Brock Yates, the larger than life veteran of numerous automotive publications, creator of the original Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, and a man whose life and prolific body of work symbolized the pursuit of speed, died Wednesday, according to news reports. Yates was 82.
Yates died from complications of Alzheimer’s, Autoweek reports.
For people across several generations who loved cars, and even for many who did not, Yates almost needs no introduction. His career spanned decades, most notably at Car and Driver, where he served as a longtime editor. Yates would later have an on again, off again relationship with the magazine for years. He was also a race commentator on television, an author, a screenwriter, and, for a bit, even a writer at The Truth About Cars in the late 2000s.
As a journalist and critic Yates’ career spanned the years when freewheeling American speed and horsepower gave way to regulation and national speed limits and malaise. In 1971 this led to what may have been his most notable—and often imitated, to ever-diminishing significance—accomplishment, the Cannonball Run.
After an initial drive in a van that year, Yates blasted from New York City to the Pacific Ocean with racer Dan Gurney in a Ferrari Daytona coupe against teams of other drivers. The duo clinched victory in a record 35 hours and 54 minutes, in what Autoweek called at the time “a whimsical gesture of defiance of the regimen of contemporary traffic laws [...] run without accident or injury.”
You can read C&D’s story on that race at the time here.
The Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash had entered the annals of sporting minutiae, leaving future generations to decide what it meant, if anything. To those involved, it had been an adventure, encompassing difficult endurance driving, nasty weather, brushes with the law—some of the latter bordering on the absurd—navigational challenges and a variety of mechanical troubles. The concept had been refreshing in its simplicity. Whereas every automotive competition in the world is encumbered by a thicket of confusing rules, the Cannonball Baker had but one—”All competitors will drive any vehicle of their choosing, over any route, at any speed they judge practical, between the starting point and destination.The competitor finishing with the lowest elapsed time is the winner.”
There were no other rules.
This original, unsanctioned race was run another four times, and Yates even wrote the screenplay for the 1981 Burt Reynolds movie it inspired.
Yates also created the One Lap of America, a motorsports event designed to “capture the excitement, lunacy and romance of the Cannonball without the threat of being called to testify in front of a Senate sub-committee.” It is now in its 32nd year.
Yates leaves an indelible mark on the world of cars and probably anyone who ever set out to write about them. Our condolences go out to his friends and family.