Remembering Brock Yates and his ride in a Duesy

brock-and-nellie-web

It is always sad when someone who was just always full of fun passes away. Automotive writer Brock Yates was very much a fun person until he died on Oct. 5 from complications of Alzheimer’s. Yates was 82.

The upstate New Yorker created the idea of the cross-country Cannonball Run. Then, he wrote Burt Reynold’s 1981 movie “The Cannonball Run.” That made him even better known than he had been for his years of writing columns for Car and Driver magazine. Yates’ buddy Hal Needham directed the movie and even gave him a cameo role in the film as the organizer of the movie event.

In 1971, in the first Cannonball Run, Yates and race driver Dan Gurney drove a Ferrari 365 GTB/4 across the country in 35 hours and 54 minutes. It was while telling that story to Needham in a bar that the movie concept originated.

This Old Cars Weekly correspondent first met Yates when he and a Chrysler PR man were in Las Vegas with a very early Chrysler minivan. Yates was scheduled to give a seminar called “The World of Newsletters” on Dec. 6, 1984 at the 1st Annual Automotive Journalism Conference at the Imperial Palace Hotel & Casino. I arrived in town before the Dec. 5-6 conference started and Yates and the Chrysler PR man were also there—with a problem.

One of the men had driven the minivan into a parking space a bit too quickly and not realized the van’s oil pan was closer to the ground than the concrete “tire stopper.” They had smashed a nice dent in the oil pan and made a mess of it. Richie Clyne, who was then Executive Director of the Imperial Palace Auto Collection, had the minivan brought to the collection’s restoration shop. After leaving the vehicle off for repairs, the four of us went to a storage facility.

At the storage building were two cars, a medium blue Duesenberg Model J and a maroon 1939 Alfa Romeo that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had once given to his lover Claretta Petacci. Since there were four of us, we decided to take the Duesey to go for lunch. We did not go very far, since the lunch stop was a sub shop in one corner of the property where the cars were stored. However, since we were on private property and not in traffic, Clyne decided to give the Chrysler guy an idea of what a Duesenberg could do in terms of top speed.

I have a feeling Brock Yates knew what was coming, but he didn’t let on to his partner that a Duesenberg Model J is a pretty fast car. The PR guy was kicked back in his seat and let out a little shout of surprise when the big classic car accelerated more quickly than he expected it to. We all had a good laugh over his amazement that a Great Gatsby car could “light ‘em up” like that.

We continued to the sub shop where Clyne parked the Duesenberg in front of the window. We went inside and ordered $3 sub sandwiches with the big Duesenberg grille staring us square in the face through the glass. Of course, it was Las Vegas where anything goes and the Duesey did not shake people up.

Back at the writer’s conference on Dec. 6, Yates picked up a Moto Award in the Newsletter category for the “Best Newsletter.” At the time, he was publishing a newsletter called The Cannonball Express. Yates probably got a big kick out of winning an award, since his was the only newsletter entered that year.

During the conference, I remember Brock and his Chrysler friend and the two women they were with having a great time laughing and enjoying themselves in their own little let’s-have-fun world. Yates must have enjoyed it, as he returned to Las Vegas for the 2nd Annual Automotive Journalism Conference Dec. 10-12, 1985.  He was again on the seminar panel and was introduced as the publisher of Cannonball Express and a contributor to Car and Driver and Playboy.

From time to time after these first meetings, I saw Brock Yates at different car shows and functions. I think he had a perpetual smile on his face and he always seemed to be enjoying life to its fullest. The last time I specifically remember seeing him was in early 1999 when we were both on the Meguiar’s Award Committee. That committee would meet each January to vote on the award in connection with the Barrett-Jackson Auction. Then, we would meet in California, in May, to give out the Meguiar’s Award.

This particular time we met at the Phoenician resort in Scottsdale, Ariz. That night, after the voting ended, a group of automotive writers gathered in an outside courtyard and bench raced into the night. Brock was drinking, talking and laughing. I imagined him, years earlier, in the bar with Hal Needham, trying to get across how much fun it was to race a Ferrari from coast to coast with no rules or regulations, except being the first driver to get to the end of the Cannonball Run.

Now, doesn’t that sound like fun? No wonder Brock Yates invented it!

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