The Race

Melbourne newspaper Truth broke the story of an impending "Death Race"...

Newspaper headline: Death Race!

A week before the race start, Melbourne newspaper Truth broke the story of an impending "Death Race".

The "First Annual Australian Cannonball Cup" was advertised in the automotive press and teams paid an entry fee of $550 with the winner to receive $10,000.

The race would take competitors from Melbourne, Victoria through South Australia, and on to the finish in Perth, Western Australia.

Teams could take whatever route they chose, but had to pass through two checkpoints along the way – in Berri, South Australia and Albany, Western Australia.

The only requirements were to have a drivers' license and a road-registered, roadworthy vehicle.

It was a non-stop race, the winner would be the team with the fastest time, without being intercepted by the poilce. The organisers offered radar detectors to competitors and said they would provide air support and communications so that they could alert drivers to the whereabouts of police.

There was no approval of the race from the government, police, or the Australian motor sport body, CAMS.

Initially around 100 teams were expected to take part, but many teams had dropped out before the start, after concerns about legality, the media coverage and police involvement.

The field was exclusively Holdens, Fords and Chryslers, with the exception of a Porsche 356 and a four-cylinder Mazda 626.

There was a prize for the most imaginatively dressed team. The team in the Mazda dressed as a newly married couple and wrote "Just Married" all over the car, and another team dressed as priests like Sammy Davis Jr and Dean Martin's characters in the Cannonball Run movie (but in a Ford Falcon, not a Ferrari).

Makeshift banner (Source: video)

The race started on Friday, November 2, 1984 from a private farm owned by local real estate agent, Stan Payne, in Digger's Rest on the Calder Highway, south of Sunbury. Teams weren't told of the location until a few hours beforehand.

The start was originally going to be from a shopping centre in Melton, but was changed at the last minute and was meant to be a secret. But due to extensive media coverage, hundreds of people came to witness the start. Parked spectator cars lined both sides the highway, and spectators gave the drivers a vocal send-off from outside the farm gates, some holding makeshift banners.

Around a dozen police vehicles were present at the start. They observed from outside the farm gates and photographed the cars. A police helicopter was also present.

First out the gate (Source: Scott Sieger)

The teams departed from 7:15 pm in two minute intervals, the order having been selected by a ballot.

As the 33 teams made their way across the country, the police attempted to track them by air.

Victorian police charged 13 drivers with speeding offences up to 163 km/h. But all drivers were able to continue on in the race.

A further seven were booked in SA, with 20 charges laid.

The Western Australia police set up a road block at the border for the remaining teams, where six drivers were arrested after having been timed from the air. One was released on bail and the rest were taken to police lock-ups.

Another 7 drivers were stopped and charges laid for speeds in excess of 130 km/h. The WA police also set up further roadblocks where competitor's vehicles were scrutinised for roadworthiness.

The first car arrived at the Fremantle finish on Sunday, November 4, at around 1am. It was the six-wheeled Holden ute driven by Charlie Kovaks and Len Walsh, which had covered the route in the fastest time: 32 hours, 22 minutes and 5 seconds.

Second to arrive was Andrew Csaszar and Russell Morton driving a Holden Commodore, who were only minutes behind the leaders despite being detained for several hours by WA police. Once their start time was taken into consideration, they were the fourth fastest team overall.

The next team to arrive was the ex-police Holden Commodore driven by John Hassard, Ian Bray and John Crowle. After time correction, they were the second fastest team.

The third fastest team arrived next. It was the Holden Commodore driven by Murray Muchan and Darryl Penley.

Awards banquet, David Adamson and assistant Carolyne Mitchell (Source: Indo Saarelaht)

On the Sunday evening after the race, there was a lavish ceremony hosted at the Kings' Ambassador Hotel in Perth. The invitation proclaimed it "The first Australian Cannonball Banquet". Graeme "Shirley" Strachan, most famous for being the lead singer of Skyhooks, was MC and handed out trophies and medals to the teams.

First place was provisionally awarded to Charlie Kovaks and Len Walsh and they were presented with the trophy and $10,000 first prize cheque.

After the race, the organisers awarded the second placed team of John Hassard, Ian Bray and John Crowle the winners after disqualifying Charlie Kovacs and Len Walsh. The reason stated was that they had breached a race rule by having been booked for dangerous driving or excessive speeding.

Both teams received trophies, but neither ever received the $10,000 first prize. According to the media, the organisers had unpaid debts of around $50,000, to hotels, airlines, film companies and entertainers. The fraud squad were investigating and charges were expected.

In an undated press release issued some time after the race, the organsiers stated that they had been a victim of a bulgary prior to the race where blank cheques had been stolen along with competitor records. They say that this caused some issues and the media reported incorrect information.

As a result of the race, new laws were introduced to prevent future races of this type. The "Cannonball Bill" was debated in Victorian Parliament (excerpts) on 30 October 1985, just prior to the planned running of the second Cannonball Cup, which never ran.

The route

According to Google Maps, 2017, the route is approximately 3,783 kilometres. Estimated travel time at legal speeds: 39 hours.

The first checkpoint was located at the corner of Riverside Avenue and Vaughan Terrace, Berri, South Australia. The second at the corner of York Street and Grey Street East in Albany, Western Australia.

The finish was at the corner of Collie Street and Marine Terrace, Fremantle, Western Australia.

The Saarelaht/Saarelaht/Seeberg team put together a folder of maps and route information that they had researched for the race, which you can download below. Note that the start was originally due to be from Melton, not Diggers Rest.

race-file-heino-saarelaht.pdf (10.7MB)

There's a lot more to know about the race, so read on to learn about the teams who particpated...

The teams

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