posted on October 16th, 2019

New film tells the tale of the fabled Cannonball Run

There is a little-known event, best known as the Cannonball Run to those who are in the know, where people attempt to drive from New York to Los Angeles as fast as possible. It is an illegal race, organized and executed in the shadows, part of a world where unfettered freedom and speed are taken very seriously. A new documentary, APEX: The Secret Race Across America, offers a window into this world.

The film (narrated by the one and only Ice-T) bounces between two stories. The first is of the 1983 US Express, the final form of the long-running Cannonball Run (re-dubbed after a 1981 Burt Reynolds comedy of the same name drew FBI attention to the race) where participants drove Ferraris and other supercars fitted with extra gas tanks from coast to coast, hoping to be the fastest ever. That run resulted in a 32-hour seven-minute record that stood for decades after the race was mostly abandoned due to a crackdown by law enforcement.

The second takes place in 2006, when Alex Roy blasted through that 1983 record in a highly-modified BMW M5, resurrecting a fascination with the niche event and the culture surrounding it. If you’re a car enthusiast, you’ve likely heard of Alex Roy and his record-breaking cross-country run (the time has since been beaten). He’s written a book and many articles about it, and now treats audiences to never-before-seen footage of his successful attempt.

While we certainly don’t encourage any form of street racing, this story provides unusual lessons on the dedication and thought required to achieve things previously thought impossible. It is, on the surface, a sort of celebration of the event, but viewers will undoubtedly come away with varying opinions. We spoke with Alex Roy after watching the film to find out how he pulled off this documentary and why he’s telling this story.

APEX: The Secret Race Across America debuts October 20 on NBC Sports. Interested viewers can sign up for updates on the iTunes release in late November.

Q & A with Alex Roy

Turo: What about this race do you think makes people find it so fascinating?

Alex Roy: In 2002, Brock Yates, the father of the Cannonball Run, said this kind of thing couldn’t happen again. All these years later, it’s still going on. For every person that says something isn’t possible, there’s always going to be someone that says “let’s try.” Anyone who puts their mind to something can do anything if they’re professional about it, if they’re safe about it, if they take it seriously. I would say this is sort of a cautionary tale for those kinds of people.

T: Do you feel like this is the final telling of this story? Can this race continue in today’s world?

AR: I still drive cross-country once or twice a year, only now it’s in an electric car. Because what Brock Yates did in the original runs, pushing the abilities of the gas-powered car, that’s what’s happening today with the EV. And this is never going to end, because as long as machines exist, people will always want to test their limits, to use them as they maybe weren’t intended.

T: Where did all this footage from 1983 US Express come from?

AR: The original organizer, Rick Doherty, was definitely planning on making a documentary, though we don’t know exactly why it didn’t happen. Many years later when he met Cory Welles, I guess that was in the early 2000s, she convinced him there should be a film about this mythical, unreal achievement. So Cory had tracked down a lot of the US Express drivers. In speaking with them and as she and I explored how to possibly go about doing it, we realized the record was real and we could do it. And if we could break the record, doing it safer and faster, we could unlock the imagination of everyone who’s ever thought about doing something like this.

T: How did Ice-T get involved?

AR: JF Musial, founder of The Drive and producer of the first APEX movie, had changed Ice-T’s tire on a road rally one time. So they became friends after that. And Ice is a big car guy, not just some celebrity who collects cars — he really drives his cars. And he’s a really good guy, he was totally enthusiastic about the project.

T: Why did you film so much of your illegal 2006 run — were you always planning on making a film about it?

AR: Well I thought that if we went, whether we succeeded or failed, I didn’t know how we would prove we did it unless we brought a camera crew. There’s that saying “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” So we had to do something extraordinary to prove it. Back then, we didn’t have the technology we have today — recording our location, speed, etc. required hard evidence. GPS tracking for cars was primitive. We had to use cameras recording in tapes.

T: After 13 years, how do you think about the illegal nature of the race? How do you respond to criticisms that this promotes reckless behavior?

AR: I work in automotive safety now, especially on autonomous vehicle technology, precisely because of what we did and what we learned. I give a lot of talks, and I always say the same thing: approximately 40,00 people a year die on our roads. And most of them have spent no more than a few hours intentionally learning how to drive a car safely. The drivers who did the Cannonball and US Express are overwhelmingly more professional and safer than the average driver. There’s never been a major incident in any of those races. Street racing as we know it, like in the Fast & Furious films, is incredibly dangerous and lacks respect for anyone else on the road. But we spent thousands of hours of planning for every hour spent on the road, minimizing every possible factor that might impede our safe progress — weather, pedestrians, traffic. And that’s the only reason we succeeded.

Steven is an avid car guy and content specialist at Turo. Between Golden State Warriors games he can be found getting lost somewhere in California.