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Cannonball Run has Connersville connection

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Erwin “Cannonball” Baker autographed this photo.
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Erwin “Cannonball” Baker autographed this photo.

Earlier this spring a lucky phone call brought a stack of newspapers to rummage through. That’s not an unusual event but this stack brought something special. A friend, Katie Adams, and her husband found these papers used as padding under several layers of carpet in an old house being remodeled in Glenwood. 

While looking through a few of these newspapers with Richard Stanley, Connersville’s foremost auto expert, on a Saturday at the Fayette County Historical Museum, a headline caught his eye. The headline read “Cannonball Baker Sets Record With Lexington.”

Erwin George “Cannonball” Baker was born in Dearborn County on March 12, 1882, and became an American auto and motorcycling legend. He became famous for point-to-point drives popular at the time to test endurance of automobiles. Eventually he made 143 motorcycle runs totaling 550,000 miles.

His most famous victory on a motorcycle came in 1909 in the first ever race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He also raced in the 1922 Indy 500, finishing 11th in a Frontenac. He later became the first commissioner of NASCAR.

Baker, who died in 1960, was inducted in 1981 to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame.

In 1915 he set a record, driving New York to Los Angeles in 11 days. In 1933 he set a new record for the same trip in 53½ hours. This trip inspired a race called The Cannonball Run, which many will remember led to a popular movie starring Burt Reynolds.

The Lexington Motor Company produced its first car in 1909 in Lexington Kentucky. Lured to Connersville in 1910, Lexington had a storied history over the next 16 years before being taken over by Auburn. The Lexington move to Connersville came about because of local incentives offered, such as free water, an advanced facility and 5 years with no taxes. Probably the best deal Connersville ever made. Lexington twice won the famous Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, claiming a trophy that is now displayed at the Fayette County Historical Museum.

The astonished look in Richard Stanley’s eye in reading the headline of the Sunday, May 18, 1924, Indianapolis Star made the first locally known connection between Cannonball Baker and Lexington. He had set a new record by making a round trip from Indianapolis to French Lick in 6 hours and 45 minutes. The distance was 275 miles and covered some of the steepest grades in the state. He made the trip in a Lexington Concorde. The trip was sponsored by Standard Oil Co. He averaged around 40 miles an hour for the whole distance.

This is just another example of Connersville history, newly discovered in a lucky find.

Please visit the Fayette County Historical Museum to see the newspaper and a Lexington automobile. The Penrose Trophy won by the Lexington automobile two years in a row at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is also to be viewed. A photograph of this trophy taken by Rick Lemen is being featured at the Henry Ford Museum next month in Dearborn, Michigan.

Brad Colter is superintendent of Connersville Utilities and president of Historic Connersville Inc. He writes Looking Back for the Connersville News-Examiner.