Born in an Indiana log cabin in 1882, Baker’s family relocated to Indianapolis when he was just 12 years old. It was there that Baker would learn the machinist trade, and it was also where Baker became known for his athletic prowess in a variety of sports. After proving his skill at racing bicycles (and later, motorcycles), Baker purchased his first Indian motorcycle in 1908. Within a year, Baker would ride it to victory in one of the very first races held at the newly constructed Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Baker quickly established himself as the man to beat on two wheels, racking up 53 victories and an additional 20 podium finishes in the following years, setting 11 new speed records in the process. In 1912, Indian Motorcycles hired him as a factory-sponsored rider (a job he’d keep until 1924), and Baker went above and beyond the call of duty in keeping the Indian name in the headlines. In 1914, riding for Indian, Baker took part in a cross-country race that spanned 3,379 miles, of which just four were on paved roads (by contrast, 68 miles were run on railroad tracks). Baker completed the run in 11 days, 11 hours and 11 minutes, shattering the previous record by some nine days, and (perhaps more significantly) breaking the automobile cross-country record by four days. This feat prompted a New York newspaper reporter to nickname Baker “Cannon Ball,” after the expedient and unstoppable train run by the Illinois Central Railroad.
In 1915, Harry Stutz (of Stutz Motor Company fame) approached Baker with a generous offer: The company would give him a new Stutz Bearcat, but only if he could first set a new transcontinental record in the car. On May 15, 1915, Baker left San Diego, California, bound for New York City and accompanied by reporter Bill Sturm. The run was sponsored by the newly founded American Automobile Association, and 11 days, seven hours and 15 minutes later, the pair arrived in New York City. The time was good enough to establish a new cross-country record, but “Cannon Ball” Baker was never content to let a record sit for long.
In 1916, Baker and Sturm repeated the trip, finishing in just seven days, 11 hours and 53 minutes. Along the way, Baker received his very first speeding ticket, and motorized police patrols were added to the list of obstacles and challenges that Baker would face on future jaunts.
During World War I, Baker supported the war effort by leading bond drives and teaching soldiers stationed at Fort Benjamin Harrison how to drive. Following the war, Baker toured the country, visiting the capital city of each of the (then) 48 states, a feat that saw him rack up 16,234 miles in 78 days, 18 hours and 33 minutes. To cap off this achievement (during which he reportedly slept just 17 hours), Baker celebrated by taking a “three flag” motorcycle trip from Tijuana, Mexico, to the Canadian border, setting a record of two days and five hours.
While Baker’s claim to fame was record distance runs on two and four wheels (during which he promised sponsors, “no record, no money”), he spent time racing cars as well. In 1922, Baker was hired by Louis Chevrolet to drive a Frontenac in the Indianapolis 500, but mechanical difficulties limited him to an 11th place finish. It would be Baker’s only attempt to win the Indianapolis 500, though not his only attempt at racing cars; among other events, Baker would go on to compete in New Hampshire’s Mount Washington Hill Climb on several occasions.
As the years went by, Baker continued racking up transcontinental records. Driving a 1926 Ford Model T, he made the coast-to-coast run in five days, two hours and 13 minutes. A year later, he’d haul three tons of seawater from New York to San Francisco in five days, 17 hours and 36 minutes, driving a truck built by General Motors. By 1928, Baker had cut the time for a cross-country trip by automobile down to 69 hours and 31 minutes (driving an air-cooled Franklin).
Perhaps his most inspirational record of all came in 1933, when Cannon Ball Baker drove a supercharged Graham-Paige Model 57 across the country in just 53 hours and 30 minutes, reportedly taking just one 30-minute rest stop on the entire journey. Despite vast improvements to roads and automobiles, Baker’s record would stand until 1971, when Brock Yates and Dan Gurney crossed the United States in 35 hours and 54 minutes as part of the inaugural “Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash.”
Baker dabbled in inventing, too, constructing things like a “Gas Engine Fuel Economizer” and a single-cylinder rotary motorcycle engine. Neither brought him the fortune he envisioned, so Baker continued to focus on setting endurance and fuel economy records, traveling as far as Australia and New Zealand to do so. On one North American run, Baker rode a Neracar motorcycle 3,364 miles on just 45 gallons of gasoline, averaging a still-impressive 74.76 miles per gallon.
His motorcycling background eventually led to a role as an American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) race official, and his automotive racing and record-setting experience prompted Bill France, Sr. to appoint Baker as the first commissioner of NASCAR in 1947. Baker would remain in this role until his death from a heart attack in May of 1960, at the age of 78.
Though many of Cannon Ball Baker’s records have fallen over the years (the current unofficial record for a transcontinental run, set by Alex Roy and David Maher in 2006, is just 31 hours and 4 minutes), it’s worth pointing out how relatively carefree such attempts have become. Today’s interstate highway system is significantly improved from the roads Baker was forced to traverse in the early decades of the 20th century, and automobiles have become far more reliable. Factor in the near-universal availability of gasoline (a luxury Baker didn’t have) and modern conveniences like global positioning systems and traffic alerts, and today’s faster times fail to impress as much as Baker’s did.
Though he may not be remembered for racking up championships in various racing series, Baker’s proven ability to ride or drive nearly anything with wheels for extended periods of time, proven over 143 distance record attempts, makes him a true racing hero.