For Bill Campbell, this year’s Motorcycle Cannonball ride offers the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong goal.
“I’ve always wanted to take a motorcycle from coast to coast,” says Campbell. “In high school, they asked us to write about the job we wanted to do, and I wrote, ‘Ride across the country on a motorcycle.’
Unfortunately, that dream had to be put on hold as Campbell got out of school and started to earn a living as a construction worker. Since then, the closest he’s come to achieving his dream came when he hauled his motorcycle to South Dakota for Sturgis Bike Week.
But then he found out about the Motorcycle Cannonball ride, and his longtime dream came back to mind.
“As soon as I heard about the ride, I was interested,” he says. “But I thought I was out of my mind. I didn’t want to take a motorcycle that old and beat it to death. Then I heard what guys like Brad Wilmarth (who recently finished a cross-country test of his Cannonball machine) were doing, and I decided I had to be part of this. So I lined up a ’15 motor, and I’m ready to go.”
Actually, Campbell has gone much further than lining up one bike. He’s already pieced together what he refers to as his “prototype” machine, so he can get plenty of practice riding it while he finishes construction of his Cannonball motorcycle.
Both are similar machines, with the prototype constructed around a 1916 motor in a 1917 frame, while his Cannonball machine will be built almost entirely out of 1915 parts. Both include early Harley three-speed transmissions, which will put Campbell in Class 3, the most competitive class in the ride.
“I’m going to be in the group that’s going to make it all the way to the end,” he laughs. “OK, some of the other guys (in Class 1, for single-cylinder, single-speed bikes, and Class 2, for twin-cylinder, single-speed bikes) may make it, too, but it’s gonna take them a little longer.”
While some competitors are fabricating many parts for their rare machines, Campbell plans to rely almost exclusively on authentic Harley parts from 95 years ago.
“The fenders, tanks and handlebars will be reproduction,” he says, “but everything else on the bike is going to be original. Some of the bikes from back then really need to be re-engineered for a ride like this. But these old Harleys were made different. They hold up really well. We’re only caretakers—we ride them for a while, but they keep running long after us.”
In truth, though, Campbell’s bike will have one significant difference from every other Harley in the ride. The cases on his motor were cracked when the engine was hit by a car, and when Campbell had the damage repaired, the welder made a mistake.
“When he got to the spot where it says ‘Milwaukee,’ he changed the ‘M’ to a ‘W.’ So I’m going to have the only Cannonball bike made in Wilwaukee,” he jokes.
Other than a typographical error on the case, though, Campbell’s bike will be authentic right down to the wheels, where he will be running a period-correct set of clincher tires. Not reproduction clinchers, but tires that are nine decades old. And he expects that single set of tires to take him all the way from coast to coast.
“The modern reproductions are soft,” he says, “and they wear quickly. But these are hard-compound tires—they should make 3,000 miles without any problem at all.”
As far as his personal preparation is concerned, Campbell isn’t worried.
“I work construction every day,” he says, “so for me, this will be a cakewalk.”
Still, Campbell admits that the Cannonball ride is likely to have a significant rate of attrition among the 67 entrants.
“It’s going to be a long ride,” he says “Motors are going to blow; frames are going to break; people are going to wear out. It’d be nice to see 67 bikes start and 67 bikes finish, but realistically, I think it’ll be about 15 to 25 bikes that are still running at the end.”
And Bill Campbell plans to be one of that select group of riders crossing the finish line September 26 in Santa Monica, California.
“I’m a pretty good mechanic,” he says. “I think I’ll make it the whole way.”