Indian Riders
Header image



Motocycle Club
Indian Motocycles - you can't wear them out                                  Indian Motocycles - built to last
Cannonball Baker

Born in Dearborn County, Indiana in 1882, Erwin Baker was an early motorcycling pioneer who set numerous cross-country records riding a variety of motorcycles and motorcars. During his remarkable and largely unrecorded career, he made more than 143 attempts at a variety of timed, long-distance records, including his most famous transcontinental and three flags (Canada to Mexico) attempts. Little has been written about this remarkable man.

Baker was brought up in Indianapolis where he trained as a machinist and worked in a foundry. He became interested in athletics and took part in the popular bicycle racing craze of the time, which led to him riding some of the first motorized bicycles. In 1908, Baker purchased an Indian motorcycle and began entering and winning local races. His most famous victory came in 1909 at the first race held at the newly built Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It was during this time that Baker began his endurance runs. Most of his early records were city-to-city runs, including his well-publicised racing of passenger trains from town to town. These were in the days before well-maintained roads, often encountering deep mud, 'sand washes', flooded river crossings and snowed-in mountain passes during his long-distance attempts.

Baker's career really took off in 1912 when Indian's George Hendee commissioned Baker to take a two-speed, seven-horsepower model on a demonstration tour of Cuba and Central America. Baker remained closely associated with Indian for the rest of his motorcycle endurance career, although he also undertook record rides for other motorcycle makers. In 1913, Baker rode an Indian on a record transcontinental trip which ended in Savannah, Georgia. Once there, he entered the 300-mile national championship on the same machine he had just ridden across the country.

From the 1910s through the 1930s, he set 143 driving records. Probably his best remembered drive was in 1933, New York City to Los Angeles, setting a 53.5 hour record that stood for nearly 40 years.

In 1914 Cannonball Baker, astride a big, 61-cubic inch Indian V-twin, rode across the continent in abominable conditions. He was quoted as twice having to shoot pursuing dogs with his handgun, having to push his 'out-of-gas' heavyweight for miles in 119-degree heat, and routinely wrestling with muddy roads that he described as "plowed fields." It took him 11 days, 12 hours and 10 minutes to travel the 3,379 miles, most of them standing up -- the Indian's "suspension", a semi-flexible frame was hardly designed for such conditions. A New York newspaper writer compared him to the Cannonball Express train and he picked up the famous 'nick-name' that would stick with him for the rest of his life.
He also did it on four wheels, which must've been considerably easier compared to his motorcycle rides. In 1915 he was hired by the car manufacturer Stutz, to demonstrate the reliability of their cars and he drove from Los Angeles to New York in 11 days. The next year he dropped his record time to seven days. In 1922 he teamed with a mechanic and drove a Templar racing prototype across country in six days, 17 hours and 16 minutes. [Templar manufactured a variety of quality small cars in Lakewood, Ohio from 1917 to 1924. The company named after the Knights Templar, used a Maltese Cross as an emblem and was one of the many small manufacturers who failed in the mid-twenties]
In 1933, at the age of 51, he did it in less than three days, a remarkable achievement. ". . . Nothing even approaches, in my opinion, the incontestable pinnacle of transcontenental driving--the run of the marvelous Ernest G. "Cannonball" Baker in the spring of 1933. Then aged 51, Cannonball drove a new supercharged Graham from New York to Los Angeles in 53 hours and 30 minutes. driving singlehanded, without the benefit of a centimeter of Interstate, and enjoying very little in the way of smooth pavement, plus having to traverse every blasted small town along the way, he made the trip at an average speed in the neighborhood of 60 mph!" Brock Yates [Graham-Paige was an American car manufacturer founded by the three Graham brothers in 1927 and while surviving the depression eventually ceased production in 1940. In 1932, they launched one of the most stylish and advanced engineering designs to come out of the Depression-era American car scene, the Graham "Blue Streak" Eight; a car that combined trend-setting appearance with the magic of supercharging.]


Cannonball Baker


Baker set numerous records in foreign countries, most notably Australia and New Zealand. He went on to compete in hillclimbs and motor races. As a 'Rookie' he entered the 1922 Indy 500, finishing a very creditable 11th, just missing out on prize money, at an average speed of 79.25 mph driving a Frontenac. [The Frontenac Motor Car Company, was founded in 1924, by Louis Chevrolet who became a successful independent racecar designer. One of his cars, a straight eight-cylinder Frontenac driven by his brother, Gaston won the 1920 Indianapolis race. This was the first American-built car to win a race at the Indianapolis Derby since 1912. American motor racing fans went wild. Success, however, was short lived. The Frontenac Motor Company failed in 1921] Baker went on to become the first commissioner of NASCAR and presided over the early days of the Indy circuit.
By the 1930s, Baker began shifting his focus and most of his record attempts were in motorcars. He also became a test driver for car companies, including Rickenbacker Automobiles, which was owned by the famous World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker. He did not abandon motorcycles, but began increasingly to participate in economy runs. In one such run, he drove his Neracar motorcycle 3,364 miles averaging over 74 miles per gallon. After his record-setting days were over, he took up building miniature racing cars. Cannonball Baker died of a heart attack at age 78 in 1960, and is perhaps the most famous motorcyclist of the early 20th century. His 'nick-name' continues to be used as an essential adjective by today's promoters of endurance events around the world.
Postscript 1: "Cannonball" Baker is undoubtably the best known of the 'endurance' riders of that era. However there were many others, in particular women riders of note. In 1916, two sisters, Augusta and Adeline Van Buren claimed to be the first women to ride motorcycles coast-to-coast across the U.S. They set off on July 14, 1916, from Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn and headed west through Chicago on their Indian Power-Plus motorcycles. Although one of the best motorcycles of that period, they would travel almost exclusively on punishing dirt roads which must have tested their stamina. After surviving many crashes, breakdowns, mud holes, dehydration, and being arrested for wearing men's clothing! they finally arrived in San Francisco on September 2, 1916. In the following year Effie Hotchkiss, decided she wanted to travel coast to coast, and purchased a 1915, 3 Speed V-Twin Harley-Davidson and sidecar with some money she had inherited. Effie with her mother in the sidecar, [her mum would not let her go alone!] set out from Brooklyn, New York and headed for the World's Fair in San Francisco, California. It took them 2 months, but they made it. There were many others.
Postscript 2: For those interested in the early exploits of the fairer sex, there is an excellent if not cheap book now available with some wonderful photographs of these intrepid pioneer women motorcyclists. 'The American Motorcycle Girls 1900 to 1950', by Christine Summers-Simmons costs around $49.95; check out the bookshop of The National Motorcycle Museum at Anamosa.

Ian Patton   Ian Patton       

Back Button         


Indian Motocycles - you can't wear them out                                  Indian Motocycles - built to last  
Disclaimer:  Whilst every effort is made to ensure the accuracy of the information provided, neither the Indian Riders Motorcycle Club, it's officials or any individual shall in any way be liable for loss, injury or damage resulting directly or indirectly from reliance of such information.  The inclusion of adverts  does not mean  that the advertisers are in any way endorsed by Indian Riders Motorcycle Club or it's officials.  Any disputes or claims must be taken up with the advertiser.