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The Cannonball Run and the Birth of the Mainstream Big Game

This is my paper and presentation for Frank Lantz’s Big Games class

The year is 1981. In January, Ronald Reagan is inaugurated as the 40th President. And then shot by John Hinckley, Jr. two months later. He’s not the only one to survive an assassin: in May, Pope John Paul II is shot in Rome. In June, the first recognized cases of AIDS are reported by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A new cable channel launches in August called MTV and eventually – for better or worse – revolutionizes media. Bob Marley dies. Paris Hilton is born. And all the while the Cold War rages on. In a word, 1981 sucked. In retrospect, if ever there was a year where the world needed some fun, it was perhaps this particular year. The world needed a laugh. The world needed a game.

Would video games come to the rescue? In 1981, Nintendo released the arcade game Donkey Kong while Namco brought Ms. Pac-Man and Galaga to the marketplace. Konami developed Frogger. The revolution had begun and people sensed it. What was largely undetected at the time, however, was another movement in the gaming front – a movement that wouldn’t even be given a name for years to come. We now call it Big Games. And in 1981, a Big Game would reach the masses for the first time and provide plenty of laughs.

If in the definition of a Big Game you include that A) the game (in some fashion) must take a physical environment and repurpose it for the sake of the game play, while B) offering some aspect of social interaction – then I would argue that none other than the 1981 smash hit film The Cannonball Run as the first Big Game to reach public consciousness. Sure, there were games before this that qualify as Big Games. No Big Game, however, reached an audience like The Cannonball Run. No Big Game had become a household name before Cannonball.

Just a movie, you say? Let me offer you the history of THE Cannonball Run: In the mid-1970’s, a man by the name of Brock Yates started an underground race. Inspired by Erwin “Cannonball” Baker’s 143 blazing trips across North America in the 1930s (Baker held the record for fastest trip from New York City to Los Angeles for 40 years), Yates developed a simple premise for the race: the first car to reach Los Angeles from New York City wins. As executive editor of Car and Driver Magazine, Brock knew a thing or two about fast cars and was certainly tapped into the automotive world. He was also unhappy with the government. High fuel prices in the late 1970’s prompted the U.S. government to impose 55 mph speed restrictions on cars traveling the interstate system. Yates wanted to do something as a sign of protest to these restrictions. His answer was the “Cannonball Baker Sea to Shining Sea Memorial Trophy Dash,” or the orginal Cannonball Run. The race became an underground success, although considered illegal because of the speeding of its competitors. The race was run five times (although the first was a dry run by Yates) in the 1970’s. Brock Yates would win the race himself in the second running, along with American racing legend Dan Gurney, and set a new record of just under 36 hours to complete the trip… averaging 80 mph for the entire distance.

So what did Yates do as an encore? He took this underground Big Game to the mainstream by writing a screenplay about his experience. Originally set as a dramatic tale to star Steve McQueen, McQueen’s untimely demise to cancer called for a change of tactic for Yates. Partnered with director Hal Needham (who also raced in a real Cannonball Run), Yates and Needham turned The Cannonball Run film into a slapstick comedy as Needham convinced then struggling actor Burt Reynolds into starring. Needham and Reynolds had worked together before on the smash hit Smokey and the Bandit, a movie also about cars and out running the law. To make a long story short, the premise of pairing Reynolds with fast cars worked again. The Cannonball Run film grossed over $72 million in 1981, the sixth highest grossing film of that year.

With this Big Game becoming part of modern lexicon, imitators of The Cannonball Run started performing their own attempts of staging coast-to-coast car races. Since 1999, the annual Gumball 3000 has been raced all over the world (most imitators of The Cannonball Run keep the word “ball” in the name). To this day, there are reported attempts of amateurs vying for the record for fastest time from New York City to Los Angeles. So here’s the big question: why? Is it the world’s love affair with the automobile? Our obsession with speed and records? What did the movie The Cannonball Run spark in so many people?

The answer is simple: while the movie The Cannonball Run will be put on any AFI list for the 20th Century’s greatest films, the story resonates with the casual viewer because it provides a sense of autonomy against government, great fun in the face of danger and chaos, and the viewer is invited along for the entire ride with each eccentric character. In other words, the film achieves what every Big Game strives to provide its participants. By portraying a Big Game, The Cannonball Run brings the experience of participation in a Big Game. In 1981, such an experience was a relatively new concept – people having fun by repurposing an environment together (in this case using the Interstate System as a race track and breaking laws). As outlandish as The Cannonball Run film is, the movie was, and is, a successful film because it captured the essence of Big Games.

I would also argue The Cannonball Run is largely responsible for introducing the idea of Big Games to the masses. This includes providing inspiration to many reality game shows that dominate television (again thanks to MTV with their reality game show Road Rules). To this day, Big Games seem to offer the most original content through underground or under publicized events, but even mainstream Big Games that appear in television and film tend to run successful. CBS’s Survivor enters its 15th season this fall. The Great Race has been aired since 2001. The concept of these shows is nearly identical to the movie The Cannonball Run: invite viewers along for the ride with several eccentric characters as they compete in a game that repurposes an existing environment. Why does this recipe continue to prove successful? We all want to be apart of a Big Game. We all want fun in a social context and we all want autonomy from existing structures – and if you can’t join them, you might as well watch them. The legacy of The Cannonball Run lives on, and I don’t mean repeats on cable television.


  1. Dave wrote:

    The info on how the movie came to be is inaccurate. It was never meant as a Steve McQueen vehicle, it was lawys Burt, and Brock Yates book is filled with inaccuracies as far as the movie is concerned. The interview with Hal Needham on my site should set it straight.

    Thanks for the great piece!


    (no www. on the website, by the way)

    Friday, September 21, 2007 at 1:44 pm | Permalink
  2. Dave wrote:

    Friday, September 21, 2007 at 1:44 pm | Permalink
  3. Charles wrote:

    Great article, man. I think we should do a remake of the movie with Frank Lantz taking over for Burt Reynolds. It’s success would be inevitable.

    Friday, September 21, 2007 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

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