Motorcycle History: Erwin Cannon Ball Baker

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Erwin Cannon Ball Baker

Each week RideApart looks back at key milestones in motorcycle history from technical innovations to significant model introductions to racing successes and, of course, some of the disastrous things we’d rather forget. This week we look at the story of man you’ve probably never heard of. Erwin Baker, who was a motorcycle record breaker and at one time more famous than then U.S. President Herbert Hoover.

From 1908 until 1933, Baker rode and drove more than 5.5 million miles. 5,000 of which were spent just racing up and down Pikes Peak. He traversed the U.S. 126 times and set no less than 55 different cross country records. He also won one of the first ever motorcycle races on an Indian held at Indianapolis on August 12, 1909.

Erwin Cannon Ball Baker
Erwin Cannon Ball Baker

Baker quickly established himself as the man to beat on the racing circuit in 1911. He took 53 victories, 23 podiums and set 11 new speed records in the process. In 1912, Indian Motorcycle recognized Baker’s potential and hired him as a factory-sponsored rider, a position he was to hold until 1924.

At the turn of the century all motorcycle manufacturers were looking for ways of endorsing their products to prove their durability and build quality. Record breaking was considered one of the best ways of doing this. Erwin Baker, who began his career as a machinist working in Indianapolis, was one of the first people to see there was money to be made from the motorcycle manufacturers by getting them to pay for record breaking attempts. He offered them the simple deal – no record, no money.

In 1914, Baker took part in a cross-country race across the U.S. from west to east coast on an Indian. Back then, roads and the U.S transport infrastructure were, at best, primitive. Only four of the 3,379 miles Baker covered were on paved roads, 68 miles were actually on a railroad track. Baker finished this grueling event in 11 days, 11 hours and 11 minutes, a full nine days faster than the previous record holder and four days faster than the record held for an automobile.

Erwin Cannon Ball Baker
Erwin Cannon Ball Baker

This feat of endurance led to one New York newspaper reporter calling him “Cannon Ball Baker,” a name Erwin liked so much he adopted it and eventually had it copyrighted.

In 1915, Baker turned his attention to cars and was approached by Harry Stutz to use a Stutz Bearcat, to cross the U.S. If he broke the record Baker would receive a new Stutz worth $20,000 — a huge amount of money back then.

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  • William Connor

    Just awesome. Too bad that kind of behavior would be arrested, tried, and jailed in today’s world. Makes you want to ride cross country however.

  • Dan

    Single cylinder rotary engine? Diagram please.

    • Jimmy Cloak

      Rotary-valve engine. Here’s a diagram: (scroll down to the January 29, 2008 post).

      • Dan

        Thanks for the clarification. “Rotary valve” makes a lot more sense than the pistonless (rotary) design I was thinking of. Neat link and article too.

    • Tim Watson

      I believe the single cylinder rotary was never put into production – Baker thought he could make a lot of money from it. It was something he tinkered with.

  • Jack Meoph

    What a guy. Impressive in any era.

    • Jack Meoph

      That “check out my a$$” picture is pretty awesome by the way.

  • Davidabl2

    It should be noted that the annual “Cannonball Run” a transcontinental antique motorcycle run is named after Mr. Baker. The Cannonball is being run for the third time I believe this summer.

  • Scott Vogt

    You know who else drives a stutz bearcat? One C. Montgomery Burns. A 1929? if memory serves

  • Pablo Perez

    Great article, thanks Tim. It’d be great if we could have more of this kind of content.