14 November 2016

‘Uncle Brock’ Yates was ‘larger than life’

“The day I got married he rolled in at the last minute, driving something exotic like a Porsche or something – loud and kicking up dust. He ran in and shook my hand and said, ‘You sure about this? If you have any second thoughts just give me the nod and we’ll jump in my car and we’re outta here.’ I didn’t have any second thoughts, but that says a lot about who he was. He was something else,” Tim Wendel recalled.

His friends often addressed him by his last name, Yates, but brothers Tim and Chris Wendel always called him Uncle Brock – even though he was actually their father’s first cousin. Brock Yates was a prolific automotive writer who drove exotic cars, mingled with celebrities, threw incredible parties and regaled friends and family with stories of speed and adventure, yet still remained genuine.

“He was larger than life,” Chris Wendel said of Yates, a longtime Car and Driver writer and author who died last month at age 82 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. “He shot from the hip; he ruffled some feathers. But people were drawn to him. He was so much fun to be around.”

Tim Wendel, author of 12 books and a writer in residence at Johns Hopkins University, said Yates “was a major reason” he too became a writer. “He would kind of blow into our world and then he’d be off again. He made writing sound like so much fun.”

Yates and the Wendels’ father grew up together in Lockport, N.Y., and the brothers were also raised there. Brock Yates had followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a writer, but Yates’ mother influenced the path his career would ultimately take.

“His mom was a real ‘car guy,’” Chris Wendel said. “He told me that she took him to his first car race – midget racing at War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo, back when it was called Civic Stadium.”

Yates went on to study at Hobart College in Geneva, N.Y., served in the Navy and later wrote for the Associated Press. His big break came in 1964 when he accepted a position as managing editor at Car and Driver, where he worked closely with David E. Davis, the magazine’s celebrated editor and publisher.

“Brock Yates was of a different generation when it came to automotive journalism,” said Hagerty Classic Car Insurance CEO McKeel Hagerty. “He and David E. Davis were of a generation where they were encouraged to be critics of cars and brands. His sense of humor had a bite, and he always spoke his mind. It is not an exaggeration to say he was among the last of his kind.”

Jonathan A. Stein, publisher and editor-in-chief of Hagerty magazine, agreed. “He was a major league author when I was a kid, one of those guys you looked to as one of the best. He had every right to put on airs, but when I first met him I couldn’t get over how engaging he was. He was a gentleman – entertaining, humble – and he was completely focused on whoever he was speaking to.”

Stein said the Yates-Davis dynamic was mesmerizing. “They had an interesting relationship. They were always arguing about one thing or another. I never knew who was right and who was wrong, but boy, they were entertaining. Afterward, Yates would put his arm around me and say, ‘David tells a great story, but let Uncle Brock tell you how it really happened.’”

According to Car and Driver, Yates gained the nickname “The Assassin” after he wrote a story in 1968 titled “The Grosse Pointe Myopians,” which accurately forecast the rise of Japanese-made cars in America. He also criticized early safety advocates Ralph Nader and Joan Claybrook.

Yates’ rebellious nature went beyond the printed word. After a barroom discussion about how auto racing had become stale, he created a no-rules cross-country race in 1971 that he called the “Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash,” better known as the Cannonball Run. After every other driver backed out of the first scheduled event, Yates went forward with it anyway and drove the 2,863-mile route in his Dodge van, finishing in 40 hours, 51 minutes. The following year, he and Dan Gurney drove a Ferrari Daytona coupe in the first competitive Cannonball, averaging 80 mph to finish in 35 hours, 51 minutes. “At no time did we exceed 175 mph,” Gurney has said.

The race’s appeal was so widespread that Yates was asked to write a screenplay. Although “The Cannonball Run” (1981) became a star-studded comedy, it was originally written in a more serious vein. According to Tim Wendel, Steve McQueen was slated to play Burt Reynolds’ character, but when he was diagnosed with cancer, everything changed. Yates later agreed to write the screenplays for “The Cannonball Run II” and “Smokey and the Bandit II,” and although the movies earned more than $100 million at the box office, he wasn’t exactly proud of them.

“I vividly remember sitting with him 10 years ago, talking about his books and his career,” said Chris Wendel, now a 56-year-old commercial lender with Northern Initiatives in Traverse City, Mich. “After a while the conversation turned to the movies he’d done, and he said, ‘The worst shit I ever wrote made me the most money.’ He really wasn’t happy about that. That statement was kind of the embodiment of Uncle Brock.”

Tim Wendel agreed. “It irked him a bit,” the 60-year-old writer said. “He wrote a lot of really solid stuff. I have a copy of Sunday Driver that he signed for me, and I cherish it. So it didn’t sit well with him that some people associate him more with those movies.”

In addition to Sunday Driver: The Writer Meets the Road — at 175 MPH (1972), Yates authored 15 books including Enzo Ferrari: The Man, the Cars, the Races, the Machine (1991) and Cannonball! World’s Greatest Outlaw Road Race (2002).

Yates once said, “I admit to wasting my life messing around with fast cars and motorcycles,” but few gear heads would consider his life a waste. Far from it.

“He was the real deal. We never missed an opportunity to be around him,” Tim Wendel said.

7 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Joe Cali Upstate NY November 16, 2016 at 13:12
    Brock was my hero. He drove all the hot , new cars, went to all the big races and hung out with the drivers. Brock dispised big government and towns that balanced their budget with the radar gun. Brock was also the person who opened the door for me to start my racing photography career. A good man was Brock Yates.
  • 2
    Gerard Mottau Brockton Ma. November 16, 2016 at 14:21
    I bought the burgandy1964 GTO with Hurst wheels he road tested in the 1972 Car and Driver article. Emailed him at Car and Driver, but never got a response. I still have the tri-power 4 speed car. Bought it at Stafford Springs, Ct, annual car parts flea market. Still have the original Hurst wheels.
  • 3
    Rich Maryland November 16, 2016 at 14:43
    Yates started at Car & Driver just after I became totally immersed in cars and racing. I've read Sunday Driver and the Ferrari book. I think I have read every column he ever wrote -some I hated, most I loved but none I was neutral about. Davis and Yates really created a great genre that seems to have passed on with them and we are so much the worse for it. He was such a spectacular commentator on life as well as cars. Thanks for this article.
  • 4
    CHRIS DAGNOLO TX November 16, 2016 at 18:14
    Don't know him, never met him but, he added a lot to my life thru the years with his writing. Car and Driver was 'it' for me growing up and he was a big part of that. Sorry to see him go!
  • 5
    Neal Brown Urbandale, Iowa November 17, 2016 at 08:51
    I loved to watch motor sports coverage with the late Steve Evans and Brock Yates, their "on air" commentary was always a hoot!
  • 6
    roger vidamour windsor, ontario November 22, 2016 at 08:36
    I never met mr. yates but I always got excited to read his car and driver stories. I think he was a little mischievious and I copied that!
  • 7
    Steve Goudy Millersburg, Ohio December 6, 2016 at 15:37
    I have always enjoyed reading Brock Yates' books & articles. I remember my father telling me about the Cannonball Yates drove with Gurney. Wow! Years later I was lucky enough to meet and shake hands with Brock Yates at Mid-Ohio when he brought the Eliminater.

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