Arne Toman’s stealth car was bursting with lawman-evading tech. But the Redondo Beach, California, police officer first noticed something suspicious about the license plate on the Mercedes engineered to look like a something else entirely.
The officer told the driver to keep his hands on the steering wheel, Toman later recounted, and asked why his plate holder was askew.
Like all the rest, that officer wasn’t quite fast enough. By the time they reached a Denny’s parking lot, the three occupants had already become the unofficial, definitely lawbreaking record holders of the fastest Cannonball Run – taking less than 28 hours and averaging 103 mph from coast to coast.
They were finally driving at the speed limit when they were pulled over, Toman said. The license plate holder slightly obscured the state name. After taking a look, the officer let them go, he said.
For 2,825.3 miles, the trio dodged highway patrol officers, avoided roadside deer and roared through 13 states in 27 hours and 25 minutes. They crushed the previous record by nearly an hour and a half.
And they didn’t get pulled over once – except for after the run, on their way to celebrate at a late-night meal.
“Every cop I know saw the story of the record and said ‘Aw man, that’s so awesome,'” Doug Tabbutt told The Washington Post on Friday.
On Nov. 10, Toman, Tabbutt and Berkeley Chadwick started their souped-up, silver Mercedes just before 1 a.m., at the Red Ball Garage in Manhattan. Their destination: the Portofino Hotel in Redondo Beach, which is the customary finish for the illicit Cannonball Run challenge.
The record run, first reported by Road and Track, was a combination of skill, preparation, experience and luck, Tabbutt and Toman explained. They chose a day in November ahead of Thanksgiving so the highways were relatively clear. It didn’t rain. There wasn’t construction to bottleneck traffic. And Tabbutt’s hundreds of hours of planning ensured the route was optimized.
“This is something done with military precision,” said Tabbutt, a lifelong racer who sells collector and exotic cars in Cleveland.
With 11 runs between them, both drivers acknowledged they broke traffic laws in every state, and some of the gear they used was lawful in some but illegal in others.
But they stressed their use of caution and restraint while clocking triple-digit speeds. They typically drove their fastest – with a top speed of 193 mph, according to a GPS readout – on long, empty highways, slowing down for congestion. They also endeavored to pass cleanly without surprising other drivers.
It’s courteous, but also strategic, Tabbutt said. Driving too aggressively would anger other drivers who may dial highway patrol on them, putting the entire run in jeopardy. And overcorrecting at high speed after freaking someone out would mean likely death for them and other drivers.
Part of the traditional Cannonball Run routes through Ohio, where police admonished the team for “dangerous and reckless” driving. Speed is a “major contributing factor” in fatal crashes because it adds velocity and reduces reaction time, said Lt. Craig Cvetan, a spokesman for Ohio State Highway Patrol.
Even with preparation, no one can predict a stray animal or an unfolding crash up ahead, and car safety designs are not engineered for triple-digit speeds, he said.
The trio’s car, a Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG high-end sports sedan, leaves the factory as “an Autobahn machine,” Toman, the Chicago-based team lead with the record for the world’s fastest hearse, told The Post. His modification boosted the engine for “Angry Ursula” to 800 horsepower.
The car was further modified inside and out, including cutting out part of the back seat to make room for a cooler and supplies. An added fuel cell helped load the car with more than 60 total gallons of gasoline.
Toman removed the Mercedes logo from the back and wrapped silver vinyl over the taillights to conceal its profile, making it look more like a Honda or Volkswagen – “to fly under the radar, so to speak,” Tabbutt said.
Police officers often know cars well, Tabbutt said, but the countermeasures are designed to confuse even if just for a moment, which could make the difference if they are pulled over. “Seconds add up to minutes,” he said. “And minutes make or break a record.”
The team also deployed a laser defuser, which alerts the driver when police use laser guns to register speed. The device scrambles the laser for a couple seconds, which is long enough to slow down, Toman said. A brake light kill switch also helped the team avoid signaling police that they were braking.
Other devices included a radar detector, police scanner, CB radio, several GPS devices and an old-fashioned kitchen timer. That helped cut down on the math of time-zone changes, Toman noted. A hunting scope mounted on the roof helped detect roadside deer and parse heat signatures of police in speed traps.
Their secret weapon, though, were spotters along for the journey in other cars and in the back seat. Chadwick, a college student armed with gyro-stabilized binoculars, was tapped to look for police cars ahead or going the other way.
All three of them missed one particular officer heading the opposite direction in a state Tabbutt couldn’t recall. He made them with a radar gun, sending alerts chirping. The team slowed down and braced for red and blue lights to dance on the rearview mirror. But it never came, they said.
The coast-to-coast route took them from I-80 in New Jersey all the way through to Denver, switching to I-70 farther west before taking I-15 from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. They only stopped for fuel four times, spending just over 22 idle minutes the entire way. Their bathroom breaks were squeezed in those stops, Tabbutt said.
The team was all business, with no radio or podcasts to distract them from a quick but crucial transmission or alert, Tabbutt said, leaving little time for marveling at the country during their often illegal, tech-soaked Manifest Destiny.
And yet they caught some glimpses. Hitting the Mississippi River at sunrise was a high point, Tabbutt said, and Denver’s steep climb was beautiful, though the altitude and low-quality fuel they had at one stop briefly made the car stutter and quit in Colorado.
Between those two points, however?
“Not driving 100 miles an hour through the Midwest is maddening,” Tabbutt said, and they dreaded Arizona, known for ticket-happy police.
At one point, a Hyundai sped past the car, drawing the attention of the officers. It got pulled over instead, drawing a chuckle from the crew.
More than a day after it began, the team pulled in at the Portofino Hotel in Redondo Beach, with the kitchen timer reading 27:25:07.
“You know, it meant so much to me to join this community, and I really don’t need to hold it forever and didn’t expect to do so,” Ed Bolian, who held the Cannonball Run record since 2013, told CNN.
Three years later, The Post reported Bolian’s run was at such a mind-melting speed that it was record “many think will never be surpassed.”
“It’s an honor to be ranked with the people I grew up admiring and reading about,” Tabbutt said. “Don’t just meet your heroes. Beat your heroes.”
The group has a pile of evidence of their run, including previous winners watching along with a GPS app, Toman said. But they won’t share video for a year or so, mindful of the statute of limitations “in case someone wanted to come after us,” he said.
Toman has a ton of ongoing projects: A clothing line, a chop shop, an upcoming garage.
He is hanging up the Cannonball Run, though. Perhaps their time really is unbreakable.
“It was a lifelong goal ever since I was a kid,” Toman said. “If I had five more tries I wouldn’t be able to do better.”