Story by Guy Anderson
Photos copyright Guy Anderson
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In 1980 I received a call from my good friend Jeff Glasserow, who worked in the film industry. Jeff worked for Ted Turner at the ‘Super Station WTBS and the all-new CNN center here in Atlanta.
Jeff called to inform me there was a new Burt Reynolds movie that was going to begin shooting in Atlanta in a few weeks. The subject of the movie was racing a Lamborghini in a coast to coast race called the “Cannonball Run.” The race invented by Brock Yates was officially called: “The Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining Sea Memorial Trophy Dash.” Brock Yates had written the script for the movie to be called The Cannonball Run and directed by famed stunt man and a participant in the original Cannonball run, Hal Needham.
The shooting location for the movie was located on the perimeter of I-285 close to the entrance of I-20 on the east side of Atlanta, Georgia. The Inn that was commandeered for filming was called the Old English Inn for obvious reasons. The movie execs, including the actors and extras, took over the property for quite some time.
The movie making at the Inn was almost non- stop. The action began in the morning and was still going into the night, depending on what sequence were being filmed. Outside of the film area, behind the barriers, is where the starlets could be found that wanted nothing more than to be “DISCOVERED”. These women were lined up behind the barricades in bunches. They wore full makeup and were dressed to the hilt including heels. Some of the ladies were so gorgeous that it was impossible to concentrate on what we needed to do.
My part was to supply some cars for the production and it was a toss-up on what cars would be most fitting for this movie. One of the cars we were going to include was a 1968 Lamborghini Miura P400 that was recently restored. Others that we used were a 1969 De Tomaso Mangusta, a 1972 De Tomaso Pantera GTS and a 1974 Dino Ferrari GTS that a close friend owned at that time.
It was decided that the older Lamborghini Miura P400 should not participate since the main attraction and star of the film was a black 1979 Lamborghini Countach S with a complementing Champagne interior. SN The owner’s name was Terry ???? and his Countach S was equipped with a front retractable wing that was a fully D.O.T. compliant bumper of the car. The Lamborghini had a rear bumper manufactured to comply with D.O.T. regulations as well. This vehicle had antennas all over it for its telephone and CB radio to communicate back and forth to the film crew and while on the road. One really neat distinguishing feature of the Cannonball Countach was the 12 Anza exhaust tips mounted in the muffler that were fully functional. When starting-up the Cannonball Countach you can see the smoke leave the Anza exhaust from one side, one-by-one, to the other side. This was really impressive and serves to identify the one and only Cannonball Countach.
The participants were issued a written insurance policy for damage while on the film set. The insurance policy was written for 1 million dollars each. This was really cool, or so we thought. But after talking to the execs we were informed the policy was to cover the cameras in case we lost control and smashed into one or more. “What about our cars?” we inquired and the answer was, “Do you know how to drive or not?” Well with that said we all agreed we had many thousands of hours in cars and would not let a small detail like insurance coverage stop us.
Little did we know, the insurance actually covered all the facets pertaining to filming, whether it was physical damage, property damage, or film equipment damage. Early on that day, the cars were staged for filming the start of the race. At the end of a long double row of cars, the feature cars were to be filmed blasting down the runway lined with vehicles on each side prior to entering the motel entrance area. In the area in front of the Inn is where the start time clock receipt was to be punched to begin the race for each participating vehicle. The object of the race beginning was to start the car in total darkness, rev-up the car constantly for the sound effects, and then turn on the cars lights. The instruction was given to “cut it loose!” from the stunt coordinator via walkie talkie.
Living in the Deep South with most of us just being a bunch of good ol’ boys we interpreted ‘cut it loose’ the same as ‘light-em-up’ in the language of the old south. This is a Burt Reynolds movie and we perceived him as a man who relates to the Deep South with his really cool good ol’ boy movies like Smoky and the Bandit. So during filming of this night scene we dropped the hammer and all hell broke loose. The Pantera did a fantastic job pulling sideways with a dragstrip-style burnout that tore off some rubber and asphalt while the onlookers, extras, and actors were clapping and cheering, The Mangusta did great as well with a solid burnout as the crowd again cheered and yelled. The Dino got its turn and on command it revved several times only to fall just a bit flat. It was tried many times but the combination of a cold engine and V-6 did not help the burnout situation. The other cars got with the program and were something to watch. The Countach was lit up by the stunt doubles and did a great job getting it done.
In order to set up for night scene with the cars burning out, the construction of a moonlight set was required. The lighting prop was a huge gigantic pyramid framework covered in cheesecloth fabric used to diffuse the light and simulate a moonlit evening. Inside the base of the pyramid were enough lights glowing to light up the entire parking lot with the diffused moonlight. The structure was so big, a self-propelled crane was needed to lift and move it into position about 12 feet high over the set.
The crane was positioned before the overhang outside of the double row of cars used in the movie. The hydraulic expanding arms were extended outward and lowered to plant the crane firmly on the ground while the boom was extended. One of several arms was on the concrete, another was out with its pad on the ground, and the rear arm was extended and its pad was placed on the ground, which was still damp from a sudden burst of rain the day before.
As the moonlight crane sat for hours, no one noticed that the soft ground had given way for the crane to tilt ever so slightly. There was a lot going on in the way of filming and the slight movements of the crane went undetected. That is until someone yelled out that the crane was sinking – just moments before gravity took its toll. It was just enough time for the actors and extras to flee the scene. The loud crash was heard by all and the film set was filled with screaming that echoed from the walls of the English Inn. Smoke as thick as a London fog filled the area where the crane fell as the bulbs exploded and smoke covered the complete area.
Next week, Cannonball Part 2
*Although there may be no need to explain The Cannonball Run movie, we should provide a bit of background. It was based on the 1979 running of Brock Yate’s coast to coast run properly called the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. Yates did the event five times to protest the 55 mile per hour speed limit in effect at the time. It began in Darien, Connecticut or New York City but always ended up in Redondo Beach California. According to Wiki, the record for official Cannonballs is 32 hours and 51 minutes (about 87 mph), set in the final run by Dave Heinz and Dave Yarborough in a Jaguar XJS in April 1979. Yates began working on a screenplay in 1976, but was himself scooped by the movies Cannonball and The Gumball Rally. Finally, the “official” Cannonball Run movie was made, which is the subject of Guy Anderson’s article.
And we need to mention that at least several VeloceToday readers (and supporters) engaged in the original Cannonballs; Toly Arutunoff did the run in 1975 with his Bristol Zagato in 49 hour and 32 minutes to and in 1979 with a Volvo 242 GT. Judy Stropus and Donna Mae Mims did it in 1972 with a Caddy Limo but her all women team had a rollover and did not finish. Per Wiki, “In the movie, it became a two-woman team led by buxom Adrienne Barbeau driving a Lamborghini, but as auto writer Stropus said decades later, ‘a little editorial license never hurt anyone.’”
The list of entrants also included Bill Warner, Jacques Villeneuve, director Hal Needam, Dan Gurney, Ferrari collector Gil Nickels, Tony Adamowicz, and Oscar Kovaleski. – Editor