— story by Doug Stokes
Brock Yates,“The Assassin” as he was nicknamed at one time (although I’ve often wondered if he didn’t really start that himself, just to get under the establishment’s skin a few millimeters deeper), has left the building.
Most thought of him as brash, larger-than-life provocateur who loved nothing more than skewering the establishment in print and in person every chance that he got. He was all of that. He started the Cannonball Run (more formally, the “Sea to Shining Sea Memorial Trophy Dash”*), and yes, he and Dan Gurney once traversed the US in a Ferrari Daytona from the Red Ball Garage in Manhattan to the Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach, taking just 35 hours and 54 minutes to do the drive.
None other than Hal Needham, the stuntman-turned-action-film-director, once growled, “I thought that I was a crazy son of a bitch until I met Brock Yates.” But Brock wasn’t crazy; he was just very, very alive — and to-the-core honest. His writing spoke of his passions. They were broad and plainly-stated, his work was not really aimed at undermining convention, but to ask a few impertinent questions and then have some solid alternative answers.
I guess that he really was a scholar in many ways; Yates’ monthly column in Car and Driver had the same magnetic attraction for me as Chris Economaki’s weekly words about the state of the automobile world. It was ALWAYS going to be “good”, always interesting, sometimes praising, sometimes taking issue, but always featuring that insightful style that made his writing so intriguing.
I must stop myself there to mention a strange typo in that last graph. I was thinking “insightful” but I spelled in “inciteful” … I fixed it of course, but think the Brock would have loved that. He incited well, on a regular basis, and to great effect.
I last saw Brock at the Motor Press Guild Dean Batchelor Dinner in late 2011 where he was given MPG’s Dean Batchelor Lifetime Achievement Award. Alzheimer’s was already weakening his memory, but when I went over to crouch next to his chair, held his hand and said my name, he lit up and said, “Yes, Doug, the racetrack, Karts … how ARE you?” The best thing that can be said about anyone was that they were perfectly true to themselves. Yates was such, he never wavered, he loved cars and the people who loved them more, I think, than even he knew.
In 2015, MPG gave me that same award. It was not a surprise, I knew about for weeks (which only made things worse). I had printed out the list of prior awardees beginning with Chris Economaki and including people like Denise McCluggage, Jesse Alexander, Shav Glick, Wally Parks, John Clinard, Robert Petersen, Thomas Bryant and Brock. I think that I said that my name had no business on that list and was really trying to remember what Brock said.
It’s almost a year now since, I look at the award itself almost every day … I keep thinking that I’m (finally) going to get the call to bring the thing back, that it was a joke, or, at best a clerical error, but there’s been no call as of yet.
Brock Yates gave voice to the excitement and frustrations of the wheeled world, he managed to be civil on many occasions, even charming at times, but he was always at his best asking the tough questions. In the end, in his last columns with the help of his daughter, he was still a redoubtable figure, openly acknowledging that he was being slogged by some stupid brain fog, but with a clarity of thought and purpose that never wavered.
So long, pal — you did better than your best, take a little rest now.
*The movie was fun for sure, but even better, and even more outrageous is Brock’s (and a whole bunch of other highly-involved folks) retelling of the real story in his book: “CANNONBALL! World’s Greatest Outlaw Road Race”. Get it, read it, pass it along.