“Uncle Brock” Yates was “larger than life”

Brock Yates
Brock Yates

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.

“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,” Tim Wendel recalled. “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.”

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, New York, 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.

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    I lived in England in the Sixties and was unamused at the reaction by an automotive writer in a British magazine that I can’t remember. He was outraged at a comment made by Brock Yates about British cars. Yates said that they had to be put in a cocoon of neatsfoot oil and grease to last.
    The Brit, in a country of mainly very polite people, commented on his thinning hair. A mean-spirited thing.

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