IMRRC to present “Looking at the World Through a Windshield,” a talk remembering Brock Yates

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Brock Yates, circa 2003. Photo by Jim Donnelly.

Brock Yates was a writer, racer, visionary, and tireless champion of the art of driving. On Saturday, February 24, his widow Pamela and daughter Stacy Bradley will be at the International Motor Racing Research Center (IMRRC) in Watkins Glen, New York, presenting Looking at the World Through a Windshield, a talk about Brock Yates’ remarkable life.

Yates, who died in October 2016, led the kind of life that most can only dream about. During his four decades at Car and Driver, he drove the most interesting cars in the world for a living, dared to call out the very automakers that advertised in his magazine, and, in protest of the absurdity of artificially low speed limits, established the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash.

The first Cannonball – a proof of concept, really – took place in May 1971. Wanting to prove that U.S. Interstates could be safely traveled at Autobahn-like speeds by trained drivers, Yates, accompanied by his son, Brock Jr., Steve Smith, and Jim Williams, traveled from the Red Ball Garage in New York City to the Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach, California, covering 2,858 miles in 40 hours and 51 minutes. Their chariot of choice wasn’t a 2+2 grand-tourer or a big-block muscle car; instead, it was a Dodge Custom Sportsman van dubbed the Moon Trash II.

Six months later, the first “real” Cannonball took place, with seven teams vying to cover the NY to CA distance in the shortest time possible, regardless of the chosen route. This time, victory went to Yates and co-driver Dan Gurney, who covered the distance in 35 hours and 54 minutes behind the wheel of a Ferrari Daytona. The following year, 1972, a Cadillac Coupe de Ville, driven by Steve Behr, Bill Canfield and Fred Olds, completed the trip in 37 hours and 16 minutes.

The race was run again in April 1975, at a time when the National Maximum Speed Law reduced Interstate speed limits to 55 MPH or lower. Enacted in 1974 as part of the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act, the law was intended to reduce fuel consumption by 2.2-percent, though later research showed the actual savings to be less than one-percent. Faced with steep fines and even the risk of imprisonment, roughly 20 teams signed up to participate in the ’75 Cannonball, with the winners (Rick Cline and Jack May, driving a Ferrari Dino 246 GTS) navigating from East Coast to West in 35 hours and 53 minutes.

Though no one knew it at the time, 1979 would be the last race. Hemmings Motor News even fielded an entry – a 1936 Ford panel van driven by Terry Ehrich, Dave Brownell and Justus Taylor – with the stated goal of “not finishing last,” which our team accomplished. The winning team of Dave Heinz and David Yarborough, driving a Jaguar XJS, made the trip in a record-setting 32 hours and 51 minutes.

Then, the Cannonball fell victim to its own success. With more teams signing up for each running, Yates realized that the event’s near-perfect safety record simply couldn’t be maintained as more drivers, with less training and faster cars, looked to participate. With zero fanfare, the Cannonball ended, though a Yates-envisioned replacement event called One Lap of America – still held today – emerged as a replacement in 1984.

Look for Lady Pamela and Stacy to keep attendees engaged with tales from Cannonballs past, as well as other highlights of Yates’s remarkable career. The talk, part of the IMRRC’s “Center Conversations” series, begins at 1:00 p.m., and is open to all with a requested $5.00 donation. For those unable to attend, it will also be livestreamed on the IMRRC’s YouTube channel or on its webpage.