Brock Yates, Cannonball Run Legend, Dies At 82

The most important man in American car culture who never ran a car company.

Car & Driver

Brock Yates — automotive legend, former editor of Car and Driver, race car driver, founder of the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea-Memorial Trophy Dash (a.k.a. The Cannonball Run) and One Lap of America, writer of The Cannonball Run and Smokey and The Bandit II, best-selling author of 20 books including Cannonball!, Enzo Ferrari: The Man and the Machine, Sunday Driver and Against Death & Time, godfather of speeding and girls in supercars wearing purple zip-up pantsuits, patron saint of non-violent & unprofitable crimes, enemy of sloth, cowardice, taxes, and the 55mph speed limit, ambassador of internal combustion both foreign and domestic, human icepick in the face of convention, beloved outlaw, the man who changed Cannonball from noun to verb, launched a thousand radar detector sales and was solely responsible for 100% of Lamborghini Countach sales between 1981 and 1990 — died yesterday at the age of 82 due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

Car & Driver

1970's Cannonball Run Map

It is too soon to write at length about Yates’ almost incalculable contributions to car culture. I would argue that he was the most important person in American automotive history who never ran a car company.

If you have to ask why, then, like jazz… You’ll never know.

But you should know, starting with this excerpt from his August 1971 Car & Driver column, in which Yates explains why he organized the first Cannonball Run:

I hate to take another swipe at the swaying props that are holding this society. Everywhere somebody is protesting about something, defying the laws of the land while the establishment seems to burrow deeper into its bunkers in defense. But it appears to be the only course. If the movements of automobiles can be monitored and controlled (as with goodies like VASCAR and ORBIS) we are a long way down the road to 1984. Therefore, this mindless government urge to make us safe from ourselves can, in the long haul, lead to an electronic nightmare whereby you can’t buy five gallons of gas or run a half-mile over the speed limit without ringing a gong in the Big Mutha computer in Washington. Remember this: you can write off the Cannonball Baker and all the weirdos who might take part in such an event, but let me leave you with a quote from the greatest American observer of them all in regard to the ancient battle we must rage against authoritarianism. The words were written nearly 150 years ago by Alexis de Tocqueville in his epic work, Democracy in America:

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The dread of disturbance and the love of well-being insensibly lead democratic nations to increase the functions of central government as the only power which appears to be… sufficiently strong, enlightened, and secure to protect them from anarchy.… All particular circumstances which tend to make a state a democratic community agitated and precarious enhance the general prosperity and lead private persons more and more to sacrifice their rights to their tranquility. This sacrificing of rights becomes an indiscriminate passion and the members of the community are apt to conceive a most inordinate devotion to order.

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LONG LIVE CANNONBALL BAKER.

If you believe cars are more than transportation, Yates was–and always will be–your protector.

Car & Driver

Brock Yates & Dan Gurney with the Cannonball Run Ferrari Daytona

I also recommend another one of his columns, from the March 1972 issue of Car & Driver, in which he addresses criticism of the “Cannonball Baker” (a.k.a. The Cannonball Run): 

I suppose half the fun of the Cannonball Baker was anticipating the indignant hen-clucking that would arise in its wake. That the expected denouncement of the affair by responsible, clear-headed citizens, properly outraged by the idea of motorized Visigoths ripping over the highways of America, was going to be a by-product of the event that would offer us a rebuttal wherein the more serious motives of the Cannonball might be articulated. That wave of indignation never came. Aside from a pubescent West Coast motorsports writer whining that it was a “crime” and Sports Illustrated grumbling that certain aspects of the race were “deplorable,” very little flack came our way. In fact, praise arrived from utterly shocking sources. One highly prestigious member of the FIA called Kirk White twice to express his enthusiasm for the Cannonball Baker concept. Both Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America gave the race coverage in an effort, one producer told me, to inform the world that far from being a police state, America was still the scene of enterprising individual adventure.

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Nevertheless, I think the Cannonball Baker does demand justification, mainly because we feel it symbolizes something far deeper than a simple-minded dash from coast to coast. To begin with, it was not a flat-out race. Surely the idea of running across this nation in under 36 hours conjures up visions of hammering along for hours on end at 150 miles per hour. Dan Gurney’s whimsical, rather ironic statement to the press that “we never exceeded 175 miles per hour” only reinforced that idea. We did in fact briefly run the Ferrari to an indicated 172 miles per hour on an empty stretch of Interstate 10 in California, merely to determine the limits of the machine, but a majority of the trip was run at 90/95 miles per hour—a mere saunter for the Ferrari. The quickness of the journey was hardly attributable to outright speed, but rather to good routes, rapid stops, and assiduously staying clear of traffic. When Dan and I got to the Portofino, we agreed that the part of the Cannonball which we were proudest about was the fact that we had bothered no one—we hadn’t jeopardized the safety of anyone, including ourselves. We had driven very fast, but we had driven cleanly, efficiently, and safely.

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What exactly was the Cannonball Baker trying to prove? In a purely simplistic sense, it was an adventure, a challenge to be met. On a more serious level, it was a gesture. New York City to Los Angeles is the most storied overland route in the United States (“Get Your Kicks on Route 66”) and it seemed worthwhile to find out just how fast the trip could be made. But what about the cops? This question probably arose more often than any other in relation to the event. OK, what about the cops? This, if anything, was a central intent of the Cannonball: to prove the hypocrisy and futility of the speed laws in the nation today. Hopefully we added some testimony to the case that they are farcically unworkable; that they are designed to catch the wrong people and not only have no positive effect on traffic safety but may be a contributory factor to accidents, as indicated during the period of merciless enforcement in Connecticut (which has recently been quietly suspended).

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Gurney and I were arrested once. We passed a highway patrolman who was having a dawn cup of coffee in a roadside café. He never saw the Ferrari, but the rush of sound triggered his pursuit. He overtook us when we stopped for gas—having run his Dodge patrol car up to 140 miles per hour in order to make the arrest. Now then, why did he arrest us? Standard answer: We broke the law. Why are there speed laws? Standard answer: To promote safety. If we were being unsafe at 120 miles per hour—in a machine that is so eminently safe that I cannot express it to anyone who has not driven a Ferrari Daytona then what about the patrolman careening along at 140 miles per hour, in his gussied-up four-door? Was he not compounding the hazard, if we accept the argument that our speed was automatically unsafe?

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But is this not elitism at its worst? Here we are seeking justification for one of the world’s greatest drivers running probably the best passenger car ever built at 120 miles per hour on a public road. But not everyone is Dan Gurney behind the wheel of a Ferrari Daytona, the rebuttal goes. Of course that is true, but should we not aspire to those heights of excellence, both in car and driver, rather than settling back to accept a level of mediocrity whereby everyone is assumed to be incompetent? This is the basic objection that I have to the mentality of the so-called “safety” crusade of today. We are being led to standardize at a shockingly mundane level—a level that will ultimately drive the Dan Gurneys and the Ferrari Daytonas off the road. This is akin to eliminating French cuisine because it is too “rich” for the masses, or suspending basic scientific research because it doesn’t have any immediate, practical applications. If we do not seek perfection in any given field, regardless of cost or risk, we will inevitably be cursed with the ordinary. Although I risk damnation by every liberated thinker to so state, all men are not created equal, and I resent the egalitarian balderdash that modern culture must somehow grovel toward the lowest common denominator to attain stability.

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We are inclined to blame the government (“they”) and its sleazy politicos and faceless civil servants. But we are the government. “We” are “they.” In this sense, to quaver at the idea of seeking the outer limits of accomplishment—even in so minuscule an enterprise as driving coast to coast in the shortest possible time—because “they” might disapprove, is a hopeless cop-out. Gandhi once said, “It is a superstition and an ungodly thing to believe that an act of the majority binds a minority.”

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I believe sincerely in the vast capabilities of individual men, especially when they are challenged. But these instincts for challenge can easily be blanketed in an overprotective environment, where the comforts of the status-quo overwhelm any urges for change. We are becoming a nation of spectators, content to face our risks vicariously, watching other men bashing heads on a football field or pumping bullets at each other on that haunted fishbowl known as television. DeGaulle, shortly before his death, looked scornfully at those around him and grumbled that he was doomed to die in “an age of midgets.”

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To imply that the Cannonball Baker in any way advanced the human spirit would be fatuous in the extreme, but its symbolism remains. Its participants were willing to embark on an adventure, risking formal and informal censure in order to reach a goal, no matter how limited. In a broader sense, others—Gurney and myself included—were eager to make a point about individual options and enterprise, coupled with striking a blow for automotive excellence. Is it so foolish to dream of a time when all good men, driving graceful, efficient machines like the Ferrari (only costing perhaps a fifth as much) can drive between New York and Los Angeles in 36 hours legally and safely? We are not advocating highway anarchy, only highway good sense and intelligence and a natural state that rewards skill and intelligence and punishes blunders. Until that day arrives, we are law-breakers. But before we are condemned, remember the warning of Louis Brandeis (associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court), who seemed to be talking about our highways when he said, “If we desire respect for the law, we must first make the law respectable.”

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Let Nader and his ilk maunder inside their air bags. The question arising from the Cannonball Baker and other “deplorable crimes” is not whether we are willing to drive for speed, but whether we are willing to drive for excellence.

Yates is survived by former wife Pamela, children Brock Jr, Claire and Dan, stepdaughter Stacey, and everyone who has ever safely driven more than 15 mph over the speed limit.

Alex Roy is an Editor-at-Large for The Drive, author of The Driver, and set the 2007 Transcontinental “Cannonball Run” Record in 31 hours & 4 minutes. You may follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.