Cannonball Re-Run: A screwball crew of gearheads retool the outlaw cross-country car race

Team Project Interceptor is tearing into Sacramento, California, at 110 mph. The long spidery fingers gripping the wheel belong to the team captain, 26-year-old Alex Macfarlane of St. Louis, who's guessing — more like hoping — that our 1999 Ford Crown Victoria has enough gas to reach the finish in San Francisco. But who knows? It's 1:30 a.m. and the dashboard lights died a few counties back, so he can't read the fuel gauge.

We might still win the "2904," an underground coast-to-coast car race that began in New York City on November 7, more than 35 grueling hours ago. Though we might not.

At six-foot-nine with size nineteen shoes, Macfarlane is crunched up like an accordion in the driver's seat complaining of sore knees. He sells dildos for a living. He's failed to mention that he suffers from a congenital heart condition, which at this velocity would seem to be pertinent information.

Chris LaCon hustles Project Interceptor toward the mountains of Wyoming.
Nicholas Phillips
Chris LaCon hustles Project Interceptor toward the mountains of Wyoming.
Alex Macfarlane shows off his laser jammer, a radar-gun-scrambling device.
Nicholas Phillips
Alex Macfarlane shows off his laser jammer, a radar-gun-scrambling device.



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Riding shotgun and spotting for Macfarlane is Chris LaCon, 23, a red-bearded undergraduate from the University of New Hampshire. He's rotating his shoulders fore and aft, scanning Interstate 80's entrance ramps and overpasses with a pair of binoculars. He's watching for "Smokeys," the old nickname for state troopers who sport Smokey Bear-style wide-brimmed hats.

Macfarlane and LaCon have both swallowed a 5-Hour Energy shot and have now attained a dreamlike state in which slicing through late-night traffic no longer feels reckless.

The Crown Vic hits a bump and bounces like a speedboat. St. Louis' other team member is 43-year-old Dean Engledow, who has resurfaced from an iPod-induced nap (the Crown Vic has no working radio). A squat and chatty former St. Louis City cop, Engledow peers bleary-eyed through the windshield, silent for now.

Somewhere behind us in the darkness, a black GMC van with a red stripe on either side is barreling forward, manned by three guys dressed as characters from The A-Team. Also giving chase is a 1979 Lincoln Continental Mark V with flames spray-painted on its flanks.

What we have here is a ragtag romp across America. But this is no road trip; it's a road race, from Manhattan to the Golden Gate — a total of 2,904 miles — on a budget that cannot exceed $2,904.

Just like the madcap Cannonball Run races of three decades ago, the idea is to go as fast as you fucking can. And if that means doing 115 mph in a junky old police cruiser, rigging up auxiliary gasoline tanks, subsisting on beef jerky and peeing into plastic bags to save time, well, so be it.

Welcome to the "twenny-nine-oh-four."

The world record for driving from New York City to Los Angeles is a blistering 31 hours and 4 minutes. It was set in 2006 by Alex Roy, a wealthy 35-year-old bachelor with a BMW M5 and something to prove.

The flamboyant Roy poured $75,000 into accomplishing his feat, which required an average speed of 90.1 mph. Expenses included gadgetry of high precision and a complex spreadsheet system, plus a small reconnaissance aircraft thrown in for good measure. He then parlayed his exploits into a book deal, an appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman and international notoriety.

John Ficarra, founder of the 2904, considers Alex Roy a "trust fund baby douchebag."

"Almost any twerp can hop in a megabuck cruiser and blow across the U.S. in record time," complains Ficarra, who is 40 and lives in Brooklyn, New York. "But what if you had to do it in a cheap old used car or truck? What if you had to use old-fashioned American ingenuity instead of just opening your checkbook? "

A trained actor and co-owner of Creative Film Cars, a New York-based company that furnishes automobiles for film shoots, Ficarra felt Roy betrayed something essential to outlaw car-racing culture. He began reading up on the history of the infamous Cannonball Run, whose route was the same one Roy took three years ago.

The Cannonball was run five times in the 1970s and has become the stuff of legend, inspiring offshoot competitions and a half-dozen feature films; the most famous is 1981's Cannonball Run, starring Burt Reynolds, Farrah Fawcett and Dom DeLuise.

Riding in everything from Ferraris to beat-up vans, drivers donned Catholic priest garb, police badges, construction-work helmets — you name it — in the hope of outfoxing lawmen on the byways of rural America.

"I just liked the insanity of it," says Ficarra, who wanted to merge the original Cannonball concept with another quirky motor-sports event, 24 Hours of LeMons, where disposable jalopies costing less than $500 endure a bruising day of track racing.

For this new hybrid contest, Ficarra would move the Cannonball's traditional finish line from Los Angeles to San Francisco because, he says, "I hate LA."

In the spring of 2007 Ficarra fired off an e-mail to friends sketching out his idea, hoping to recruit racers starved for clunker glory. Only three teams answered the call and competed that first year. In 2008 five teams showed up, including one sponsored by the British magazine Top Gear.

In the weeks leading up to this year's 2904, Ficarra was expecting seven different teams from across the country, including one led by a polite young Missourian named Alex Macfarlane. When it came to cars, Ficarra says, Macfarlane seemed to know his stuff.

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