For several months now, Brock Yates has been having a nightmare. The setting is always the same: it is 3:45 a.m., his phone rings and the voice of a distraught woman screams into his ear, "It's all your fault! My 15-year-old son is locked up in a jail in Norman, Okla., and it's all your fault." Yates is apt to be having more of these dreams—interspersed with a few real-life calls. This will be because it was Yates who conceived and staged the first Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Race.
The Cannonball was an outlaw, coast-to-coast auto race over public-highways—an event that we trust will never be repeated. The rules were simple: first team to reach Los Angeles from New York was the winner, and that was that. Yates himself ran it in a Ferrari V-12 with racing's Dan Gurney (otherwise decorously retired to car building) as co-driver. "The Cannonball may sound like a hot rodder's honeymoon," Brock observes, "but I did have legitimate intentions. It was an adventure, of course, but beyond that I hoped the race might prompt some re-examination of trends in highway construction, car and driver excellence and the inconsistency of our speed laws. For example, if someone can drive coast to coast in less than 40 hours, does it not imply that we are just about saturated with Interstate highways?"
Yates is no ordinary outlaw speeder. He is 38, a gentleman farmer and freelance writer, a senior editor of Car and Driver magazine and a sometime sports car race driver. He recently completed the latest of his many books, Sunday Driver, and he is working on a film script for what his son Dan calls, "a kind of a weird movie about Watkins Glen," i.e., a documentary upon the occasion of the Glen's 25th anniversary. These activities are undertaken for the most part at his farm in Castile, N.Y., where Yates also gives his attention to such peripheral but stimulating matters as whether the financial consequences of Fred the St. Bernard's having run a neighbor's cow out of milk come under the particular terms of his homeowner's insurance policy. It is a rich, full life.
In his less pastoral role of Cannon-bailer, Yates considers himself anti-Establishment, but not completely. He is bothered by what he feels is an ever-tightening circle of government control over life in general and motoring life in particular, an area where "we should aspire to high-performance levels, as opposed to presuming that every driver is a moron, to be packaged in a motorized padded cell. Good drivers in good cars can sustain speeds of 90 to 100 mph in total safety. For us, the final question was not whether we were willing to drive with speed, but whether we were willing to drive with excellence."
October 22, 1972
Yates is entitled to his thesis, even though it is an extremely debatable one. Which brings us back to that nightmare. For those inclined to zoom off on their own, the final question, in Yates' terms, may not be whether they were "willing" to drive with excellence, but whether they were capable of it. The best thing to do is just what Yates did: don't try anything unless Dan Gurney is your co-driver.