Cannonball 2012 PDF Print E-mail
Written by BMWVMCA NEWS   
Saturday, 02 February 2013


by Larry Meeker


    Rewind back to September 2010 when four of us from the Jacksonville, FL area took a road trip to see the start of first m/c Cannonball up in Kitty Hawk, NC that featured 1916 and older bikes.  We all are members of the local Historical Motorcycle Society (HMS) and most of us belong to the local BMW club as well.   These and other local clubs help put on the Riding Into History m/c concours each year in May.


     We were all impressed and talked about the event all the way home.   Quietly, I think we all wondered what would make normal appearing people attempt such a crazy endeavor.  We all agreed we would try to check out the start of the 2011 event.  Many months later Bill Robinson heard there would not be a 2011 ride, but a 2012 was taking shape for bikes 1929 and older.  Bill had the original idea to go to Kitty Hawk and had another brainstorm.  With this change in the rules, he quickly figured out a BMW could be entered.


     Bill is a mostly retired advertising and marketing executive.  He is the “go to” guy when anyone needs to get something done in all the local m/c clubs that we are involved in around here.   He is one of the co-founders of our Riding Into History concours.   He approached local collector Jack Wells from Lake City, FL about forming a team around his 1929 BMW R11 Series I.  Jack was interested and as it turned out, had at least 3 bikes that qualified.   Our team number comes from BMW’s first year of production.   They talked and Norm Nelson was recruited to pilot the bike.  Norm is a retired commercial pilot, like Jack, and former nationally ranked AHMRA road racer.  Norm commutes between TX and FL, so he is no stranger to doing miles on old machines.   He has ridden his 1958 Sportster to Alaska a couple times and owns a 70’s Chevy Van he bought new that has about 500,000 miles on it today.  I was approached and agreed to be the road manager.   Being recently retired and a big airhead fan, I was in asked to find some teammates who knew more about airheads than any of us.  Chris Alley, a retired Mercedes tech and fellow R90s owner, was approached and agreed to head up the mechanical rebuild.   Days later he received an offer he couldn’t refuse to work on a special assignment at the new M-B plant in AL helping troubleshoot new cars.  We still needed tech help, so I contacted airhead extraordinaire Ed Miller from Tallahassee about our situation.   Ed had been generously helping me with a /2 project and was excited to get involved.  He would jump in and help us assess the bike while Chris was in AL.  Around this time Bill Botkin, another retired pilot, joined the team.   It needs to be stated that every member of the team owns a BMW airhead.



     As the team was being formed, Bill reviewed and presented the rules which stated our little sub 750cc R11 would be in Class 1.   We pooled our monies and were accepted just as the event filled up.   Only later did we learn there would be two other BMW entries.  Joe Gimpel from Daytona would be on a 1928 750cc R62 sourced from Blue Moon BMW and Darryl Richman from Santa Cruz, CA would be riding a 1929 500cc R52 that he had been actually riding around for a year.   Nearly all the other bikes would be larger, more powerful machines.


Joe Gimpel on 1928 R62



     We figured out who would go on the road and who would stay home.   Bill Robinson and his wife would be doing a m/c tour of Africa for the entire month of September, so he was excused.   Ed Miller had projects at home and other commitments, so he too was excused.   That left Jack to drive the motor-home, Norm to ride the bike and Chris, Bill and I to try to keep the bike running.


     The “rally” would start September 7th in Newburgh, NY and end September 23rd in San Francisco.  There would be 16 days of riding stages of about 250 miles per day.  We would have a day off near the midpoint in Sturgis, SD.  We figured the entire effort would cost about $15,000, maybe lots more.    With no major sponsors on board, we moved forward with plans to do this thing on a tight budget.


     The bike was fired and test ridden to see what we had to work with.   Based on this info, we agreed it would need a total mechanical rebuild starting with the magneto.  We had never worked on anything this old and learned very few others had ever worked on anything this old. The magneto and crank were shipped to different “experts” in Germany.   With an introduction from Vech at Bench Mark Works, we sent the transmission, driveshaft and final drive to Sam and Bob Davis in Mountain Home, Arkansas.   Over the summer we rewired things and cleaned.   Wheels were re-spoked and new Avons installed.   The crank came back worse than before it was rebuilt.  Big thanks to Chris Chambers in Huntsville for his expertise to recognize the crank problems and correct them.   The magneto finally came back and was installed along with the balance of the motor.   We had a number of teething issues during final assembly.   The biggest issue was a too long driveshaft.   We didn’t know what was wrong at first, but after a couple days we figured out the problem and eventually fixed it.   It needs to be mentioned that Jack Wells lives in an airpark fly-in community.   He has lots of retired buddies from all walks of life that possess many talents.   His friends took great interest in this project and were invaluable in helping us figure out most of our problems.   This brain trust came up with many unique solutions.  The part we worried about most was the magneto which never gave us pause.


     While we waited for our parts, we learned in July or August we were being moved into Class II to complete with bikes up to 1000cc.  This left only the 500cc bikes in Class 1.   We asked about this and voiced our displeasure, but there was nothing we could do.   We learned later on that there was some confusion within the organizations volunteer staff as to 750cc vs 45 ci.    We registered as 750cc or less and were put in Class I.   Other bikes, like Indian’s with a 45 cubic inch. motors were put into Class II.   The organizers had the final say and we moved on.


     Just prior to our departure, Jack’s Son in Law Rob Goetz was recruited to post email updates to an ever growing list of friends and family who wanted to be able to follow along.   During the event Rob did an outstanding job of reporting not only on us, but did the extra research to find out about the other teams and monitor what the organizers were doing as to PR.   We would receive countless reports from back home on how much readers enjoyed his reporting.   We actually learned stuff from reading his reports.   I was able to get on Tom Loudermilk’s Side-stand Up internet radio show 3 times during the event to provide live updates on our team and others.


     We got the bike back together and completed a measly 160 test miles before it was time to pack up for Newburgh, NY.   Each ride revealed new issues.   We were able to fix some of them after each short test ride and made a “things to do in NY” list of the other items needing attention.  This trend of making lists of things to do would continue over the next few weeks.   I was nervous departing with nearly zero spare parts of something would go wrong.


      Entrants were encouraged to arrive early and do a 45 mile test route around Newburgh.   The R11 performed very well on this test lap and was a real confidence builder when we really needed it.  The area around Newburgh was beautiful and threw all kinds of traffic situations at us.   For example, none of our FL test rides ever involved any hills.    The test route had a number of them and our mount proved it could climb hills well.  For the first time in all of our testing, the bike performed well during this test loop.  It actually started a couple times while hot, something it had never done prior.  It also wasn’t smoking or leaking as badly has it had been in FL.   This was our first positive milestone.  Later that day we needed to tighten the rear axle nut.   We couldn’t find a large enough wrench.  Bill Botkin took off looking for a tool to borrow.


     A couple hours later he and Chris return with a one-off socket made by the nice folks at O.C.C. (Orange County Choppers) next to the start hotel.  Yes, the same OCC featured on TV.   Their huge shop was open to Cannonball teams to visit or provide whatever help they could offer.


     The event started the next day and we treated each day as a separate event.  Each finish was another milestone.   As we moved into the Midwest we learned more about the very rough road conditions that would beat up all these old bikes.   We evolved into a nightly maintenance routine that stressed checking the torque of key fasteners and adding fluids.   We were still leaking a bit here and there so part of our nightly tech was to degrease so we could see if any parts were lose or fallen off.   Riders got the next days route sheets at the end of each day while the support teams had their routes in advance.  The support crew traveled in a 5th wheel RV owned by Jack on a different route each day from the route of the bikes.  This way crews would not be tempted to assist bikes on the daily route.   The contest was based on doing each mile of each stage.  That is the only way you could earn points.  There were countless ways to lose points. If you broke during a stage, a rally support or “chase” vehicle would pick up the bike and officially record that days miles for scoring.


     Some teams had a pickup truck and a couple Craftsman tool boxes while other teams had huge custom RV’s and trailers with fully functioning machine shops on wheels.   Everyone was busy working on their bikes each night.   About half the nights the bikes were required to be in an impound area for public display, usually for just a couple hours.   When the bikes were in this “parc ferme”, we couldn’t work on them.   The bikes would always draw a crowd.    We had big crowds in Sandusky, OH including Jack’s friends Bruce Williams and his buddy Kenny Danzey (the King).  They helped us work on the bike till the wee hours.  The next day Bruce got with Richard Sheckler to help forward a new rear axle to us in Iowa.  The largest crowd, except for the finish, was the next night at the Harley Davidson Museum in downtown Milwaukee.    There were 1000’s of folks waiting for the bikes to come across on the ferry, but they were late because of weather issues getting across Lake Michigan.   The bikes finally came in with a huge Police escort to the delight of the crowd.   That crowd was most there to see bikes of a certain American heritage, but they were friendly and fun.   In most other towns, the crowds came to see all the bikes and the riders.  One particular evening brought us to the small farming community of Burns, OR.   The big crowd was mostly made up of non-riding locals.   I talked to one couple who drove 50 miles saying nothing like this ever happens around there.


      Some nights the RV could park adjacent to the host motel.  Other nights, like in Spirit Lake, IA, the support vehicles had to park a mile away.   With Norm the only person checked out on the R11, this created some additional logistical challenges to make sure we got the bike back to the starting line each morning.   Other cities had the finish at one address with the start in yet another the next morning.  In the case of Murdo, SD, it  wasn’t too difficult as one could see from one end of town to the other.   We were invited to a number of hosted dinners and receptions as the Cannonball moved across the Country.   We also took advantage of motel showers, clean towels and free breakfasts as much as possible after the bikes departed each morning.   Norm was getting to know lots of the other riders and we were getting to know lots of the other team support members.   We borrowed tools and parts and other teams borrowed stuff from us.   Traveling from Milwaukee to Anamosa, IA across the upper Midwest Norm thought he broke a clutch cable.   He limped into a small town on the route where a HD dealer was hosting lunch for the riders.   Darryl Richman heard of Norm’s problem and offered him a new clutch cable.  Upon seeing this, a Harley mechanic offered to install the new cable during his lunch do Norm could eat and get some rest.   Turns out the ball end of the cable had just gotten out of position and was fine.   That night we worked on it some more and that was the end of that particular problem.   We learned there was a lot of gear crunching before the clutch was fixed which might explain a later transmission problem.



     We had some sort of electrical charging problem and would lose our lighting each afternoon.   We think the bad roads damaged our batteries and our generator.   However, between our battery chargers and batteries, we weren’t sure after a couple weeks of what was working and what wasn’t.   Add to all this our problems with the RV’s charging system.    Jack had a power inverter go bad and it was replaced during a side trip in Rapid City, SD.   We also were getting conflicting performance from the RV’s batteries as well. Police had warned the organizers in Sheridan, WY that State Law required bikes to have functioning lights. Many teams had already added LED lights to supplement compliance.   We made a late night walk to Wal-Mart for same.  A few days later in beautiful Jackson, WY we switched out the 6v bulbs to 12v and added a big, cheap 12v tractor battery on the rear rack. Since the battery is only needed for the lights, it would hold a good charge all day.


      As we moved up further in the standings going into the last few days we were both happy and nervous.   The bike was making more and more strange noises and some of it’s bad habits were starting to return.   The last real big problem was that Norm reported the bike would not stay in 1st gear on acceleration from a stop.   He tried everything, but he could not keep it in gear.   After to talking to Ed Miller on the phone, which we did almost daily, he said not to worry about the clutch and take off in 2nd gear.   The clutch was hard to adjust for some reason.  Too little slack and it dragged and we couldn’t get bike to start and too much it wouldn’t shift.  With a little push and some duck walking, Norm was able to figure it out and keep going.  We were relieved but still worried about the last day going through San Francisco’s hills.   The last day was going to be a short, mostly ceremonial 90 mile stage mostly just to get the bikes over the Golden Gate bridge after a photo shoot and then down to Dudley Perkins HD for the finish.   After the public photo shoot, every rider in the Bay area joined into the mix for a crazy 25 mile parade to the finish.   Some intersections had a Police presence for traffic control, but most did not.  A local m/c club was supposed to be in charge.  About this time Norm broke the front brake cable.   Norm had become friends with Mike Bell #41 on a HD and a fellow Texan.   Mike offered Norm some spare parts so Norm could fix the broken cable end and was back underway.   Norm did not want to negotiate San Francisco without first gear or a front brake.   Near the finish Mike’s bike went dead because of a bad wire on his battery.   Norm was able to help him finish in return.


      Around the corner there were 1000’s waiting at the finish.   I found Craig and Carol Vetter in the crowd.   They have attended a number of our Riding Into History concours events and had been following our progress.


      With a lot of luck, a great piece of equipment and the support of a hard working team we were able to complete all 3956 miles to end up in 3rd place.   19 bikes completed the entire event without any penalties.  These bikes were ranked by a formula that handicapped (favored) smaller, older bikes and older riders.  Joe suffered a burnt condenser and ended up 28th.  Darryl had head gasket problems over the last third of the event.  He made progress and got running again, but sadly ran off the road near his home on the last day for a DNF.   Both of these BMW’s were very strong runners.   Darryl was the overall leader for the first 5 days.   Without the help from both Joe and Darryl at different times, I don’t know if we would have done as well as we did.   We truly appreciate their help and the help from many of the other teams.   It was truly an adventure.   I’ve never spent 24 days on the road, much less every waking hour with the same 4 people.   We were friends when we left and remain so today.   While we got on each others nerves at times and didn’t always agree on things, we worked together and figured things out.   That made it a great experience.


     Had we not been moved to Class II in light of everything else that happened, we would have won the event. Lots of event videos and final results can be found at   We had a great time and traveled a total of 8000 miles over 24 days around this great Country.


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