Updated: Jul 28
WORDS AND PHOTOS: VICTORIA SCOTT
For a brief introduction to today’s first subject, a “kei” vehicle (or “軽自動車”) is a specific class of car, truck, or van in the Japanese Domestic Market that meets certain size and displacement regulations, and is taxed at a lower rate and in most regions isn’t required to have a registered parking space on file with the local authorities, making them significantly more economical to the average consumer.
They are sold almost exclusively in Japan, and even when examples are imported to the US after the 25 year waiting period, most sports-oriented models tend to be on the cramped side for Americans. Additionally, the 660cc-by-law maximum engine displacement usually means that keeping up with US highway speed limits, especially out through rural stretches in Texas, means redlining the hell out of the motor for hours on end just to not get blown off the road by a semi.
Now that you’re up to speed, it’s time for a history lesson. The Cannonball Run is a cross-country high-speed run that first became popularized in the early 70s with Brock Yates and Steve Smith from Car and Driver running a cross-country speed run from New York City to Los Angeles in as little time as possible as a protest against the restrictive oil crisis 55 MPH federal speed limit. The first vehicle used was a modified Dodge Ram van that completed the run in just a bit under 41 hours - which worked out to an average speed somewhere in the neighborhood of 68 MPH.
The run was widely publicized through the rest of the 70s, with a movie coming out in 1981 loosely based on the five official Cannonball Runs throughout the decade, starring Burt Reynolds. For decades, the record was left untouched as a monument to an era that we thankfully left behind.
Then, in 2006, Alex Roy completed the run in 31 hours, 4 minutes, hitting an average speed of 90 mph and breaking the low-water mark unofficially set in 1983 of 32 hours, 7 minutes. Brock Yates, the originator of this time trial event, refused to acknowledge the time out of fear it would get someone killed. In 2013, Ed Bolian of VinWiki fame decided he could beat the time, and outfitted a Benz CL55 AMG with 44 gallons of extra fuel tanks, and with some careful planning, completed the run in just under 29 hours, hitting a 98 MPH average speed. Ed went on the record stating that he hoped no one else would follow in his footsteps, because, in his words, "It really isn't something we need a whole band of lunatics doing".
Did that stop anyone with an enormous budget, a (charitably) casual perspective of laws and fellow motorists, and complete disregard for sleep from trying? No. Of course not. The lead driver of this 27 hour, 25 minute, run in 2019 stated "I didn't want to break the record by minutes… I didn't want anyone else trying and I didn't want to do it again." It’s worth noting that this run has now been broken repeatedly. The latest run that beat that time by nearly an hour came at an average speed of 110 mph.
You can call me literally whatever you’d like, someone’s already probably beat you to it, but I genuinely think that Cannonball Running has long since passed the point of gleeful statement on the stupidity of excessively low speed limits to a truly dangerous activity that is absolutely going to get an innocent bystander killed. Doing an average of 68 mph in a Dodge Van with 180 HP when the speed limit is 55 works out to a 13 MPH average speed difference in a comfortable cruiser with plenty of stops. Doing 110 MPH for 25+ hours increases that speed differential to 40 MPH in most states, with zero sleep and 45 extra gallons of fuel sloshing around in your sedan.
And now it’s time to bring kei cars back into the conversation. Clearly, people can keep attempting to break this record until someone dies or they actually go to prison, although the demographics of the more recent runs being primarily fairly wealthy white men wearing thin blue line gear does make that latter scenario less likely. But what if we make a new record, and we make it a test of human strength and perseverance, rather than bravery and recklessness? A kei car has a mandated 63 HP. The top speed varies slightly by model, but on the pictured Alto Works, one of the quicker models of the legally-importable kei cars, top speed is claimed to be 92 MPH.
If you can cross the entire 2,800 miles of the country in a car like this without wanting to eject your co-driver or exploding your 660cc (usually) 3-cylinder engine, you win. Yes, I am a millennial, and this is my participation trophy, much like the Iditarod, which has an award for the last place finisher, because the event is so damn hard to finish. The Cannonball, as it originally was organized, was a tongue-in-cheek flaunting of excessively strict laws, with as much credit given to the less-reliable cars of the 70s not exploding as the speeds themselves. This follows in that vein, instead of the autobahn-without-the-autobahn modern Need for Speed style events. This is the empath’s Cannonball, as you will surely need to be one to stand your partner for… however many days this takes.
Obviously, with the US still in the grips of Covid, it will be a little while before a cross-country trip at any speed seems advisable, but I am thinking ahead - we all need something to look forward to when Places and Events are possible again. Personally, I'm planning to acquire a Honda Beat, because it fits with my already-established theme. Plus, I hear they're fantastic to drive, and I've sat in one to confirm my head does indeed sit below the roofline. I have hesitated to plan anything more specific than that, however, until the virus situation stabilizes. When it does, though, grab anything you’ve got with 63 HP or less, and watch this space for an invite to come for a nice, relaxing  drive across America with the rev limiter pegged as we do the speed limit.