Never Asleep at the Wheel
Earl Williams could drive a car in his sleep if he had to. But the deal was that he wouldn't fall asleep for one hundred consecutive hours as he drove around the city of Dublin. It was all part of a publicity stunt, or advertising gimmick, to raise funds for Earl's habits, eating in particular. Just like the fictional Bo "Bandit" Darville, Earl loved to show off to pay the bills. The thing is, Earl didn't have Sheriff Buford T. Justice in hot pursuit behind him. Most of his driving stunts were along city streets or on circular tracks within the speed limits. The real reason for the spectacle was to raise funds for the Lieutenant Williams' sponsors.
Before he began driving cars for days at a time, Earl Napoleon Williams won national fame for his daring feats as a stunt pilot for Ivan Gates and his "Flying Circus," the nation's most popular barnstorming air show of the 1920s.
In the fall of 1928, Earl was approached by Dave R. Yantis, sales manager of the LeRous Motor Company of Atlanta, to drive one of his Whippet automobiles in a daring endurance test at the Southeastern Fair. Earl's job was to drive a Whippet around a small track for 128 hours without sleeping and only stopping for gas, oil and water. To ensure that the driver remained in the vehicle, Williams was handcuffed to the steering wheel by policeman A.G. Stone. Such an assignment wouldn't be difficult for Earl, who had already set a world record in Chattanooga by driving nonstop for 141 hours. Williams did, however, express concerns that the test would be more grueling because of the tightness of the confined space.
A large crowd of fans gathered around the 80 by 175 foot oval tract in the first trial of its kind in the country. Even the doubters in the gathering had their chances to look for trickery during the allowed pit stops. At two o'clock in the morning after circling for 90 hours, the strain of driving around and around the small tract took its toll on Earl. He fainted and was rushed to a hospital for emergency treatment. Against his doctor's advice, the dazed driver insisted on getting back into the seat of his car. All the time, two of Fire Captain J.T. Peel's men had taken Williams' place and kept the Whippet on his mundane trek. Earl Williams crawled out of bed and returned to the track to finish the remaining 38 hours of his run, just as he had promised. Then after fulfilling his mission, Earl collapsed into a soft bed in the showroom window of the car dealership for a long rest. Then and there everyone could see that he was indeed human.
The next summer, Earl Williams drove a car at a record pace to the top of Pike's Peak in Colorado.
For his next feat of endurance, Earl enlisted the aid of his wife. The couple began their drive around a track in their Graham Paige automobile on August 27, 1929. The conditions of the test were that the vehicle could not stop for any reason. Refueling, servicing and even tire changes had to be made while the car was in motion requiring all the innovation Williams and his crew could muster. The rear seat of the car was fashioned into a bed room and bath room. The hard part came when the two drivers switched places. The couple drove 18,232 circles for more than 464 hours and seven minutes before a ruptured tire ended their stunt. After driving 9,116 miles, the couple only required a 12-hour rest. Then, it was once again time to get back on the road to travel to other cities and towns across the country to make some more spending money.
George T. Morris of Morris Motor Company hired Earl Williams to come to Dublin to promote the sale of his models A & T Ford coupes and sedans. Other merchants wanted to get in on the action as well. Jewelry store owner Cullen Fisher was appointed the official time keeper. During the 100-hour event, Fisher ran a special on Bulova watches. Sinclair gas and Opaline oil was provided by Glover M. Burney. Mr. Peacock, of the Service Radio Company, installed a Majestic Radio in Williams' car. The Burch Brothers chipped in a Willard battery. J.C. Penney and Co. furnished the driver with Penco sheets to cover his bed once the run was complete. When his car needed gas and oil, Earl could pull into the Fred Roberts Hotel's gas station, an event which everyone was invited to watch.
The big event began with Williams' appearance on the stage of the Rose Theater at 2:00 p.m. on January 8, 1930, eighty years ago next week. Promptly at 3:15, Mayor T.C. Keen handcuffed Williams to the wheel and gave the signal. The race against Morpheus began.
As the car pulled away from the curb, those who gathered around took a brief glance at the placards which covered most of its body. It was the only time during the 100-hour marathon that anyone could get a stationary glimpse of the sponsors ads. Those wanting to tag along for a ride were instructed to contact the desk manager of the Fred Roberts Hotel to reserve their ticket.
One of the biggest secrets to keep Earl awake was his daily morning shave. Pearly Hutchinson, one of the city's best barbers, was given the assignment of clean shaving the lieutenant every morning as he drove throughout the city. "He was sore and stiff from the awkward and unusual positions he had to get into every morning to shave," Hutchinson remarked.
As the race progressed, Williams' began to show the strains of sitting shackled to the car for days. To break up the monotony, Williams would drive outside the city limits. The culmination of the run came with a race to Wrightsville and back.
Williams looked at his Bulova watch. When it said 7:21 on Sunday evening, he headed his car toward the Fred Roberts Hotel and sleep. A physician was standing by to escort Earl to his hotel room. The public was invited to cheer him to finish line and even come into the hotel to watch him sleep and recuperate.
The whole event was a resounding success. Everyone went away happy. The merchants cash registers were a little more full. And, so was Earl Williams' wallet. Earl could sleep again. That is until it was time to climb back in his car and ride around for four days and four hours without succumbing to Mr. Sandman.
Eventually the records Earl Williams set were broken. His achievements faded into obscurity as few accounts of his activities ever appeared after the day in Dublin when he was never asleep at the wheel.