Yates’ checkered flag

I’ve written before that I was a fan of the work of David E. Davis Jr., the former editor of three car magazines and author of my favorite quote about cars:

We drive our cars because they make us free. With cars we need not wait in airline terminals, or travel only where the railway tracks go. Governments detest our cars: they give us too much freedom. How do you control people who can climb into a car at any hour of the day or night and drive to who knows where?

Davis died in 2011. One of Davis’ most colorful Car and Driver writers, Brock Yates, died Wednesday.

Autoweek writes:

“Brock has been a hero of mine since I first got to know him,” Dan Gurney said at a Yates tribute several years ago at the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles. Gurney and Yates drove a Ferrari 365 GTB/4 across the country in 1971 in 35 hours, 54 minutes in the original Cannonball. “He is a pioneer, historian, instigator and defender of freedom.”

Yates’ columns in Car and Driver attacked everything from the 55-mph speed limit to the arrogance of safety advocate Ralph Nader. They spoke to the frustrations of people who loved cars but who were prevented from enjoying them by meddling government bureaucrats. Yates said in the pages of the magazine and in other outlets in which his work appeared what so many car enthusiasts felt.

“He was always a guy who was just a little farther than the rest,” said Yates fan Jay Leno, who also spoke at the Petersen tribute.

“Brock and I were in a bar,” said director Hal Needham, recounting the founding of “The Cannonball Run” movie, “and he told me about this race he created.”

Other tributes that night came in video form from Bob Lutz, Bob Varsha and David Hobbs. By the time Yates got up to speak, he was, uncharacteristically, at a loss for words.

“I don’t know what to say other than to say, thank you,” he said that night.

No, thank you Brock, for everything you did and everything you inspired us to do. Godspeed.

Yates joined Car and Driver in 1964, as managing editor—although he claimed no experience in either managing or editing. The task at hand, envisioned by editor and publisher David E. Davis, Jr., was lifting Car and Driver up and out of the mediocrity miring the day’s automotive publications. Along with Leon Mandel, Steve Smith, and Patrick Bedard, Davis and Yates sharpened their wits and words to venture well beyond routine race reports and road tests. Nicknamed “car and social commentary,” this publication nominated Dan Gurney for president, toasted the day’s brightest engineers and executives, and mounted vicious attacks on those deemed impediments to the automobile’s advancement. Yates earned his Assassin sobriquet with a 1968 exposé of Detroit’s intransigence titled The Grosse Pointe Myopians, which accurately forecast the rise of Japanese-made cars in America. The barbs of Yates’s pen sank deep and often into early safety advocates Ralph Nader and Joan Claybrook.

Bored with tilting at windmills, Yates created the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash in 1971, a coast-to-coast public road race. Although it was never officially sanctioned by this publication, the inaugural test run and four additional sprints following the rules-free format made memorable reading in Car and Driver. Yates and Dan Gurney won the first race in just under 36 hours in 1971 with a (borrowed) Ferrari 365GTB/4 Daytona. About that exploit, Gurney noted, “At no time did we exceed 175 mph.” When Hollywood took notice, Yates teamed with stuntman and director Hal Needham to write the screenplays for Smokey and the Bandit II and The Cannonball Run I and II, which, together, earned more than $100 million at the box office.

Yates penned 15 books, sharing his insights as an amateur racer in Sunday Driver and untold drama in Enzo Ferrari: The Man, The Cars, The Races, The Machine. He contributed to Car and Driver as an editor at large for four decades, but Yates and Davis exchanged virulent verbal assaults through the 1980s. These sumos of the written word eventually shook hands and resumed their friendship. …

A selection of Brock Yates’s best writing for Car and Driver can be found here.

The best way to give tribute to a writer is to show off his writing. Yates wrote this in 2002:

A couple of months ago I received a phone call of a type that is common to ink-stained wretches in this trade. A young graduate student was preparing a thesis in his field of study-motion-picture history-and was seeking information on the madness I composed over 20 years ago called The Cannonball Run. This seemed odd, considering the fact that the old flick has long since descended into late-night limbo and video and DVD sales.

Moreover, the whole movie thing has never been a source of great pride for me, in that Burt Reynolds, who starred in the picture, butchered the original script I had written for the late Steve McQueen, and the result, while a massive moneymaker, was lashed by the critics. But like the old joke about Pierre the Bridge Builder, The Cannonball Run is indelibly inscribed on my so-called career portfolio, and few conversations with strangers pass without the subject of the picture arising.

But the conversation with the student took a strange turn. Although he insisted the picture is a cult favorite among his fellow students, he had no idea The Cannonball Run was based on a real event; that five actual Cannonball races were run between 1971 and 1979, with all manner of incidents in the picture based on fact. I explained to him that three guys actually ran disguised as priests (a modest sin, considering the firestorm that has descended on the Catholic Church recently) and that myself; the movie’s director, Hal Needham; my wife, Pamela; and a Los Angeles radiologist named Lyle Royer drove the same ambulance used in the movie to compete in the last Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash in April 1979.

Here was a kid practically young enough to be my grandson, waxing eloquent over a movie he could recite line for line, yet he had no idea its genesis arose from the real stories behind it. As the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction. But only when the reality has not been subsumed by foamy legends and fantasies that radiate outward from the actual event.

Now, 23 years after the last Cannonball was run, the whole wacky affair is coming back to life. Within weeks, Motorbooks International will publish Cannonball! World’s Greatest Outlaw Road Race. Because I was the founder of the races, I served as a sort of trail boss of the book and managed to herd 37 of my co-conspirators to write their own recollections. These “usual suspects” include Dan Gurney, with whom I won the 1971 race; Cobra designer Peter Brock (one of the “priests”); edgy Indianapolis journalist Robin Miller; director Needham; Amelia Island Concours impresario Bill Warner; our own Fred Gregory; La Carrera Panamericana organizer Loyal Truesdale (who with a pal ran the Cannonball in 1979 on a motorcycle); and other notables. Their stories are universally riveting and often hilarious.

About the time you read this, Pamela and I will embark on a coast-to-coast book tour driving a Jaguar XK8, the modern counterpart to the 1979 version that holds the cross-country record at 32 hours and 51 minutes.

Within hours of the Cannonball book going to press, a wonderful footnote surfaced. It was triggered, oddly enough, in the carriage house of our home in upstate New York. Barry Meguiar, the well-known, widely respected owner of the splendid line of Meguiar’s car-care products, came to Wyoming to tape Car Crazy-his half-hour show on the automotive hobby he hosts on the Speed Channel.

Surrounded by my two Eliminator hot rods, old and new, and my old Cannonball Dodge Challenger that is a veteran of two Cannonballs (1972 and 1975), the interview inevitably turned to those legendary races and the madness surrounding them.

I noted that the 130-mph, Bill Mitchell-modified, Dick Landy 440 Dodge ambulance we used in 1979 was in fact the vehicle used by Reynolds, Dom DeLuise, Jack Elam, and Farrah Fawcett in the movie and that the scene in which they were stopped was a near-verbatim repeat of the near-arrest of Needham and me on Interstate 80 in the Garden State. I mused to Barry that for more than 20 years I have wondered if the two cops who stopped us ever found out about the scam.

At that point, Meguiar turned to the camera and asked that if either officer were watching, he should contact Meguiar headquarters in Irvine, California. A neat idea, I thought, but was convinced that nobody would surface.

I was wrong. Within hours of the show’s airing, a friend of one of the officers called Meguiar and hooked us up with now-retired Bergen County Police Department deputy chief Marc Fenech. During a four-way conference call with Fenech, Needham, Meguiar, and myself, it was revealed that Fenech and (now) police chief Jack Schmidig were on drug patrol on the night of April 1, 1979 when I-who was driving at the time-tore past them at somewhere between 95 and 100 mph.

“Actually, we weren’t on speed-enforcement patrol,” recalled Fenech, “but your speed got our attention, and we began to follow. Then you kept going past exits leading to nearby hospitals. When you drove by the last one for another 50 miles, we stopped you.”

Fenech, a car nut and regular reader of this magazine who has two Vipers in his garage, recalled the entire incident with grand humor. “We let you go after the ‘doctor’ told us the ‘patient’ [Lady Pamela], a ‘senator’s wife,’ could not be flown in a pressurized cabin and had to be driven to California-although we wondered later why you didn’t ship her by train.

“Actually, I didn’t think any more about the incident until Jack called me up after reading a story about Yates and the movie in People magazine. He said, ‘Marc, we’ve been had.'”

Although some victims of such a ruse might take umbrage and refuse to discuss it, both Fenech and Schmidig recall the incident with great amusement and have told their story hundreds of times over the years. “It’s one of those things in a career that you never forget,” said Fenech during the call.

I guess Marc’s like the rest of us who played roles, large and small, in those outrageous convulsions of motorsport called the Cannonballs. Now comes the book, and yes, serious discussions about yet another movie-the seventh-dealing with the races that began in idle conversation and general paranoia (a common malady in the ’70s) over the rising power of Ralph Nader.

There will probably never be another race like it. (I say probably.) But damn, it was fun. You had to have been there.

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