How did you learn how to read?
My reading experience started with “Dick and Jane,” but it was enhanced by reading what we call the "buff books." The latter is a term used for the monthly magazines published to cover the automotive industry and entertain its enthusiasts. I can cite many writers who have contributed to balancing the mundane education I received from the Los Angeles Unified School District with their exploits in the car universe.
If one did stand out, it is because he got a deal to turn his exploits in Car and Driver into some of my favorite movies of all time. A Hollywood deal is a bigger prize than anything an automotive scribe can achieve.
That deal involved some real-life exploits of the Car and Driver columnist and their paean to Erwin "Cannonball" Baker. The name might not be familiar to you, but the movie with nickname attached to it should. However, Adrienne Barbeau, Sammy Davis, Jr. or Burt Reynolds were involved in the original Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dashes of the early 1970s. With Dan Gurney in tow, this motley crew of protesters against the changing safety-fed landscape of American motoring accomplish the run from New York City to the Portofino Inn on the shores of the Pacific Ocean in just 35 hours and 54 minutes – covering a distance of 2,863 miles.
And, we, as an automotive readership lapped up these exploits…and laughed our butts off in the process. It was all because of one writer's crazy idea.
Brock Yates died at the age of 82 due to complications brought on by Alzheimer's disease on Wednesday, October 5. He leaves behind a legacy of tongue-in-cheek journalism that was pervasive in the 1970s and 1980s.
Yates inspired generations of automotive writers, bloggers and journalists to step outside the comfort zone and media junket circuit to stretch their imaginations as to producing great stories. He certainly inspired me. He made us laugh – not just through his magazine and television work, but also through the two screenplays he write for filmmaker Hal Needham. Yates provoked us to give a damn about motorsport, his views on the automotive industry through the turmoil of the 1970s and 1980s and his exploits that began at the bar he called home in Wyoming, New York near Buffalo.
One term that aptly described Yates perfectly was "hell raiser." Back in the day, our vocation was full of them. We were provocateurs, raconteurs, general old cads that enjoyed some of the luxuries of our work and took liberties when possible. All of this was Yates in a nutshell. He deserved every inch of success because of it.
On television, Yates appeared professional. This was years after he garnered success as a hell raising leader of cross-country adventures with two screenplays under his belt. He exhibited the dichotomy of our work, our vocation.
His influence did bring on legitimate work – the One Lap of America. The idea of the Cannonball was harnessed into a competition that brought sponsors and some professional motorsports guidance to even a crew of rank amateurs in stock machinery. Still, the essence of Cannonball was there, as was Yates' presence at these events.
Yet, we all wanted to be Yates. We wanted the power to go a manufacturer and take one of their vehicles to modify for an illegal race. We all wanted that pseudo-Hemmingway kind of life that Yates had – with his wife Pamela, sons Brock, Jr. and Shawn, and daughter Stacy within reach.
The lucky people at The Truth About Cars had that experience for a minute in 2008. It kept Yates in our lexicon as he blessed the online automotive world with his flavor of wordsmithing.
Perhaps a few of us can live like Yates. No one has that legacy. He certainly planted to seed for us who do this work. His readers were duly rewarded with his stories. He shall be remembered onward in the annals of this work we love so much.
Thank you, Brock. You made us a bit crazier as automotive media professionals. Heck, you made me read better than what my teachers expected me to read. That, I deeply thank you for that piece of personal information.
You will be missed.