Remember those Cannonball Run movies (and clones like The Gumball Rally) about a mythical cross-country race from New York to Los Angeles? Brock Yates was the creative force behind that, and The Man finally caught up with Yates yesterday at age 82.
Yes, Yates wrote the original screenplay for The Cannonball Run, intending it for Steve McQueen before Burt Reynolds took over the project and rewrote the script. But Yates didn't create the movie by writing the first screenplay. He created the movie by creating the actual, real-life crazy-ass cross-country race from New York to Los Angeles, called "The Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash" in 1971.
He organized five such races between 1971 and 1979 and drove in them himself, even teaming with American racing hero Dan Gurney to set a record time of 35 hours and 54 minutes in a Ferrari Daytona.
Yates was the longtime executive editor at Car & Driver magazine, a publication which, during the 1970s, promoted Dan Gurney for president, campaigned relentlessly against the then-55-mph national speed limit, and tested the effects of alcohol and marijuana on driving.
The magazine tested cars to see which were capable of driving double the national speed limit (a short list in 1977) and promoted the Cannonball race as a demonstration of the potential for skilled drivers to drive at high speed safely.
Along the way, many of the memorable scenes from the film actually happened, including the team that posed as Catholic priests, the team that built a van into a giant fuel tanker so it wouldn't need to stop for refueling, and Yates' own team that drove an ambulance coast-to-coast in 1979.
Yates subsequently wrote a book, Cannonball!, documenting the races, as well as a biography of Enzo Ferrari and many others. He suffered from Alzheimer's Disease in recent years.
His Cannonball Run races have evolved into the annual One Lap of America event now promoted by his son, Brock, Jr., and spawned imitators like the Gumball 3000 rally. For the record, the hated 55-mph national speed limit was repealed in 1995, so Yates won.