Apex: The Secret Race Across America is an automotive documentary that does an excellent job of condensing several decades of history surrounding a single event that is often hard to describe succinctly. It’s an event that requires explanation immediately afterwards. Why? Well, it’s a highly illegal race that goes by different names: The Cannonball Run, Sea-to-Shining Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, or the U.S. Express. It’s a race from New York to Los Angeles against others but more importantly, against the clock. It’s been the stuff of legend, protests, Hollywood movies, myths, FBI files, and books.
The Secret Race puts you in the passenger seat of what it takes to make a record breaking run from New York to Los Angeles. The documentary revolves around the 2006 run that broke the 24 year standing record of 32 hours 7 minutes by Alex Roy and David Maher. This film is directed by J.F. Musial, narrated by Ice-T, with appearances by motoring celebrities like Matt Farah, Mike Spinelli, Bobby Unser, and the actual drivers who competed in this outlaw transcontinental race during its heyday.
Whether you know it as the Cannonball or the U.S. express there are two lanes of opinion on this event and the people who partake. Either you see them as Burt Reynolds-mustached alpha scofflaws or Ivy League show offs with Captain Chaos egos. Nevertheless, both these lanes are traveling in the same direction. Both sides agree that it’s a challenge that is completely unnecessary and factually dangerous. There is no logical reason to average 90 miles per hour over 2,800+ miles of public highway. It makes it easy to dismiss this whole ordeal as just a selfish feat by speed junkies looking for the ultimate fix. To be fair there is something to that because speed is rewarding. There is a smile provoking sensation that comes from driving fast – well. It’s not shredding tires at an intersection for a crowd of human traffic cones. It’s the thrill of feeling the mind adapt during acceleration. Muscle memory reacting faster than you. Pushing down the weight of the reality that death could potentially be a car length away. It’s intoxicating.
Both sides agree that it’s a challenge that is completely unnecessary and factually dangerous. There is no logical reason to average 90 miles per hour over 2,800+ miles of public highway.
One of the best things The Secret Race manages to accomplish is not glorifying the Cannonball. It’s not trying to justify the actions of the individuals, nor is it criticizing them. It’s real journalism, simply telling the series of events as they happened while remaining neutral and allowing the viewer to make up their own opinion. Are Cannonball racers selfish speed junkies or are they steel riding cowboys trying to make a point about driving safety?
In certain automotive circles the cannonball challenge is as beloved and treasured as backyard wrestling, the NBA slam dunk contest, and competitive eating all rolled into one. Those that take it seriously can rival fight clubs in exclusivity, and it all started with a man named Erwin “Cannonball” Baker. A vaudeville performer turned motorcycle and automotive racer. Throughout the 1910’s through 30’s he set over 140 driving records. He rode coast to coast in 11 days on a 1912 Indian motorcycle to prove their reliability. Cannonball Baker’s most famous run was in 1933 when he drove from New York to Los Angeles in 53 hours. A record that would become genesis for the 50 years of history told in Apex: The Secret Race Across America.
Brock Yates and Dan Gurney started the first official race in 1971 and naturally it caught on. It became an annual event throughout the 1970s. But like anything cool in life, once it gets too popular it has a tendency to be spoiled. Too many people knew about the races. Too many people wanted to take part. The events started to go viral on citizen band radios. Anytime truckers saw a speeding car they assumed it was a cannonballer. Highway authorities were on high alert. By 1979, the last ever Cannonball race was held never to be repeated.
In 1980, a new race was organized well underground. The name was changed to protect its identity. It was now called the U.S. Express. This was for serious drivers only. No glory, no trophy, no fame. Those that took part were only in it for the speed. It’s a supercharged manifest destiny to cross America as fast as possible. Competitors took it seriously with Wacky Racer levels of gadgets to give them an edge out on the field against the clock and America’s finest highway patrol agencies. Sports cars littered with more switches than a 007 Aston Martin to operate the latest tech the early 1980’s had to offer – short of a GPS.
The Secret Race sits down with those who raced the US Express. How they did it. What it took to finish. And most importantly, why they did it.
The Secret Race sits down with those who raced the US Express. How they did it. What it took to finish. And most importantly, why they did it. Veteran cannonballers like George Egloff who was arguably the toughest of them all. With two Cannonballs and four US Express runs under his belt George was the only one who did these races on a motorcycle. Traveling nearly 3,000 miles at 140 mph is mind boggling enough, but imagine doing it on two wheels? Not even Evel Knievel. Cannonball Baker would be proud.
At its heart, The Secret Race is a car movie. It shows off a wide array of automotive eye candy used to compete in these outlaw races. Mazda RX7, De Tomaso Pantera, Ferrari 308, but the star car of the film is Alex Roy’s 2001 BMW M5. Unlike Dom Torreto’s Charger, Jack Reacher’s Chevelle, or even Burt Reynolds’ Trans Am, Roy’s M5 is a real life hero car. A car that has survived enough outlaw rallies to fill a franchise. An infamous car that does its own stunts, impersonates official police cars, is beyond fully loaded, and doesn’t seem to age. It’s Tom Cruise on wheels.
Watching The Secret Race you feel the sense of speed. You feel the anxiety, the fatigue, the thrill involved in doing this. If you don’t like driving you won’t understand this film, but if you like cars you will definitely be hooked by the story.
Ice-T talks you through the extensive modifications done to this BMW M5. Cameras, night vision, radios, ECM tune, and radars galore. In total, Alex Roy attempted the Cannonball twice in the BMW. Not to mention the multiple Gumball rallies he raced the car in overseas. If nothing else APEX: The Secret Race Across America is a great advertisement for German engineering.
Watching The Secret Race you feel the sense of speed. You feel the anxiety, the fatigue, the thrill involved in doing this. If you don’t like driving you won’t understand this film, but if you like cars you will definitely be hooked by the story. The film doesn’t try to justify the actions of these drivers it merely wants to tell the history as to how the whole thing got started. The goal was to prove that America has its own Autobahn. That a national 55 miles per hour speed limit was too slow, and a driver who takes driving seriously can handle much higher speeds for a long period of time. To celebrate the achievement of the Federal Aid Highway Act.
You can stream APEX: The Secret Race Across America on Amazon, YouTube, and Apple iTunes. As someone who’s seen a fair share of automotive movies I can confidently recommend this documentary to anyone who is a fan of automobiles. Whether you agree with the Cannonball or not the story is vastly entertaining. This transcontinental racing documentary will rev the imagination of anyone who’s ever scoffed at a posted speed limit sign.