The Cannonball Run Mustang
The story of the Shelby G.T. 350 that ran in the final Cannonball Run Mustang in 1979
The 1970s were a challenging time to be an automotive enthusiast. The first muscle car era was coming to a premature end. The muscle car’s Golden Age was done in by a combination of ever-restrictive federal emission and safety standards, wildly escalating insurance rates, and finally, in October 1973, the first OPEC Oil Embargo. In the blink of an eye, a gallon of gas went from 35 to 80 cents a gallon ($4.30 in 2019 dollars), and we waited in long lines, on alternating days, to fill up. Then there was the final nail—the imposition of the national 55-mph speed limit in November 1973. Instantly, almost every muscle car became a very cheap used car, and some were virtually unsalable.
At the same time, many parts of the Interstate Highway System, which had begun in 1957, had already been completed. This fact was not lost on automotive journalist Brock Yates. In 1971, Yates, his son Brock Jr., his co-editor at Car and Driver Steve Smith (who is co-credited with the idea of an unlimited coast-to-coast run), and his friend Jim Williams drove coast-to-coast in 40 hours and 51 minutes in a ’71 Dodge van. An idea was born for an unsanctioned race that November, when Yates and racing legend Dan Gurney made the trip from the Red Ball Garage in New York City to the Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach, California, in what was then a record time of 35 hours and 54 minutes, in a Sunoco Blue Ferrari Daytona owned by Kirk F. White. In the aftermath, Gurney was quoted as saying, “At no time did we exceed 170 miles per hour.” Chronicled in the March 1972 issue of Car and Driver magazine and covered in countless other publications, the legend of the Cannonball Run was cemented in the consciousness of car enthusiasts around the world.
Three more Cannonball Runs followed in 1972, 1975, and the final event in 1979. The 1965 Shelby G.T. 350 shown here, piloted by then-owner Robert Key and Shelby American Automobile Club (SAAC) co-founder Rick Kopec, ran in the final Cannonball, finishing with a time of 48 hours and 53 minutes.
The Key/Kopec trip is one that has been told many times, immortalized in Brock Yates’ 2003 book Cannonball! World’s Greatest Outlaw Race. In 1979, Kopec became infamous (or notorious, depending on how you look at it) for being the first Cannonball participant arrested for a felony (impersonating an officer) when he flashed an off-duty New York police badge at a traffic stop in Pennsylvania. At the station, Kopec confessed to being part of the Cannonball and has said, “I suspect the troopers all privately approved because they turned me loose with nothing more than a speeding ticket.”
In the years since 1979, Key owned the car before passing away in 2014. It went through a succession of owners that included vintage racer Bruce Canepa; Ford Executive Vice President and President, Global Markets, Jim Farley; and finally collector John Linfesty.
“My dad put me in a brand-new Ferrari when I was 6 years old, and drove me home from the dealership in it,” recalled John in an interview conducted in January 2019 in the lobby of the Portofino Inn. John later became a Shelby enthusiast and has never looked back since. Linfesty owns two other Shelbys besides this G.T. 350. “I also have a very early 289 Cobra, and a 1966 G.T. 350 that I currently vintage race with HMSA and at the Monterey Historics,” John says. “I purchased the Cannonball car in 2012 from Jim Farley. I had a 427 Cobra comp car that he wanted, and he had the Cannonball car, along with a very early 289 Cobra. We ended up trading and I wound up with the two cars. I knew the history of the G.T. 350 being in the Cannonball and when Farley purchased it from Bruce Canepa. The history is pretty well known. During Farley’s ownership, the car was equipped with disc brakes on all four wheels.”
Before its acquisition by Linfesty, Farley’s mechanics went over the car from bumper to bumper and the original rear drum brake setup was reinstalled. Next up was the installation of a five-speed transmission to give the car a more reliable setup for street use. “It’s the most wonderful Mustang you could imagine,” says Linfesty. “It’s better than a new car. I take it to the Monterey Historics to use as my driver to arrive and leave from the pits. The history of the car is pretty well known, but I don’t think the spectators at Laguna Seca realize that it is the car from the Cannonball. To them it’s a ’65 Shelby, which is a pretty rare bird in and of itself.”
So just how did this car find its way into the pages of Mustang Monthly? I’ll let my friend and colleague, Shelby enthusiast Maxx Kominsky, explain: “I first met John on Instagram. A post that I made showed the famous photograph of Bob Key and Rick Kopec leaving the Lock Stock and Barrel restaurant. An Instagram follower commented, ‘That car’s in my garage!’ At first, I didn’t believe it, and I was under the impression that the car no longer existed. When John revealed to have owned the car, I was in shock until first seeing the car in April of 2018.”
One thing led to another. First, as both Maxx and John live in Southern California, both connected in 2018 when Maxx was able to get some photographs, which he forwarded to me. I sent them on to Mustang Monthly Editor Rob Kinnan, who agreed to move forward with the story. And it was obvious to me—after Maxx located a photo of the car parked in front of the Portofino Inn at the end of the 1979 race—that the car had to be photographed there. We showed up unexpectedly on a Saturday afternoon in January 2019, and with the assistance of the Portofino Inn staff (who had no idea about the car’s notoriety), we were able to position it in virtually the same spot where it was parked 40 years ago. While the Portofino Inn has been renovated several times, it’s easy to make out the canopy as it was in 1979.
So there you have this car’s improbable journey. It’s one of the first-year Shelby Mustangs built, and it participated in the 1979 Cannonball Run (in which one of its drivers was arrested for felony impersonation of an officer), went through a succession of owners, and returned to the spot of its most famous moment in time, almost 40 years later.
2019 Mustang Monthly Interview
With his participation in the 1979 Cannonball Run now safely 40 years in his personal rearview mirror, Rick Kopec looked back on his participation for Mustang Monthly in this exclusive interview.
“When Brock Yates announced that there would be another Cannonball in 1979, one of the premises of the event was to allow him to gather material for a movie that would be made about the race. Yates would be writing the screenplay and would be using some of the escapades, incidents, and shenanigans he envisioned taking place. To help this along, he mentioned that certain types of entries would be readily welcomed. He didn’t want the entry list to be a parade of Ferraris, BMWs, Mercedes, Corvettes, and Porsches. He provided several examples that would lend themselves to compelling on-screen scenarios: a NASCAR stock car, a full-dress pimp Cadillac, a New York City taxicab, a Kenworth or Peterbuilt tractor running bobtail, and a Japanese sedan equipped with every kind of high-tech, radar-blocking gizmo imaginable.
“The only car I even considered was an early Shelby G.T. 350, because I had one. Unfortunately, at that time it sat in my garage completely disassembled. It would never be put back together by the starting date. But I knew plenty of other Shelby owners. Were they interested in running in the Cannonball? Absolutely! Were they willing to furnish their car? Not a chance in hell. I had started my search with owners in close geographical proximity to myself, in Connecticut. The more rejections I received, the farther away I went. By the time I got to the West Coast I was tiring of making the introduction and expecting a rejection, but when I called 1965 G.T. 350 owner Bob Key, he immediately said, ‘Yes!’ Not only ‘Yes,’ but ‘Hell yes!’ He was a Car and Driver reader, fan of the magazine, a subscriber to Yates’ newsletter, and a Cannonball fanatic of the first order. Like myself, he had followed each one.
“His G.T. 350 was well used—not a coddled show car—and he often competed with it in rallies on the West Coast. I knew him through the Shelby club; he was an ex-Vietnam combat infantry officer like myself and we got along great. He was a perfect match. We began excitedly making plans and discussing strategies.
“When compared to where Yates was coming from, we were naive in the extreme. Not only did that not slow us down, but it fueled our enthusiasm. I sent in an application along with the entry fee and sat on pins and needles until I received an acceptance letter a few weeks later. We were in! Both of us were convinced that the major reason we had been selected was because the G.T. 350 would be a perfect car for the movie. Instead of being a slippery and shadowy stealth entry, the bright white with bold blue Le Mans stripes car was loud and in-your-face. We began taking a perverse pride in such a high-profile entry.
“It seemed that all we could think of was seeing a white and blue G.T. 350 in the finished movie. This led to mock arguments over who would play each of us in the movie. These excited discussions usually resulted in some form of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. That provided new arguments over which one of us would be played by Newman and which would be played by Redford. As the event progressed, we were soon expecting to be tapped to be technical advisers. And maybe the car itself would be hired to be in the film. One imaginary scenario led to another, more outrageous than the previous one. We even discussed winning the event, although that fantasy was short-lived, evaporating as soon as the event commenced and we saw Yates’ entry—a huge orange Dodge van outfitted as an ambulance and powered by a Cotton Owens 440ci engine. We scaled back our plans for a victory celebration accordingly.
“The Hollywood illusion lasted throughout the event. However, we no longer envisioned starring roles and now saw the car as more of a prop. Something in the background of some of the scenes. But still up on the big screen nonetheless. After the event we presumed that Yates was busy working on the movie. Neither of our phones rang. And when the movie was finally released two years later, there wasn’t a Shelby to be seen in it. More Hollywood dreams shattered. Not the first nor the last.”
Photography by Richard Truesdell & Maxx Kominsky