I would not be here—“here” being this career, for better or worse, as an automotive journalist—were it not for Brock Yates. The prolific, iconic, profane, brilliant, pioneering writer died Wednesday, mercifully, after a long bout with Alzheimers, the disease that took my mother.
I know what Brock’s wife, the lady Pamela, and his family have been going through, watching him descend through the cruel maelstrom that starts with simple forgetfulness and ends with a once-proud man reduced to the helplessness of an infant. It cheated us of a decade of reading ideas that must have been circulating in Brock’s brain, unable to escape. I’m profoundly sorry he’s gone, but he was gone long ago.
I met Brock in 1985. I was already writing about cars for the Dallas Times Herald, but as an investigative reporter, test drives were about 5 percent of my job. Through introductions facilitated by Brock, I ended up doing this for a living. I owed him, but it never crossed his mind to collect.
Brock Yates was the first superstar automotive writer, though you might suggest that Chris Economaki of National Speed Sport News preceded him, and neither Brock nor I would argue that point. Brock became the voice of Car and Driver and consequently of the automotive enthusiast. He could wear a coat and tie, but he always looked a little scruffy. He was most at ease in the off-duty uniform adopted by fellow car enthusiast Jay Leno: jeans and a blue chambray shirt.
Occasionally I’d make it to a taping of “American Sports Cavalcade” for TNN, and hanging out with Yates and his co-host, Steve Evans, was for me what it must be like for a lounge singer to hang out with Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young.
Yates could operate at a stratospheric level, arguing his political points in op-ed pieces in The New York Times and on TV news shows, but he was just as comfortable sitting in the stands of a sprint-car race, sipping on a warm beer in a plastic cup. He was proficient in driving the world’s fastest supercars, but he once excitedly told me about what an unexpectedly nice package a Jeep Cherokee with a manual transmission and a 2.5-liter four-cylinder was.
He was a master at creating events and scenarios that hit the heart of the market like an arrow. Cannonball Run and subsequently One Lap of America, an event that continues today under Brock Yates Jr., as nice a guy as his dad, became a cottage industry, which some of us who worked with the man referred to as the “Brock Yates Retirement Plan.”
Not that he needed it: Scripting the “Cannonball Run” and “Smokey and the Bandit” movies elevated him to the sort of international recognition all of us who write for a comparatively niche audience can only dream about. Not that he was popping his buttons over the movies; he envisioned “Cannonball Run” as a much more serious piece, with Steve McQueen in the lead role, and he was a bit embarrassed by the end result. But McQueen got sick and Burt Reynolds and his sometimes roommate, stuntman Hal Needham, took over the project, and it became a spoof. And a major hit. Brock was credited with writing what amounted to a human cartoon, but he couldn’t be mad at Needham, who genuinely respected Brock and made him a lot of money.
To me, though, what Brock brought to the table was a talent for writing that only comes along once in a great while. I was thinking the other day that, after 50 years of reading every car magazine I can get my hands on, how few writers there are whose stories I would automatically read, regardless of the subject matter: David E. Davis Jr., Jean Jennings, William Jeanes, Denise McCluggage, Peter Egan, John Phillips III, Gordon Baxter—and Brock Yates.
Many of today’s “top” automotive writers seem to think they created snark and irreverence. There were times when I would be working late at Car and Driver, by myself, and I’d go to the files and just pull old Brock Yates stories to read. My god, he had a portfolio. More than once I’d come up with a stellar story idea and learn during research Brock had done it 30 years before.
And it wasn’t just the big stories. Little ones, like his prickly account of the wedding of consummate trophy queen Linda Vaughn, are the ones that stick with me. Any competent writer should be able to create a readable story out of some grand event, but Brock could take anything and, often as not, turn it into a mini masterpiece.
This is not to say that every one of the thousands of words Brock Yates typed were golden. We tend to remember people like him the way we remember the first few seasons of “Saturday Night Live”: Every skit was hilarious, until we watch some old episodes and realize they missed as often as they hit. But Brock’s batting average was like Babe Ruth’s: In a bad game he could get on base, and in a good one he’d hit a grand slam.
Brock Yates was 82. He was one in a series of one.