Brock Yates is one of the most respected automotive journalists in the world. A Lockport native, he is editor at large and a regular columnist for Car and Driver magazine, where he has been a fixture since 1964. He was a columnist for the Washington Post and has written for other national publications, such as Playboy and Sports Illustrated.
Yates is the author of numerous books, including "Sunday Driver," "The Decline and Fall of the American Auto Industry," "Enzo Ferrari" and his most recent, "The Critical Path." He also has written screenplays for several major movies, including "Cannonball Run," a driving event he created.
D. John Bray, who has been fascinated with automobiles almost as long as Yates has been writing about them, interviewed him for BUFFALO in Yates' Town of Wyoming home and filed this report:
Yates lives the life any car lover would love. He has spent the better part of 30 years intimately involved with driving and writing about cars, auto races, assorted characters from the automotive world, and casting a wry eye on the driving scene. He has hung out at race tracks from one end of the country to the other with some of the world's greatest drivers.
Yates continues to get his hands on the newest cars and trucks right off the assembly line and drives them like hell, "test driving" for the magazine. He has raced across the United States just to see who could get to California first, driven competitively and made movies. Best of all, he gets paid to do this.
Joseph Rusz, senior editor of Road and Track magazine and a Buffalo native, recalls the influence Yates had on him.
"I almost grew up on Brock Yates, as one of the people who were kind of my idols, because he was writing when I was still thinking about it," Rusz says.
Yates, who turns 63 on Oct. 21, is happily married to "Lady Pamala." They live in a wonderful old house in Wyoming, with two gargantuan Old English mastiffs, a tiny dog and assorted cats. The town is surrounded by smooth hills and rolling roads "to test cars on," according to Yates. He has a garage filled with delicious one-of-a kind autos. As if this were not enough, Yates owns his own pub with Guinness on tap. It doesn't get much better.
BUFFALO: Has your career been as much fun as I think it has?
YATES: Yes, I've been really lucky. I've been able to tie my career to my personal interests, so there's a tremendous overlap in my personal enthusiasm and my profession.
BUFFALO: Your first book was written with your father and one of your recent books, "Enzo Ferrari" was dedicated to his memory and to your mother. Was he an influence on you?
YATES: My father was a very successful writer. He wrote something like 80 books, mostly in the science and hobby fields, and was always writing. I grew up in a household where writing was a natural vocation, although I didn't want to do it.
My father was a car nut. He owned a lot of pretty exotic cars. In 1951, when I went to college, he bought an MG-T which I took to college, and then he had a Jaguar XK120 in the family for awhile. He retained an enthusiasm for fast cars, and I'm sure it rubbed off on me.
BUFFALO: In 1964, you said you "became part of a tiny, noisy, iconoclastic collection of car freaks who were producing Car and Driver, a magazine that, I will unabashedly brag, we turned into one of the brightest, toughest, most articulate special-interest periodicals ever published."
YATES: I was hired by David E. Davis Jr., now the editor and publisher of Automobile. I was working as a free-lance writer for Auto Week, Road and Track and some other magazines. I was hired as managing editor, which I loved and was amused about, because I didn't know how to edit and I didn't know how to manage.
We were just getting Car and Driver under way in a new format -- myself, a friend, Steve Smith, and Dave Davis, who was really the inspirational leader of that revolution. We really did turn the magazine -- which was a small, secondary magazine to Motor Trend and Road and Track -- into a player in that field.
We started to talk about cars in an honest way, which nobody was doing at the time. We tried to get people who were really good writers first and automotive people second. We wanted it to be not only a good car magazine, we wanted it to be a good magazine -- that was the central goal of our mission. It was fun.
BUFFALO: For almost 40 of the most interesting years in the history of the automobile, you have chronicled just about every aspect of the auto and America's love affair with it. Why this affection for a machine?
YATES: It's a question of function. At the very essence of the automobile is the incredible ability to adapt itself to all different kinds of conditions and to come in all sorts of sizes and shapes and permutations.
There's a multiplicity of interest in the car that relates essentially to its usefulness. It's an odd device that seems to embody a personality of its own as opposed to other appliances. We live in a machine age, and this, in many ways, is the ultimate machine -- so it transcends all socioeconomic and racial lines.
BUFFALO: What do you think this impact has been on America?
YATES: It's obviously been both a blessing and a curse. The very fact it has produced so much mobility for every segment of society has been wonderful. It has opened up so many options to individuals.
On the other hand, it has disrupted urban living to a great extent. It has confused planning and the social order in a lot of ways. It's been both constructive and destructive as far as our society is concerned.
BUFFALO: Will this continue?
YATES: Yes, I don't see any change. I think the automobile is too deeply integrated into the social fabric to have any major alterations in the near future.
We don't have enough money to create any replacement mass-transit systems. We don't have the will, thank God, to force people to live in places they don't want to live, which I think some social planners would like to see happen. To them, it would be a more orderly society if you could put people in nice little enclaves where they could ride on buses and trains and not get anyplace quick. But that's not the way it is. We're a free people and, thank God, we're able to move freely with an automobile.
BUFFALO: What kind of individual loves his or her car versus one who couldn't care less about their car, as long as it runs?
YATES: The enthusiasm covers the broadest spectrum that you can imagine. You can profile people who collect guns, antiques, glassware, stamps, etc., but not cars. Cars run the gamut.
I will find the most unlikely type of people who are nuts about cars, and individuals who you would think would be extremely enthusiastic about high-performance cars or sports cars and they don't give a hoot about them. I really can't pinpoint them.
I recently ran into an Episcopal minister who is a member of the Mazda Miata Club. Loves cars, highly educated, very dignified -- I couldn't give you a profile.
BUFFALO: In the decades you have been observing the automotive scene, what do you think have been some of the more significant events?
YATES: Two things. The Japanese and the environment.
The disruption of the industry by the Japanese has been the biggest revolution in the automotive product. The revolution imposed on the auto industry by their new manufacturing techniques caused a realignment of loyalties, the near collapse of the U.S. auto industry and its revival.
Environmental concerns. It was primarily the government with the Clean Air Act and fuel mileage standards that forced the industry to first deal with emissions and then with fuel mileage. Those were components of the design they never really had to worry a whole lot about. It forced a major revision in their thinking, and certainly in their engineering.
It was at that point, in both areas, that the Japanese were able to make major inroads because they had much more fuel-efficient cars and also cleaner cars.
BUFFALO: In your 1983 book, "The Decline and Fall of the American Automobile Industry," you took the industry leaders to task for the sorry state the industry was in. Since then, do you think America's auto industry is now making cars Americans want?
YATES: When I wrote that book I was widely denounced in the industry as not knowing what I was talking about. It really took another five or six years before they hit bottom. But yes, they have reformed themselves. Ford and Chrysler are leading the way and General Motors, because of its massive size, is slower to respond but is responding. I see the American industry in a very aggressive position and very much back in the game in most aspects. It's not perfect yet, and never will be, but their product lines, their quality and their management are all radically better.
BUFFALO: Your new book, "The Critical Path," tells how new management concepts saved the Chrysler Corporation. You quote the head of Chrysler as saying he wasn't sure they could make their payroll at one point. Were they really in such a desperate condition?
YATES: Yes, they were in big-time trouble. It was a brilliant piece of management that saved them. It really paid off for the company.
BUFFALO: In your book, "The Decline & Fall," you praised Lee Iacocca (former CEO and chairman of Chrysler) for some of the things he accomplished when he was at Ford. But in your new book, you certainly didn't.
YATES: Iacocca was a visionary in a lot of ways in the early days. Unfortunately, he lost it near the end and became very much a celebrity. I think he became distracted with his own persona and lost his way. It was time for him to leave. I'm rather hard on him in "The Critical Path."
BUFFALO: You wrote: "He governed in the end like a mad king."
YATES: He really lost the handle near the end -- it was too bad. As Hal Sperlich, a brilliant product planner then at Ford said: "He became the man he hated, Henry Ford."
BUFFALO: You said the minivan had an impact on the industry comparable to the Model T, the VW, the Mustang, the Honda Civic. How so?
YATES: It generated a whole new market, a market that really did not exist before. Another 600,000 to 800,000 vehicles were produced and now more than a million minivans are being produced if you factor in all the other manufacturers.
BUFFALO: "The Cannonball Run" is one of your wilder inspirations and something that will probably always be linked to your name. This dash across the U.S. from New York to California just to see who could get there first later became the basis for a number of movies and copy-cat cross-country races here and abroad.
YATES: I organized it in 1971 and we ran it five times. Back then, we were in the midst of the Vietnam War and I was like a lot of other people, in a state of relative upset and turmoil. There was a strong anti-government feeling going on then. This was kind of a reaction to "Naderism" and to what we thought was a big encroachment on the car. I was trying to demonstrate that we could use the American interstate system at much higher speeds than were currently in place. It was kind of an iconoclastic, semi-revolutionary act on my part. We ran it until 1979 when the movie I wrote, "Cannonball Run," came out. There already had been four movies done about it by then.
BUFFALO: You and your co-driver, Dan Gurney, won the first "Cannonball," flying across the country in a Ferrari Daytona that had a V12 engine and a top speed of 175 mph.
YATES: Yeah, it was nuts. It was fun!
BUFFALO: The movie "Cannonball Run" with Burt Reynolds -- were you happy with it?
YATES: No, it was a big disappointment to me. The screenplay was originally written for Steve McQueen and it was a good screenplay. I was proud of it. Reynolds got involved in it, through a series of strange events related to the fact I had co-written a picture for him called "Smokey and the Bandit II."
When McQueen dropped out of the project because of the illness that ultimately killed him, Reynolds came on board. Reynolds just butchered the plot, he didn't care about it. It was not a happy time for me; made a lot of money but artistically . . . I'm not proud of it at all. It made a lot of people laugh but I didn't like the picture.
BUFFALO: Another of your inspirations: the "One Lap of America." This event has drivers and their cars running a 4,000-mile course in six days to various race tracks in the eastern U.S. One of your co-writers said you "amaze us all by finding dozens of people each year willing to shell out nearly $2,000 per team and abuse their cars and their bodies to take a few laps around a bunch of race tracks." How did this event come about?
YATES: I knew after the last Cannonball in 1979 I was never going to be able to do it again for a couple of reasons. One, the notoriety with the motion picture and secondly, it was starting to get a hard edge on it, and was starting to lose its sense of humor. There was an intensification of the competition, and I knew sooner or later we were going to hurt somebody so I just bagged it.
The "One Lap" started in 1984. I felt there still was an urge for people to get out and do some long-distance driving for sport. But we had to do it in a more legal context . . . We ran the last "One Lap" in June and had 96 cars entered; it's a very successful event.
BUFFALO: You have a competitive driving license and participated in races but you wrote that you would never be a true racer.
YATES: I didn't want to do it that badly and I had other career interests, a family to support and other things were occupying my mind. A lot of people say that three-quarters of being a race car driver is pure, raw desire and I think there's a lot to be said for that. To reach the absolute upper level takes extraordinary skill.
BUFFALO: In the 1950s and '60s, it seemed Grand Prix drivers were more personalities and characters than today's drivers.
YATES: There were some characters, and they were an interesting bunch of people. They were a much more diverse collection of people. You had wildly funny and amusing people like Dennis Ireland and other high-level sportsmen doing this. You had intense competitors and very rich people and noblemen like Count Wolfgang von Trips . . . So there was a mixture in this international troupe of sportsmen and professionals. There's still some of that but they have become much more intense . . . they're not a particularly appealing collection of people.
Dave Davis once described them as "international white trash" and I'm inclined to think that way. They've got an attitude, but part of that is probably an injustice to them due to the intensity of the attention that has been placed upon them. They don't have the ability to wander around amongst the crowd as they used to.
BUFFALO: You've met some of the great names in auto racing. In a sentence, what are your impressions of the following drivers:
Jimmy Clark -- "Very shy, very likable man."
Jackie Stewart -- "He is the consummate professional, very intelligent, very incisive, extremely ambitious, a natural leader."
Phil Hill -- "Extremely intelligent, a student of the sport, a student of automobiles, edgy, terse, doesn't suffer fools."
Mario Andretti -- "A brilliant driver, went through a major transformation, came out of the dirt tracks of Pennsylvania as a relatively simple kid and has gained a great deal of wealth and kind of international notoriety. He has become perhaps a little too full of himself."
Dan Gurney -- "A great friend, one of the towering talents of all time and a true enthusiast, loves the sport, cars, motorcycles and retains his boyish enthusiasm for the sport."
Stirling Moss -- "Probably the first great international motor racing 'star,' certainly in the post-war years, wonderful sense of showmanship, very open, very much able to represent the sport to the general public.
BUFFALO: In your definitive book on "Enzo Ferrari," you wrote that he "was a notably crude man." He comes across much less than the legend.
YATES: Ferrari developed his own image in a lot of ways, and the press slavishly tagged along. It was a very worshipful press although the Italian press could be pretty tough on him on occasion, not in a personal way but only based on what the cars were doing on the race track. He carried on a love-hate relationship with the press. He developed a persona based on a kind of "padrone," this father figure that really wasn't at all like himself.
He was basically a middle-class, small-town Italian industrialist who was a very private person. It just so happened he was in the car business. But I think, as people have said, Ferrari was more fascinated with Ferrari than he was with cars. He was a tremendously egocentric man. He loved the contest and the combat that involved the automobiles but I don't think he much cared about cars or had a passion for automobiles.
He resisted all kinds of things -- disc brakes, independent suspension, coil-over shocks -- he was really slow in that respect. But he was a very traditional man. Ferrari built wonderful motors, very powerful engines.
BUFFALO: And the cars themselves?
YATES: They have always been, in my opinion, overrated. There have been some very good ones, magnificently styled, marvelously sensuous automobiles with kind of visceral qualities. But in terms of quality, fabrication and their engineering beyond the drive-train, which was always quite good, they were pretty ordinary.
BUFFALO: The average price of a new car is $20,000 and for a sports car you can go as high as your pocketbook will allow. Are good quality "road cars" out of reach for the average buyer?
YATES: No, quite the contrary. There are dozens of quite acceptable cars under $20,000 or in that range. Specifically, the Ford Taurus, the Chrysler LH cars, the Hondas, Toyotas, Mazdas, these cars are under $20,000, and they are really good cars. The Contour and new Escort from Ford, the Saturn, the Cavalier, the Neon. Those are all pretty solid cars; they are really good value in the under $20,000 range.
BUFFALO: What's next as far as your writing is concerned?
YATES: I've just signed a contract for, and just started, a new book. It's called "The Last Cowboy Song; Harley-Davidson and the Search for the American Soul."
It's about what it represents in terms of the American psyche, why this machine embodies so much of what we represent ourselves to be as Americans. Frankly, I don't know. It's a question I certainly haven't answered and I'm curious about it. I just bought a Harley, a Heritage Softail. We're going around the world; we're going to find out what's going on in Germany, Japan, the Far East, England. It's a worldwide phenomenon.
The five highest-identity export items that we produce in the U.S. are very traditional and almost in a sense archaic. There's Harleys, Zippo Lighters, Jack Daniels whiskey, Gibson guitars and Stetson hats -- and those things have enormous status internationally. They all represent the essence of what we think of ourselves as Americans or certainly what the world thinks of us.
BUFFALO: How did you end up owning your own pub, "The Cannonball Run Pub," here in Wyoming?
YATES: That's really my wife, Pamala's, doing. Pamala opened a Christmas shop here almost 10 years ago, The Gaslight Christmas Shop, and when that opened it became successful enough so that we expanded quite a bit. We bought another building and opened another shop. Then we were getting so many people coming into the village that we had to open a restaurant simply as a service to the people and tourists. We opened the Gaslight Village Cafe and then the Cannonball Run Pub, a quiet, little, adult, English-style pub. We have a lot of car clubs, motorcyclists, ride down here, have lunch and spend the day.
BUFFALO: Are you still having fun?
YATES: Absolutely, absolutely, having a great time. I'm having as much fun as I ever had. I feel good, I'm real excited about this new project. I hope this new book ("The Critical Path") is a success. I'm excited about where Car and Driver is going and I'm doing some work with Speedvision, the new television network. I'm happy.
When last seen, D. John Bray was firmly entrenched in the Cannonball Run Pub making sure the quality of the Guinness on tap was consistent. He has yet to be heard from.