Brock Yates, a maverick automotive writer, commentator and magazine editor who was best known for creating — and winning — the madcap Cannonball Run coast-to-coast race, and who later wrote screenplays for two popular “Cannonball Run” movies, died Oct. 5 in Batavia, N.Y. He was 82.
The death was announced by a son, Brock Yates Jr. The cause was complications from Alzheimer’s disease.
At various times, Mr. Yates was a race-car driver, the editor of Car and Driver magazine and the best-selling author of more than 20 books. But throughout his career, he was also a persistent critic of speed limits, safety regulations and the major U.S. carmakers.
In one of his most influential books, “The Decline and Fall of the American Automobile Industry,” he argued that Detroit had watered down the quality of its cars, abandoning well-crafted, responsive machines in favor of bland, bloated forms of transport distinguished only by annual cosmetic changes.
Mocking what he called the “Detroit mind,” Mr. Yates said the major U.S. carmakers — who once dominated the world market — were not responsive to the needs of the driving public in the 1970s and 1980s and deserved to lose out to German and Japanese brands.
“There is nothing that ails the American auto industry,” he wrote, “that cannot be rectified by the presence of a few lions, preferably hungry ones, in Detroit.”
Mr. Yates also wrote a biography of Italian sports-car manufacturer Enzo Ferrari and other books about car racing and motorcycles.
But his most lasting contribution came from an offhand idea in the early 1970s, while venting his frustration at regulations governing the nation’s driving habits. He always liked driving on the German autobahn, which had no speed limit, and wanted to see how fast he could drive from one coast to the other on ordinary highways.
Inspired in part by the participatory sportswriting of George Plimpton, Mr. Yates joined a friend for a test run in May 1971, driving a van from New York to California in less than 41 hours. Later that year, he organized the Cannonball Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, named after Erwin G. “Cannonball” Baker, an early driver who made coast to coast in 60 hours in the 1920s.
“Entrants must drive a land-based vehicle of any configuration,” Mr. Yates wrote, explaining the requirements for the race, “with any size crew, over any route they choose, at any speed they deem practical, between New York and Los Angeles. The car covering the distance between start and finish in the briefest time will be the winner. There are no other rules.”
The first question everyone asked, Mr. Yates wrote in a Sports Illustrated article later collected in his book “Sunday Driver,” was “What about the cops?”
There was no prize money, just a trophy made of old tools.
Mr. Yates, who had previously competed in sports-car races, borrowed a high-performance Ferrari Daytona for the inaugural Cannonball Run. He asked champion race-car drivers Dan Gurney and Phil Hill to join him in the Ferrari, but both initially turned him down.
The night before the race, scheduled to begin at midnight on Nov. 15, 1971, Gurney called and said, “I’m ready to go on the Cannonball.”
“I hung up,” Mr. Yates wrote, “knowing that the Ferrari would be used the way old Enzo had intended it to be used.”
There were eight entrants, driving sports cars, vans equipped with extra gas tanks and a 27-foot motor home. Three drivers were delivering a new Cadillac to an owner’s home in California, with the promise that they would keep it off the road after 9 p.m. and not exceed 75 mph.
“Naturally, all the regulations would be violated before they left Manhattan,” Mr. Yates wrote.
With Gurney in the driver’s seat of the Ferrari, Mr. Yates watched the maps and kept an eye out for the police. When lights approached from behind, Gurney slowed down. It was just a Camaro, roaring past at 100 mph.
Gurney gave the Ferrari some gas and sped away. As the Camaro’s headlights disappeared behind them, he casually said, “That’s 150, steady as you please.”
Mr. Yates took the wheel in Missouri, but Gurney was back in the driver’s seat as they negotiated a shortcut through mountains in northern Arizona. The only scary moment came when he hit an ice-covered bridge at 125 mph.
“Glare ice! Glare ice!” Gurney shouted, but he kept the Ferrari under control.
“I sat there in admiration,” Mr. Yates wrote, “watching him run quickly and easily through the nasty turns, never squealing a tire, never wasting a motion on the steering wheel. I had witnessed a virtuoso playing a priceless instrument, and it came to me that this had to be the peak of excellence that every driver must aspire to.”
In western Arizona, a patrolman caught up with the drivers at a gas station and, as he issued a speeding ticket, asked, “Just how fast will that there thing go?”
Back on the road, Gurney found out, reaching a top speed of 172 mph.
They pulled into a motel in Redondo Beach, Calif. — the designated finish line — exactly 35 hours and 54 minutes after leaving New York City. It was thought to be a new coast-to-coast speed record. (The current record, set in 2013, is 28 hours, 50 minutes.)
There were four more Cannonball Runs in the 1970s, including one in which Mr. Yates and his co-driver were at the wheel of a specially painted van outfitted as an ambulance — and capable of going 130 mph.
Three drivers dressed as priests as a way to seek leniency from the police. It didn’t help.
“You wouldn’t want me to lie, would you, Father?” one arresting officer asked.
The final Cannonball Run took place in 1979. With 40 entrants, it was becoming unwieldy, and Mr. Yates ended the race before there was a serious crash.
Two feature films in 1976, “The Gumball Rally” and “Cannonball,” were inspired by the Cannonball Run, along with 1977’s “Smokey and the Bandit.” Mr. Yates wrote a screenplay that was made into “The Cannonball Run” (1982), starring Burt Reynolds, Farrah Fawcett, Dom DeLuise, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.
Mr. Yates had a cameo role in the film, which became a box-office smash, and wrote the screenplay for a 1984 sequel, “Cannonball Run II.”
Brock Wendel Yates was born Oct. 21, 1933, in Lockport, N.Y. His father was a journalist and author.
Mr. Yates was a 1955 graduate of Hobart College in New York and later served as a Navy officer. He began writing for magazines in his teens, published his first book (with his father) at 21 and joined Car and Driver in 1964.
He later provided commentary on motor sports for CBS-TV. He published his final book, “Against Death and Time: One Fatal Season in Racing’s Glory Years,” in 2006.
His marriage to Sally Kingsley ended in divorce.
Survivors include his second wife, the former Pamela Reynolds, of Fairport, N.Y.; three children from his first marriage; a stepdaughter; and three grandchildren.
After Mr. Yates and Gurney finished the inaugural Cannonball Run in first place, Gurney — an international racing champion — explained in all truthfulness, “At no time did we exceed 175 mph.”