Los Gatos man a driving force behind winning team at Baja 1000
If truth be told, the vehicle was an electric-powered two-seater--and Cannizzaro was only 4 years old. But when the youngster's foot found the accelerator, a cataclysmic connection occurred.
Sixteen years later, the Los Gatos resident put the pedal to the metal once again. This time Cannizzaro was behind the wheel of an off-road "sand rail," hurtling across the Mexican desert. As one of 342 participants in the Baja 1000--an annual race covering the entire length of the Baja Peninsula--Cannizzaro spent a grueling 32 hours on wheels. Thanks in large part to his driving prowess (as well as his facility as mechanic and navigator), Cannizzaro helped his team notch a first-place win in the contest.
Cannizzaro's mother, Jackie, says her only son was born with a toolbox in his hand. "It was obvious from his toddler days that he had this passion," she recalls. "He was so incredibly interested in anything with wheels, especially when it came to anything he could build."
The budding car enthusiast's talents apparently were embedded in his DNA: Ken, his father (a high-tech intellectual property expert), had worked in his own father's auto parts store during his New York youth and loved being around hot rods.
An only child, Jackie (now a Los Gatos Arts Docents trainer and community volunteer) eagerly helped her father with any tasks--including automotive work. "I wanted to be my father's sidekick, no matter what he was doing. So if he was fixing the car, I was out there, too," Jackie says.
By the time Cassidy had driven through several sets of wheels on that first truck, and was regularly combing through construction debris and recycling bins to find materials to feed his hobby, Ken and Jackie knew their son had a special gift.
"He'd go through six pounds of nails building forts in the back yard," Ken notes. "Eventually they'd have multiple rooms and two stories, then we'd take everything apart, give him another bag of nails, and he'd start all over again. After we found out that he'd wired one for power from an old lamp, and had plumbed it with real running water, we had to apply parental wisdom so he could live beyond the age of 9."
When Cassidy was allowed to walk alone from the family's home in the Almond Grove area to Rural Supply, he found Mecca--and an important ally.
"He was one of our 'builder-boys,' and was always designing and building things," says Rural co-owner Ken Nelson. "I have to admit, some of the things were kind of goofy. But Cassidy's mind was always going in a good direction, and he's just a genuinely nice kid."
In the rare moments when he wasn't sawing and hammering, Cannizzaro was usually navigating something--anything--with wheels. At the family's vacation home on Puget Sound, his vehicle of choice was a riding lawn mower. "We only used it to cut the lawn a dozen times, but it has 100,000 miles on it from all of the driving Cassidy did," Jackie laughs.
Bikes, trikes, bulldozers, boats. By the time he was in his teens, Cannizzaro expertly drove them all. Then on his 16th birthday Cannizzaro received his first "real" ve
hicle: a three-quarter-ton 1976 GMC truck.
At the time an avid student of metals and woodworking at Los Gatos High School, Cannizzaro immediately envisioned what he describes as a "magical future" for the truck. He added enormous tires, converted the rear to a flatbed and installed a manual transmission and other features to make the vehicle off-road-ready.
When the customization was complete, Cannizzaro and his buddies began making regular weekend treks in search of rugged terrain to conquer. "We'd go to Hollister, or as far as I could afford the fuel needed to get someplace," Cannizzaro says. "My folks were always glad the truck was a gas-guzzler; with my budget they said I'd never be far from home."
By then that budget was being supplemented by an after-school job at Rural Supply, where Nelson says Cannizzaro was a favorite employee. "When we had the opportunity to grab him, we did. He was always so good with the customers, and so helpful. Of course, in his downtime Cassidy and another employee talked cars nonstop," says Nelson.
After his 2008 graduation from Los Gatos High, Cannizzaro enrolled at Butte College in Chico, where he earned an A.S. degree in welding. Then he was introduced to his parents' friend Peter Lang, founder and CEO of Santa Rosa-based Safari West Wildlife Preserve and African Tent Camp (Lang's father Otto was the director of such film and television classics as Flipper, Daktari and Sea Hunt). Originally designed as a private game preserve, the 400-acre facility--which boasts more than 400 species of exotic animals and birds--is available to the public.
Visitors to Safari West traverse the property in a fleet of vintage Dodge Power Wagons, which are kept in mint condition by a staff of mechanics. Lang was delighted to welcome the younger Cannizzaro to his crew.
"I've been hiring people since I was 22 years old, and Cassidy is the most solid young man I've ever had working for me," says Lang, now 70. "There's not a lot of conversation about anything; he just gets the job done. I'm a big fan of his."
Though the idea of being paid to tinker with trucks--and to explore Safari West's hillsides and valleys from behind the wheel--was exceedingly attractive, Cannizzaro admits that he was seduced more by Lang's hobby.
"Peter had been racing a sand rail since he bought it in 2006. Along with the trucks, the mechanics at Safari West get to maintain the race car. That's why I wanted to work there so badly," he reveals.
Whenever a truck broke down, Cannizzaro grabbed his toolbox and welding kit and made the necessary repairs, often observed by a curious zebra, giraffe or other local inhabitant. "Usually the animals would walk up and check us out, but they weren't really aggressive," Cannizzaro says.
After the young mechanic was allowed to begin working on his boss' race car, Lang realized Cannizzaro would be the ideal partner in the next Baja contest. "Out of the blue I asked him if he'd like to navigate for me in the 1000. He ended up being a great asset to our team."
To appreciate the magnitude of Cannizzaro's contribution, one must know the conditions under which the race is staged each year. First of all, there are the vehicles themselves: Heavily modified for off-road use, sand rails are little more than two seats affixed to open metal frames atop four wheels. Moreover, they lack windshields, side panels or any type of barrier that might block dirt, wind or other elements from assaulting drivers' faces and bodies.
On race day, the sand rails and hundreds of other unwieldy vehicles converge on the desert landscape at 4 a.m. At various points along the 1,062-mile circuit, spectators--many of whom have been camping and indulging in various adult beverages for days--take it upon themselves to alter the race course.
Says Cannizzaro, "They'll dig pits or move markers around, or they'll put obstacles out there and cover everything up with sand so it looks like a berm. When you hit one it's like running into a brick wall; your car's destroyed."
Why would anyone even consider compromising the drivers' safety in such a way? "That race is like the Super Bowl down there. People close up shop and travel to Ensenada to watch the start, and then work their way back down the desert until they get home. They want a show," Cannizzaro says.
With so many potential hazards along the way--not to mention an ongoing barrage of sand, silt and rocks, and exposure to bone-chilling fog and blazing sun--Baja 1000 competitors must have lightning-fast reflexes and superior driving abilities. Cannizzaro was more than up to the task: Racing nonstop day and night (and day), he ably exchanged navigation and driving duties with the older members of Lang's team.
During a total run of 32 hours, 40 minutes and 28 seconds, Cannizzaro was in the car for 22 hours. He spent the remaining 10 hours in one of the "chase vehicles," ready to do repairs whenever needed. With no food or sleep, and only the briefest breaks for refueling and minor repairs, Cannizzaro says the competition was not only a test of speed, but of mental and physical endurance.
"My 'safety equipment' was basically a helmet with a breathing apparatus to filter the dust, and a fire-retardant suit and gloves," says Cannizzaro. "By the end of the race my voice was raspy, my lungs hurt, my eyes burned and my back and rib cage felt like I'd been flogged by a giant.
"Adrenaline suppresses everything but the skills needed to keep the vehicle on course and away from obstacles, taxing you to the max," he adds. "Running the Baja 1000 isn't about having a cowboy attitude; it takes finesse, and being at one with the landscape and the car in motion."
As the hours and miles piled up, Cannizzaro devised various tricks to stay focused. Lacking a radio in the car, and having only intermittent contact with teammates via his helmet-mounted communications system, he found his mind wandering. "You start to forget what you're supposed to do, so you play little mind games. Like, every 30 seconds I'd look at this screen, every 10 seconds I'd check that gauge, etc."
In the end, Lang and Cannizzaro and company managed to muster the concentration needed to secure the top berth in the race's "sports and buggies" category. Though Lang took home the plaques, Cannizzaro has the official race gear the team received--and vivid images of the most exciting event of his life.
"It was an amazing place to be able to see the sun set, the moon rise and the stars peek through the sky without the pollution of the city," says Cannizzaro. "And to still be in the race seat when the sun came back up over the Baja mountains "... it was truly a moment sealed in my memory."
Now working as a teacher's aide in Butte College's welding department, Cannizzaro hopes that his future will find him behind both mask and wheel. He plans to continue his career in metal working, and is contemplating a move to Southern California to build race cars. No matter where he makes his home, he'll never be far from the siren song of the open road.
"The class I race in is great because it's competitive, but you don't have to be a millionaire; you can do it on your own with limited bucks. And it's fun, because you can experiment with your car "... there are no real limits," Cannizzaro says.
Though most parents cringe at the thought of their offspring careening over uncharted territory at breakneck speeds, Jackie and Ken say they are confident that their son will always put safety first.
"I think there are people who do this and they're wild cowboys, and there are those who are conscientious," Jackie says. "We put a lot of faith in Cassidy's maturity and common sense. He's never given us a day of gray hair."
Fortunately, should either Cannizzaro ever discover a silvery strand or two, their son just happens to have a helmet.