.

Cross country race

With his popularity higher than ever, Baker wanted to push himself even further. In 1914 he took part in a cross country race and smashed the record as he crossed the finish line in 11 days, 11 hours, and 11 minutes. That time meant Baker broke the record by nine days, even though only four of the roads he drove on were paved.

He even drove 68 miles of the journey from one side of the country to the other on rail tracks. After smashing the cross country record, one New York newspaper labeled the for vaudevillian Erwin “Cannon Ball” Baker.

Breaking his own record

Baker was famous now and the following year, 1915, he was approached by Harry Stutz, from the Stutz Motor Company, who wanted “Cannon Ball” to set a new record. He was offering Baker a new Stutz Bearcat if he would drive his automobile across the country and set a new transcontinental record.

It was precisely the kind of challenge that Baker liked, and he beat his own record by four hours. Just one year later, Baker was at it again and completed the same route in a much shorter time, seven days, 11 hours, and 53 minutes. On this trip, Baker was given his very first speeding ticket, and police patrols were now something that he would have to avoid.

Helping the war effort

During his record-breaking years, Baker was doing his best to help his country during World War I. He would teach soldiers how to drive and lead bond drives. After the war was over, Baker visited the then 48 state capital cities before embarking on a “three flag” trip from Mexico to Canada. In 1922 Baker tried to win the Indianapolis 500, but could only place in 11th following mechanical difficulties.

His best record

By 1933, Baker had become very familiar with the cross country route and was looking to do something special. He had smashed his record numerous times, but now it was time to pull out something very special. Baker drove across the country in just 53 hours and 30 minutes after allegedly only taking one 30-minute break.

His record would stand until 1971 in the very first “Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash.” This would be the inspiration behind the Hollywood smash hit movie The Cannonball Run, starring Burt Reynolds.

Becoming an official

Thanks to his history with motorcycles and automobiles, Baker became a race official for the American Motorcyclist Association. Later he became the first commissioner of NASCAR in 1947. He maintained that role looking after the NASCAR series until his passing in 1960 at the age of 78.

Many of those records he set have since fallen to faster drivers, but the majority of the routes Baker took were on unpaved roads. Plus Baker couldn’t just roll up to a gas station like modern day transcontinental drivers, can, he had much fewer options. The machinery was much less reliable back in those days too, so his accomplishments were made much harder.

Baker is a racing hero thanks to his ability to be able to drive pretty much anything that had wheels. He started his working life as a vaudevillian before becoming one of the most influential figures in the history of motor racing.