There’s a joke that the first motor race was held shortly after the second automobile was built. Humans (some of us, at least) are like that; we see someone going somewhere, and some urge—a voice deep down inside you—says, “I think we need to get there first.” This urge predates the car—Romans were partial to chariots—and it will survive into a post-automobile, mobility future. It’s a broad church of a sport, encompassing everything from big-factory racing programs to like-minded people hanging out at weekends, often in the middle of nowhere, frequently with beer afterward.
And then there’s the unofficial side. Like the people who race from coast to coast, just to see who can do it faster. That’s the subject of Apex: The Secret Race Across America.
We’ve delved into the world of coast-to-coast speed runs before. Earlier this year, Gareth Jones tried to set a new record across England and Scotland in an electric vehicle. And a few years back, we told you the tale of Alex Roy reaching Los Angeles from New York in record time in a Tesla. This record has since been broken three times by Model 3s; once by Roy and co., then twice on the same day.
Alex Roy features in The Secret Race Across America, but he’s a younger, less sagacious Alex, and he’s engaged in a much more antisocial effort. This is the story of the pre-electric Cannonball.
As a way of demonstrating the ability to cover long distances with as little time as possible spent stationary, coast-to-coast endurance drives could be tailor-made for our early era of electric-vehicle evolution. Fighting over Nordschleife lap times is all well and good, but imagine if Tesla and Porsche were competing to show whose car needed to sit still, charging, for less time as it crossed from sea to shining sea? Electrify America‘s network should even make that possible by the time production Taycans start getting registered over here at the end of the year.
But the coast-to-coast challenge is more than just charging time. Efficiency in an EV drops off rapidly above 70mph (113km/h), and as Roy told me in 2016, “there was nothing to be gained by going much faster.”
In the olden days of internal combustion, however, racing coast to coast meant high speeds, on public roads, as outlaws. The Secret Race Across America is the real story of the Cannonball and the US Express, the real underground events of the 1970s and 1980s that inspired the Burt Reynolds movies. It’s also the story of how Roy and Dave Maher broke a 1983 record in 2006, armed with a BMW M5 that did the job on its second attempt.
You’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve heard this story already. Roy wrote about his and Maher’s adventure for our sister publication Wired, as well as in a popular book. You may even have seen some of the footage before; the pair was joined on the attempt by filmmaker Cory Welles, who put out her own account in 2013 following some acrimony between the parties involved.
But it’s taken until 2019 for Roy’s version to make it to the screen, broadcast this past Sunday night by NBC Sports. “I feel like Roger Bannister did 10 years after he broke the four-minute mile, except I’ve never been that fit in my life,” Roy told me when I asked how he felt about the film finally seeing the light of day.
Regardless of your take on illegal motorsport—for the record, it’s not something we endorse here at Ars—The Secret Race for America is an enjoyable documentary and worth your time. For one thing, it provides a previously unseen look at the racing world’s counterculture in the years before Reagan. Even 2006 feels like a bygone era, before GPS and Waze and adaptive cruise control and cars with built-in night vision became a real thing. For another, the documentary secured Ice-T as the narrator. Yes, that Ice-T, who is as good as you might expect.
Apex: The Secret Race Across America comes to iTunes in December.
Listing image by Apex