By on October 6, 2016

Brock Yates (Facebook)

Brock Yates wore many hats during his enviable madcap life, and each one blew off as he pinned the accelerator to the firewall.

The longtime Car & Driver editor, racecar driver, brief TTAC contributor, author, restaurateur, television commentator, screenwriter, Cannonball Run founder and fierce critic of government regulations packed a burning passion for cars into every strand of his DNA.

Yates passed away yesterday from complications of Alzheimer’s. He was 82.

On the One Lap of America Facebook page, Brock Yates, Jr. posted, “Today, after suffering with Alzheimer’s for the last 12 years, my father finally succumbed. He touched many lives, but sadly no more.”

Born in Buffalo in 1933, Yates interest in automobiles and annoyance of the automobile industry compelled him to voice his opinions in print. Those columns led to a decades-long affiliation with Car & Driver.

No subject was off the table, and Yates carried the flag for a less corporate, less bureaucratic America. His free-wheeling vision of a life unburdened by red tape and regulations came across loud and clear in his writing, earning him the scorn of some environmentalists and safety advocates. It also won him a legion of loyal readers.

Ralph Nader? The man’s “a pain in the ass,” Yates wrote in 1971. The federally mandated 55 mile per hour speed limit? It “made criminals of us all,” he claimed at the time.

To protest the Nixon-era fuel-saving measure, Yates famously created the Cannonball Run, aka the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. That hare-brained scheme — a cross-country race where only crossing the finish line mattered — earned him the scrutiny of lawmakers.

Brock won that first New York to Los Angeles sprint, piloting a Ferrari 365 GTB/4 Daytona with co-driver Dan Gurney of Formula One and LeMans fame. His book Cannonball! documented the “hopeless illegality” of the race, which he completed in 35 hours and 53 minutes. The last of the five Cannonball Runs took place in 1979.

(Later, realizing there were limits to luck and government patience, Yates turned his focus to One Lap of America. The constantly evolving event kicked off in 1984.)

Despite all the grumbling about “laws” and “safety,” the Cannonball Runs inspired millions. It was rebellious, daring, and strongly libertarian (before anyone used that word) — a big, raised middle finger to The Man. And, if the public couldn’t have the real thing, why not watch it on the big screen? Enter Yates’ brief movie career.

As a writer and producer, Yates penned Smokey and the Bandit II (1980), The Cannonball Run (1981) and Cannonball Run II (1984). He later brought that motoring nostalgia to the dining scene, opening the Cannonball Run Pub & Restaurant in Wyoming, New York.

Yates continued railing against the many scourges afflicting the auto industry and came aboard at TTAC for a series of editorials in 2008. The man was truly larger than life, inspiring countless gearheads and closet rebels through his writing. He will be missed.

[Image: Facebook]

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44 Comments on “Brock Yates, Larger-than-Life Driver and Journalist, Dies at 82...”


  • avatar
    David "Piston Slap Yo Mama" Sanborn

    Teenage-me loved his writing in Car & Driver in the 80’s. His piece on his love of the 300TD wagon and his anger at the dingus who left an enormous console tv in the road which he then smashed into at speed, at night was a hoot. Despite being a kid, I specifically wanted a diesel 300TD after reading his prose. “Der Boss’ Benzwagen” I believe it was called. I went on to own four different diesel Benzes …

    That he had a stint here at TTAC says a lot about this place. I’m really going to miss him, he ranked up there with David E. Davis.

    • 0 avatar
      tkewley

      The 300TD piece was written by David E. Davis Jr., who was “Der Boss” at C/D at the time.

      • 0 avatar
        David "Piston Slap Yo Mama" Sanborn

        Christ on crutches, my teenaged recollections got swapped. Somehow I attributed that piece to Brock over the years. Thanks for the correction!

        This much I’m sure of: David E. Davis and Brock Yates would’ve tied for first place in any Manliest-Man competition. Time to cue up Cannonball Run and invite some gearhead friends over.

    • 0 avatar
      dukeisduke

      That article was hilarious, except for the part about hitting the color TV.

  • avatar
    mikey

    Alzheimers ..robs victims of the best years of their life. Its heart breaking to see brilliant , talented and successful people like Brock ,slowly sucum to such a terrible disease.

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    Steph, thanks for posting this. I was a Yates fan going back to the early ’70s. BTW, it’s Car and Driver, not Car & Driver.

  • avatar
    Jeff Weimer

    He was the original, Jeremy Clarkson owes him a debt of gratitude.

  • avatar
    True_Blue

    Between him, Bedard, and Phillips. I miss that trifecta in the front pages of CaD (although I am warming to Robinson and Dyer’s pretty funny). He was a legend out here in the Finger Lakes.

    • 0 avatar
      dukeisduke

      And Jean Shepherd, and Gordon Baxter, too.

    • 0 avatar
      JimZ

      yep. maybe it’s just rose-tinted specs since I started reading C&D then, but I think it was at it’s best back in the late ’80s/early ’90s. they had experienced automotive engineers (Csere, Bedard) on staff, and irreverent people like Yates. They were pretty close to “the truth about cars” in print form.

      edit: apparently Jack and I are in agreement:

      http://www.speedsportlife.com/2008/12/23/avoidable-contact-22-the-rise-and-sad-fall-of-car-and-driver/

    • 0 avatar
      TheDoctorIsOut

      When talking about great writers they also had LJK Setright, PJ O’Rourke, and my personal favorite, the late great Warren Weith. But it was Yates and DED who provided the template for CD’s personality on the page. For them it wasn’t just writing about great cars it was also great writers and great writing passionately about the auto. No matter how much Yates’s writing infuriated me at times, I knew where it was coming from and always looked forward to next month’s column. Looking forward to raising one with him again someday at the great Portofino Inn in Heaven.

  • avatar
    threeer

    One last turn of the key as the lights come on and the garage door slowly opens. Rest well, Brock. Enjoy the drive along those cloud-lined S-curves beyond the gates. And thanks for taking us along for the ride all of these years.

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    Yates will be remembered for the outlaw journalism he and David E. Davis, Jr. introduced at C/D. They didn’t always make the automakers happy, like with the famous review of the 1968 Opel Kadett wagon, photographed at a junkyard, that resulted in GM cancelling all advertising in C/D for a time.

  • avatar
    DougD

    What a life, I enjoyed his writing that I could get my hands on.

    Also, very appropriate photograph of him standing in front of Duff Livingstone’s Eliminator, the Model T that gave the finger to the sports car crowd in the late 1950’s

  • avatar
    olddavid

    He was an iconoclast. Too bad that now only Dan and AAR are standing. Life was different circa 1960-1990, and the fates are never easy on the outliers . Entertaining, yes. Prescient? No. But I will miss him. Age and circumstance usually takes the megaphone from all of us. The trick is to melt away with dignity and grace. A surprisingly difficult task.

  • avatar
    True_Blue

    DougD brings up a pretty good point, and I remember reading about Yates driving that over the Pebble Beach lawn, chewing up the grass as he went.

    “Though the ownership path is murky, the car eventually found its way into Yates’s collection, and it was soon sent to Pete Chapouris at California’s So-Cal Speed Shop for refurbishment. Chapouris brought The Eliminator up to modern safety standards, but took care to preserve the car’s patina wherever possible; he left the exterior paint untouched and left many of the dents from the car’s serious racing days intact.

    “Upon completion, Yates raced the car for four seasons in various vintage events, but its crowning achievement likely came in August of 2003. That year, the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance included a class honoring the hot rod, and The Eliminator received an invitation to participate alongside the likes of Max Balchowsky’s Old Yeller II, the 1947 Baldwin Payne Mercury and the HWM Chevrolet Stovebolt Special. On hand for the ceremonies, in addition to owner Yates, were Livingstone and The Eliminator’s most recent restorer, Barry Brown, whose Riter Vintage Car Care shop in East Rochester, New York, refreshed the car after four seasons of vintage racing.

    “Like a warthog displayed at an American Kennel Club purebred event, The Eliminator seemed out of place on the Pebble Beach field, and Yates recounted his impression of the event in a piece penned for the December 2003 Car and Driver, entitled “Barbarians on the Grass.” Looking at the car with contempt and distaste, a woman reportedly said to original restorer Chapouris, “This thing is ugly. The paint is faded. There are dents. Don’t any of you people know how to restore cars?”

    “When Chapouris pointed out the importance of the car’s originality, the visitor was undeterred, stating that, “Our house is original. One hundred years old. But we paint it every three years,” before storming off in a huff.

    “Later, when the category finalists were announced, the Stovebolt Special, the Baldwin Payne Mercury and The Eliminator were called before the judges’ stand, and it was The Eliminator that was picked for the category win. The car may still have been a warthog among purebreds, but on that day it was a very proud warthog.”

    https://blog.hemmings.com/index.php/2013/09/05/brock-yatess-eliminator-and-novi-special-replica-fail-to-sell-in-monterey/

  • avatar
    Driver8

    I’ve got a copy of Cannonball! right here on the shelf.
    If only there were other opinionated, balls-out gonzo auto journalists of that ilk today…

  • avatar
    Wheatridger

    My momma taught me never to speak ill of the recently deceased. I grew up with the golden age of C&D, and wept a little when I learned DED was dead. Yates was good for some uninhibited expression of the automotive id, but by the last days, he was more a political writer than anything else. I’ll reserve my respect for excellent writers like Jack Baruth, who knows to take his racing to the track, not the highways.

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      “like Jack Baruth, who knows to take his racing to the track, not the highways.”

      Well, Jack did write a 4 part series on how to speed on public roads back in 2009. Although he has mellowed out a ton since then.

      thetruthaboutcars.com/2009/05/editorial-maximum-street-speed-explained

      • 0 avatar
        dal20402

        Jack recently wrote something in the context of a “review” of a 6-speed Matrix conversion that indicated he thinks “normal highway speed” is 107 mph.

    • 0 avatar
      ToddAtlasF1

      It was a different time: when it wasn’t assumed that everyone outside of earshot was an imbecile. Many thought that we shouldn’t be limited by laws made for the lowest common denominator. Today it is accepted that the least of us rule. Naturally, some are more comfortable with this than others.

  • avatar
    DukeGanote

    I remember his words of wisdom (in some now long misplaced C&D issue) for winning the Cannonball, the gist of which was: it’s more important to keep a consistent 80- or 90-mph than to go for bursts of real speed.

    There’s really more wisdom in that than first glance. I’m sure my family appreciates me following his practical advice during the family roadtrips.

  • avatar

    There was only one Brock Yates. I had the good fortune to meet him a few times through press car connections. Many will miss him.

  • avatar
    Steve Lynch

    A huge loss.

    His book “Sunday Driver” includes his experience preparing for and driving in a Trans-Am race in the 1970s, still the best behinds-the-scene look at racing ever.

    Thanks Brock, to use your words to sum up your career: “It was one nutty ride.”

  • avatar
    fincar1

    I was a Yates fan all through the Car and Driver years, and read his stuff whenever i could find it.

    I was browsing in an antique shop in Colorado and found what I think was his first book, a piece on destroyers and destroyer sailors. I can’t remember the title – I gave the book to a friend whose father was a destroyer sailor. I hadn’t realized that Yates was a Navy man.

  • avatar

    Back in the c/d days Yates left for a short period (he and DED were two large egos- met DED and Jamie Kitman once at a Scotch tasting event in NYC) and he started a Newsletter. I subscribed for a year, but it kind of petered out at the seventh or so issue and I’m pretty sure he came back to c/d

    What was the name of the Newsletter ?

    True to the 80’s, it was typewritten and copies. Yes kids, we did do media before Word was invented, er, forced upon us.

    • 0 avatar
      ToddAtlasF1

      Now that DED has been in the ground a while, can I say that giving Jamie Kitman a soapbox was his worst transgression against the universe?

      • 0 avatar
        dal20402

        Horrors. Someone in the car business might live in a city and have opinions that don’t align perfectly with those of Ted Cruz.

        • 0 avatar
          ToddAtlasF1

          I didn’t know Ted Cruz existed when I figured out that being They Might Be Giants’ manager failed to offset Jamie Kitman’s taint on mankind. The worst hypocrites are the worst people. Jamie Kitman has a fleet of gross polluting vehicles and denigrates the folks that support their families by commuting in late model RAV4s. I’ve yet to hear of a death awful enough for him.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    “Communist” and “subversive” is how I described Car & Driver in the early 1970s, yet I loved reading every word of Brock Yate’s and the other writers’ columns!

    That’s when Car & Driver really meant something as stated in the article. Now it’s just an apologist for the OEMs to be able to get their hands on new vehicles and free perks. At least it appears that way.

    I looked forward to C&D when I was in the service and read every issue I could get my hands on, usually at the base library. I didn’t always agree with what C&D stood for, but the magazine did stand out from the pack, and one learned a little something along the way.

    Alzheimer’s is a nasty way to go, my father in law suffered it, but thankfully, only lasted two years. Progressively seeing nobody home in a person’s eyes is a devastating blow and it cuts to the heart seeing a loved one – or anyone for that matter – suffer such a terrible end.

    Brock Yates – end of an era.

    • 0 avatar
      ToddAtlasF1

      They were smart enough not to be the least bit communist in the early ’70s. Private car ownership is the most capitalist thing available to the lower middle class, at least until the veiled communists get involved.

  • avatar
    whitworth

    I loved reading his work over the years, RIP.

    What a cool life to have lived.

  • avatar
    johnny ringo

    R.I.P Mr. Yates-his column in Car & Driver was sometime I always looked forward to in the magazine each month. He was a great writer, I think my favorite of his articles was “The Grosse Pointe Myopians” which appeared in Car & Driver in 1968-I think it was the best piece of automotive journalism in the 1960’s. In the 1980’s he wrote an excellent book “The Decline and Fall of the American Car Industry” which was another excellent piece of work. Perhaps as an honor to Mr Yates you could reprint “the Grosse Point Myopians”, it would be an great way of honoring Mr. yates.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    Always loved his balls-out car writing. The political stuff? Meh, not so much.

    He will definitely be missed.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    The sad part about getting old is watching those greats leave us .

    I think there’s a few younger writers who are pretty good , give them time as these were HUGE shoes to fill .

    -Nate

  • avatar

    I wasn’t reading car magazines back then (a little young) But oddly I used to read him in boating magazine in the 90’s as a teen. Always thought he was pretty cool. He moved up to the St Lawrence seaway in partial retirement, Had a Bertram and a baby Donzi up there. He also made a boating cannon ball run NY to Miami thou I think it was only run twice. Sad to see him go.

  • avatar
    Paragon

    Yes, I regularly read Car and Driver in the 1970s and 1980s. And, since then, too. But he was my favorite writer. His thoughts and ideas spoke to me. And, though I didn’t purchase it, I read his book The Decline and Fall of the American Automobile Industry. Oh, and I liked that he had a Dodge Challenger, back in the day.

  • avatar
    Fordson

    Always read Yates. We made it up to his yearly open house in Wyoming several times – I have autographed copies of a couple of his books.

    He’ll be missed…

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