Meet The Guy Who Drove Across The U.S. In A Record 28 Hours 50 Minutes
He's a tall, lanky Southerner with a penchant for cars, and, of all things, lizards. He teaches Sunday school with his wife. Ed Bolian is the kind of guy you might meet on an airplane and forget before you picked up your bags – with one exception: he claims he's the fastest man ever to drive across the United States.
The statutes of limitation are up, and that means Alex Roy can release the media hounds, revealing a secret coast-to-coast run he says he and… Read…
That's right: Alex Roy's familiar cross-country driving record, set in his now-famous LeMans Blue 2000 BMW M5 during the fall of 2006, no longer stands. It was allegedly broken by a three-man team consisting of Ed, a co-driver, and a passenger, in a 2004 Mercedes-Benz CL55 AMG.
But we'll get to all that.
First, we should address the term "broken." When I think of a record that's been "broken," I imagine beating something by a second, or a minute, or maybe a few RBIs. If what Ed says is true, the record wasn't broken: it was shattered. In 2006, Alex and company completed the transcontinental journey in 31 hours and 4 minutes. Two weeks ago, Ed and his crew say they managed to do the deed in 28 hours and 50 minutes. Google says it takes 40 and a half.
Another driver, who wishes to remain anonymous, attempted the same journey a week prior and could only muster a time of 31 hours and 17 minutes. When he finished the run, he sent a text message to Alex Roy. It said only: "Long live the King."
So who is this new guy claiming the throne?
Meet The Guy Who Drove Across The U.S. In A Record 28 Hours 50 MinutesExpand
I first met Ed a few years ago in his official capacity as the sales director for Lamborghini of Atlanta. Over time, he's helped me look for various wacky used cars – and even though I never bought one from him, he's always addressed me with the same friendly, upbeat, and cheerful attitude as he did the first time we met. That was exactly his demeanor when we sat down earlier this week to discuss his record-setting run – only this time, he may have been a little more cheerful.1
"I suppose congratulations are in order," I said.
"Thank you very much," Ed replied.
Before we get into Ed's run, let's take a brief run through some transcontinental record history and the interesting characters who attempt to race the sun from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
All of this started in 1933 when a crazy man from Indiana named Edwin "Cannonball" Baker drove from New York to Los Angeles in 53 hours and 30 minutes in some car called the Blue Streak. No one knows Baker's motivation for the run, but his 50 mph average was highly impressive, considering the interstate system was not yet built. The record went unbeaten for 40 years.2
In the 1970s, noted auto racer and Car and Driver contributor Brock Yates conceived the "Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining Sea Memorial Trophy Dash" – also called the Cannonball Run – to protest highway speed limits. I won't bore you with the details, but the record was slowly whittled down over the next decade until Dave Heinz and Dave Yarborough teamed up in 1979 to make the trek in 32 hours and 51 minutes behind the wheel of a Jaguar XJS.3
Though Cannonball disbanded after that, a similar event, dubbed the US Express, quickly took its place. In the final US Express, Doug Turner and David Diem drove a Ferrari 308 across the country in 32 hours and 7 minutes. That record, set in 1983, went unbroken for more than 20 years – until Alex Roy's crossing in 2006. And now…4
"I've wanted to break the record since I was 18 years old," said Ed, now 27, casually sipping coffee. He doesn't sound like someone with a razor-sharp focus on breaking one of the most difficult – and bizarre – automotive records in existence. But he is.
Preparations started several years ago. At first, it was just the general questions. What car to buy. What route to take. What supplies to bring.
But last year, he finally got serious. The car came first.
"I thought about a Ferrari 612," said Ed. "But gas mileage would've been bad. A Bentley would've been perfect, but you'd want the V8 for gas mileage, and those are still way too expensive."
Why not an E63? Or my CTS-V Wagon, which has "understated lawbreaking" written all over it?
"You need active suspension," said Ed. "You know… for the fuel tanks."
That's right: the fuel tanks. You see, look at it from the outside and you wouldn't know Ed's CL55 is anything other than a typical CL-Class, purchased by some old guy in Palm Beach because, let's face it, the S-Class just has too many doors. But poke around under the skin, and Ed's CL is far from typical.
Let's start with the fuel tanks. There are two of them, both 22 gallons – and that's in addition to the 23-gallon tank Mercedes installed at the factory. The result is a constant, pervasive gas smell when you're standing anywhere in the car's vicinity. But it also means the car can hold 67 gallons of fuel – or, put another way, over 400 pounds of gasoline. Hence the active suspension.
But it's so much more than fuel tanks. There's a police scanner. There are two Garmin GPS units with traffic capabilities. There are two iPhone chargers and cradles to run apps like Trapster; an iPad charger and cradle; and three radar detectors. And that's just the easy stuff. There's a switch to kill the rear lights, a switch to activate the fuel tanks, and a professionally installed switch panel mounted in the center stack that controls all of these goodies. There's a CB radio, complete with a giant trunk-mounted antenna. There are two laser jammers. Ed had someone working on a radar jammer, but it wasn't ready in time.
"How much do you think you've spent on all this?" I ask.
"I don't even want to calculate it," says Ed.
But Ed knows exactly what he spent on the car's final service before its record-breaking run: nearly $9,000 in one comprehensive, front-to-back, full overhaul. That included new fluids and filters, new tires, new brake pads and rotors, new control arm bushings, new spark plugs, a new battery, and new struts for the car's complicated Active Body Control system. If that sounds like a lot of effort, it's because the record-breaking car is no spring chicken: the odometer reads 115,000 miles.
"Probably 118,000 now," says Ed.
You might think the hardest part of setting the cross-country driving record is driving across the country. You might think the hardest part is staying awake for more than 24 hours, or constantly keeping your foot on the floor. You might think the hardest part is round-the-clock vigilance for law enforcement. You'd be wrong.
Ed assures me, wholeheartedly, that the most difficult thing about breaking the record was the preparation.
"Every year, Alex [Roy] hears about five to seven attempts to break the record," says Ed, who sought advice from the former recordholder about exactly how to prepare for the trip. "None of the challengers come close."
But that wasn't Ed. Between the 67-gallon gas tank and the CL55's "upper 13s" fuel economy, Ed says he was able to travel more than 800 miles between fuel stops. He removed the rear seat on the driver's side to fit a spare tire, since trunk real estate was reserved for the fuel tanks. And he used the CB radio to pose as a trucker.
"If two trucks were next to one another, we'd call to one of them," he explained. "'FedEx, this is King Trucking. I'm right next to you. Can you tap your brakes so I can get by?' When we sped past, they probably saw the huge antenna on my trunk and got really mad."
Ed's preparation didn't stop there. He loaded the car with nutrition bars, energy drinks, and Blue Donkey Iced Coffee. He hired a GPS tracking company to document the car's every move. Worried about anything that would eat precious time, he brought along extra bottles and bedpans – in case the team had to use the bathroom … on the go. He thought of everything.
Well, almost everything.
After all the effort Ed put into preparing for the run, he still had one big hurdle to clear: finding someone – anyone – who was both crazy enough to go with him and competent enough to share driving responsibilities. Thirty hours of intense, high-speed driving just couldn't be done alone. And so Ed began calling everyone he knew.
One of those calls came to me, about six weeks ago. Ed told me his plan, and then – politely as ever – asked me to be his co-driver. The cross-country driving record has always fascinated me, and I've always said I would break it one day – but right now, I couldn't bear the intense liability and legal risk. Most potential drivers had similar concerns.
Who wants to be primarily known for breaking thousands of laws across a dozen states, just to beat some record that very few people care about? Worse: who wants to be known for dying in an attempt? And who wants to be arrested by some rural sheriff's deputy in the middle of the night and hauled off to jail while trying to achieve Ed's dream?
Two weeks before the record-setting run, it was just Ed.
Eventually, he recruited a co-driver: Dave Black, a self-employed friend and customer from the Lamborghini dealership. A passenger – considered necessary by Ed to help with spotting police cars, calculating fuel consumption, and, above all, keeping everyone awake – was still up in the air. Ed dug deeper into his contacts. Then he started going through his Facebook friends.
"I got a Facebook message from Ed," said Dan Huang, a young Georgia Tech grad with a love of cars – and a fairly open schedule. "He didn't even have my cell phone number."
The message came on Thursday afternoon: Ed was asking for a favor. Dan called to see what it was, and the two talked. They met up to examine the CL55. Less than 24 hours later, Dan was sitting inside of it, behind Dave and Ed, sharing the rear bench seat with a spare tire.
They were driving up the East Coast, headed for the starting line.
But while the team was assembled, they weren't necessarily ready. On a test run to find the best way out of Manhattan, Ed was stopped by the NYPD for making a right turn on red – and heading the wrong way on a one-way street – at the advice of a mobile app suggested by Dave.
Though the officer only issued a warning, morale was low. The car smelled like fuel. The enormity of the task ahead weighed on all three men. After leaving Manhattan during the test run, they stopped at a Starbucks in New Jersey. Dan considered bailing out.7
"I almost said, 'Guys, I can't do this,'" Dan told me later. "I had everything I brought in my backpack. I could've just taken a cab to LaGuardia and flown home. I almost opened my mouth."
But Dan didn't open his mouth, and neither did Dave – though Dave later admitted he was prepared to leave the team and fly home from New York if things didn't "feel right." Instead, everyone stayed quiet, piled into the car, and drove back to Manhattan. They were leaving in less than four hours.
Ed, Dave, and Dan left the Red Ball Garage in Manhattan, the site of the original Cannonball Run starting line, at 9:56 p.m. on Saturday, October 19. They promptly got stuck in traffic.
"It took us 15 minutes to get out of Manhattan," Ed said.
But they weren't stuck for long. I'm going to be vague about exact jurisdictions here, but I've pored over the telemetry and listened to the story I'm going to tell below, and I'll say this: New Jersey went by quickly. Pennsylvania went by really quickly. Ohio must've been a blur.
"I don't even remember Indiana," Ed recalled.
Part of the reason they could travel so fast was all the equipment. They didn't have night vision, as Roy did, and the police scanner wasn't working. But the detection devices behaved perfectly, the CB was adequate, and, most importantly, every GPS unit was plotting the same course.
"We had trouble communicating in New York," said Dan. "But once we left, everything came together. It was like a symphony."
More importantly, however, they had a lead car to follow through most of Pennsylvania. It was the first of several they'd have along the trip: a friend of Ed's or Dave's who lived along the way and volunteered to get on the highway a few hours before the CL55 came raging past. The lead car would drive the speed limit, 150 or 200 miles ahead, and warn the team of police, construction, or other potential issues. It made all the difference on the first leg.
"That set the tone for the whole trip," Ed said.
By the time the team left Ohio, their average speed was already where it needed to be in order to tie Roy's record. When they reached St. Louis, the sun still hadn't come up. They kept heading west at a furious pace. They entered Oklahoma. They left Oklahoma. As they crossed into Texas, Ed got an excited call from a friend back home who was tracking the group's progress. He had some incredible news: the team could travel the speed limit for the entire remainder of the trip … and still break Roy's record. They had 1,200 miles to go.
But they didn't travel the speed limit. Instead, they pushed faster. Reaching western states like Arizona and New Mexico, Ed and Dave exploited the enormously straight stretches of notoriously empty highways. Speeds reached … well, they reached pretty damn high, according to the telemetry data.
Fortunately, the extra fuel tanks meant that cruising at such high speeds wasn't a problem.
Yes, the car smelled like the inside of a gas pump – but that was the tradeoff for its immense range. And the team could use two pumps simultaneously, which meant filling up all three tanks took about as long as filling up a normal car's single tank. As long as the CL55 could last a few more hours without catching on fire, Ed knew the team would make it.
Unfortunately, California posed problems.
"The race is in the second-half of the run," former record holder David Diem tells Jalopnik.
The team reached Southern California just as the sun was setting, meaning that they were virtually blinded. To make matters worse, they were heading down in elevation, which meant there were no mountain ranges to offer occasional shadows. Speeds dropped. Delirium set in. At one point, a tractor-trailer cut in front of Ed and two of the CL55's wheels left the pavement. It was the closest they had come to an accident. With just a few hundred miles left in the journey, the team was on edge.
As they reached Los Angeles, they had a choice. They could slow down, cruise to the finish line, and claim the record. Or they could push it, take their chances with the police, and try to set a time that would be virtually unbeatable for any future drivers who might make an attempt. With more than 27 hours of non-stop, high-speed driving under their belts, the group took a vote. They voted to push it.
At 11:46 p.m. on Saturday, October 20, the group reached the Portofino Hotel in Redondo Beach, California, the site of the original Cannonball Run finish line. No one in the hotel had ever heard of the Cannonball Run. The valet had no idea why he was taking pictures of three grown men standing in front of a used Mercedes that was splattered with bugs. He also had no idea why it smelled so distinctly of fuel.
The run was over, and the watches were stopped. According to those involved, they all said the same thing: 28 hours, 50 minutes. The team covered 2,813.7 miles at an average speed of 98 miles per hour. They stopped for fuel just three times. Based on that number, Alex Roy's 31:04 record had been beaten by two hours and 14 minutes.
Surprisingly, Ed says problems with law enforcement were minimal. Though the group saw a lot of police cars, especially in New Mexico and Arizona, the only close call came late at night in Ohio when they passed a Crown Vic sitting in a median. Dave was driving, and Ed yelled to slow down – but it was too late. They passed the police car at 95 miles per hour. It didn't move an inch.
The team checked into the Portofino Hotel for a night's rest before waking up the next morning to catch a plane back to Atlanta. Hotel staff gave the group earplugs, customarily provided to guests so they wouldn't be kept awake by the sound of nearby sea lions. None of the three men bothered to wear them.
Burden of Proof
Those who have laid claim to this record in the past have done so with toll tickets, punched time clocks, gas receipts, and logbooks. Ed took a far more precise approach to verification. It's in the form of a document, prepared by the GPS tracking firm he hired, that lists his address, latitude, longitude, and speed every minute or so throughout the entire trip. It's 218 pages long. I looked over the document from start to finish, and the evidence is, at the very least, comprehensive. I ask Ed if he plans to post it on the Internet.
"It's very incriminating," he says with a smile.
The club of men (it's almost entirely male) who claim to have done this trip share something beyond a heavy right foot and a passion for danger: they all think the other guy is full of crap.
Six months after Roy attempted his journey, but before he announced it publicly, Richard Rawlings (of Fast N' Loud fame) joined Dennis Collins, on a bet, to make the same trip from Midtown Manhattan to Redondo Beach. The two averaged 87.6 m.p.h. in a Ferrari 550 Maranello, making the 2,811 mile trip in just 31 hours and 59 minutes.
When Roy later announced his 31:04 run, Rawlings complained to the New York Times that Roy didn't follow the right route, saying that "Alex's perceived transcontinental record is not valid. He didn't stick to the route."
Collins calls Roy a "frenemy," and they all seem to talk to one another regularly enough. They also seem to be generally aware when people attempt to best their records – so they already knew about Ed when contacted by Jalopnik.
"I talked to that jackwagon, and it doesn't make sense to me," said Rawlings. "But I'm willing to look at anything and, bleep, if you've got the proof, badass. I don't know mathematically how it worked."
That last point, about speed, is something Collins and others also brought up. Rawlings claims that, in his run with Collins, the duo exceeded 200 m.p.h. multiple times. Ed, meanwhile, admits his car is speed-limited to 156 – and that he was mostly driving slower than that.
"I don't want say [it's] impossible, but… miraculous," says Collins who, like everyone else, is interested in seeing the GPS data.
Ed arranged for Jalopnik to speak with an employee of the GPS company that tracked Ed's run, who asked not to be named and requested that the company not be named. This person said the company was unaware of how Ed planned to use its services prior to the attempt – but noted that it attests to the accuracy of the data that was exported from Ed's in-car tracking device.
Though all the players in the world of transcontinental speed records were skeptical, everyone Jalopnik contacted seemed to think it was, at the very least, possible. And they were all anxious to dissect the trip.
"Records are made to be broken, I'm surprised our record stood for as many years as it did," said Diem, who was especially surprised Alex's record was broken in a CL55.
Roy, for his part, doesn't wish to speak publicly about it.
After Alex Roy set the transcontinental driving record, he waited a year to come forward – until the statute of limitations expired on every single illegal act he committed. Ed and Dave waited less than three weeks.
I asked Ed if he was worried about getting caught, extradited, and possibly put on trial for speeding in every rural county between New York and L.A. that's looking to make an example out of a Mercedes-driving, big-city lawbreaker. He told me his concern ebbs and flows – but he noted it would be hard to prove he was speeding in any one particular jurisdiction. Still, he didn't set out to prove the inadequacy of law enforcement – and he's worried one officer or jurisdiction may try to make an example out of him. But are they really going to spend the money and take the time to extradite someone for speeding? Ed asks the question, hoping the answer is 'no' – but he knows that the same outcry over a speed record set around Manhattan earlier this year could bring the police down on him. He just hopes that doesn't happen.
I also ask if he's worried about the public. Will a mob of angry citizens show up outside his house, demanding that he "THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!!"? He admits that's possible, too – but he hopes that any furor will die down until the only people who remember his name are fellow car enthusiasts.
And if there's no angry mob or indignant police? Maybe he'll write a book, as Alex did. Maybe a few YouTube videos. But Ed doesn't care about any money he could make from the endeavor, largely because he knows there won't be much.
Plus, he didn't break the record for money. He did it so one day, years from now, he could sit down with his grandchildren and tell them about his passion for cars – a passion highlighted not by selling Lamborghinis or driving exotics, but by the time their grandfather was the fastest man ever to drive across the United States. And then he'll bring them into his garage and show them the CL55 that will be forever linked to his record-setting run. Maybe, by then, it will stop smelling like fuel.