Brock Yates, a legendary automobile racing journalist and author who conceived of the cross-country race popularly known as the Cannonball Run and who wrote the script for the film series’ first installment, died Wednesday of complications related to Alzheimer’s disease. He was 82.
The son of author Raymond F. Yates, Brock was born and raised in Lockport, New York. A graduate of Hobart College, Yates also served in the United States Navy before embarking on his career as a journalist. Most associated with Car and Driver magazine where he served for decades in various editorial roles, Yates was as an automobile racing commentator on television, covering NASCAR for CBS, appearing on the TNN motor sports TV show American Sports Cavalcade, and was most recently a racing and vintage cars commentator on the Speed Channel.
But his biggest impact on popular culture came in 1971, when he, along with his Car and Driver colleague Steve Smith, conceived of the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. Inspired by racer Erwin G. “Cannonball” Baker, who set numerous coast-to-coast records, Yates wanted to protest the increasingly strict traffic laws being enacted during that period. The unsanctioned and unofficial auto race saw participants driving from New York City (and later, Darien, Connecticut), to the Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach, California.
Yates, his son Brock Junior, Smith, and their friend Jim Williams were the only participants in the May 3, 1971 inaugural Cannonball Run. However, the November 15, 1971 and November 13, 1972 races were given tongue-in-cheek coverage by Car and Driver that vastly increased pop cultural awareness. Two more Cannonball races were held, on April 23, 1975 and April 1, 1979, with the 1979 race featuring 46 teams in competition.
Yates began working on a screenplay about the races in the mid-70s, but was beaten to the punch by two unofficial films in 1976. He would eventually get the official Cannonball film going with stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham, who rode as part of Yates’ team in the 1979 race. Yates co-wrote the script for the Needham-directed Smokey and the Bandit II during this time, while writing his Cannonball script with Steve McQueen in mind for the lead. Burt Reynolds stepped in after McQueen’s cancer diagnosis and the resulting movie, 1981’s Cannonball Run, was one of the year’s most successful films, taking in $72 million on a $16 million budget.
Yates was also an accomplished author, writing 14 books over his career including Cannonball!: World’s Greatest Outlaw Road Race, and Outlaw Machine – Harley-Davidson and the Search For the American Soul.
He’s survived by his family, including his son, Brock Junior.