As mentioned at the conclusion of my Monday morning column, I have an extensive motorsport library and several times a week during the "off season," I plan to reprint paragraphs or sections for your reading pleasure from some of the marvelous literature I have at my disposal.
The writing is sometimes superlative and the stories exquisite and, since I spend a lot of my time reading and re-reading this material, I thought that I would share some of it with you.
I hope you enjoy it.
Brock Yates was one of the great motorsport journalists of our time. I say "was," because he is now suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and has not written for publication for some time.
Before he fell ill, Yates published 13 books ("Enzo Ferrari," "The Decline and Fall of the American Automobile Industry," and others) and was the author of countless stories and columns for motoring publications.
Among the major accomplishments of his life, his piece de resistance, if you will, was the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash that he and fellow Car and Driver editor Steve Smith founded in 1971 to protest against the imposition of strict traffic laws on the interstate highway system across the United States.
Won with sports car, F1, IndyCar and NASCAR star Dan Gurney co-driving, Yates turned his real-life satire into a screenplay that was produced as The Cannonball Run. He also wrote, or co-wrote, scripts for other films like Smokey and the Bandit (with Hal Needham).
A multitalented man with an unbelievable passion for motorsport, Yates (like many who cover racing) felt the need to appear in the arena himself, to strap himself into a fast car and get out there. Naturally, he had to write about it and his adventures as a pilot in the Trans-Am Series of the early 1970s became a best-selling book in 1972 entitled Sunday Driver.
It is a joy to read — and Yates was no slowpoke. He acquitted himself well and he was out there against some real talent. Mario Andretti, Parnelli Jones, Mark Donohue, Swede Savage — all of them are in Sunday Driver.
It is a serious book and it is a funny book. Here are examples of each, starting with a passage about parents buying rides for their children (sound familiar?):
There is a curious mentality among the upper classes whereby parents often finance their children in the purchase of racing cars, seemingly impervious to the brutal fact that these machines can snuff out the lives of their offspring in a wink. The classic example is Papa Rodriguez, a millionaire Mexican who bought monster Ferraris for his two teen-age sons, Ricardo and Pedro, and sent them off to race at places like Le Mans and Sebring at an age when most boys were still trading bubble-gum cards. Ricardo died young, trying to outspeed the Grand Prix aces at his home track in Mexico City. Pedro managed to reach the top in Formula One and endurance racing, then was killed himself. Papa outlived them both.
There is a story about the rich young American Sam Posey that perfectly exemplifies this strange syndrome. Posey is a bright Easterner who arrived on the racing scene after graduating cum laude from the Rhode Island School of Design and immediately established himself as a loquacious, brave and highly talented driver of Can-Am and Trans-Am machines.
In the beginning, he generally attended the races in the company of his mother, a cultured upper-class Connecticut lady whose good-natured informality made her an instant personality in the racing community. Sam was well-liked too, but at first many considered him a dilettante. Nevertheless, the Brahmin lady and her son swept across the American competition scene, purchasing exotic racers by the cupic yard and finally underwriting their own car-building operation.
Sam tended to crash a great deal, but had moments when he was blindingly fast. Then practice for a race at Riverside brought disaster when he crested a blind hill, found fellow driver Ron Courtney spun out in his path, and collided with him in a wrenching, flame-scorched smashup. Sam was unhurt, although Courtney was gravely injured and narrowly missed death.
Shortly after the nightmare experience, the Poseys, Sam and his mother — cultured, bright, aware people seemingly more suited to art collecting than to motor racing — were in the Riverside pits, writing a cheque for a reported $17,000 for another race car to replace the one he had just wrecked. Within a few hours, while Courtney’s life hung in the balance in a nearby intensive-care unit, Sam was back on the track , practicing again as if nothing had happened. . . . The improbably sight of Sam and his gentle mother trecking through the Riverside pits in search of another car minutes after the crash is one that is peculiar to racing and its wealthy parent-sponsorship phenomenon.
And then, we have this delightful little passage awhile later in the book:
David Pearson, the free-wheeling stock car champion from the deep South, had raced once at Bridgehampton and had hated it. He had stood in the sandy paddock and, gazing over the hazy waters of Great Peconic Bay, had complained: “This here is the end of the earth, and that ain’t no shit.”
The Bridgehampton race track was hardly on the outer edge of man’s geographic perimeter, but it certainly was situated in an unlikely spot, smack in the middle of the socially big-league Hamptons region of eastern Long Island, surrounded by golf clubs and splendid estates.
When we arrived on a clear and warm Saturday morning, a few cars were clustered around the entrance gate. Nearby, a small green hut resembling an aged hot-dog stand was surrounded by a few-score people and parked racing cars on trailers. This was the registration building, where the race officials were signing in the entrants, giving out credentials and collecting the myriad forms and documents necessary to run even a minor regional event. Since Bridgehampton had opened in the Fifties, this hut had served as registration headquarters and many of the best drivers in the world — Gurney, Hill, Surtees, McLaren, Hulme, Hansgen, Donohue, etc. — had at one time or another signed themselves into races at that same rude structure.
Perhaps the most colourful men came when the Grand National stock cars ran for several events in the mid-Sixties. It was during one of these events that David Pearson had made his previously noted denouncement of the place but it was left to a less-known driver named Neil “Soapy” Castles to make the final statements on the Southerners’ feelings about Bridgehampton and its amateurs.
When he was not racing, Soapy was crashing cars. He loved to crash cars. When several low-budget films were produced on stock car racing, Soapy did much of the stunt driving, including the execution of numerous flips and crashes. At one point a friend of mine hired Soapy to make a special guest appearance at a demolition derby he was staging at a small North Carolina dirt track. Soapy showed up, enjoying a certain celebrity status with the local folk, at the wheel of a beat-up Lincoln. Soapy easily disposed of his rivals, using his monstrous car to best advantage, until the rest of the entrants had been reduced to junk. It was then that Soapy revealed his flare for showmanship. As the last car running on the track, he lined up at one end of the front straight and backed the Lincoln past the crowed, ramming the retaining wall at the far end at full speed. Soapy stepped out of the crash unhurt, leaving the Lincoln glued against the fence, utterly destroyed, with its ruptured fuel tank draining gasoline across the track. As a final touch, Soapy flipped a lighted match into the gas and faced wild cheering as the Lincoln exploded into a thousand pieces.
Such a story would have made little sense to the sports-car racers who were to share the Bridgehampton circuit with Soapy and his cohorts. Because it lies in the heart of the posh Hamptons, the track has always attracted a surfeit of rich boys who parade around the pits in expensive blazers and Oleg Cassini scarves. The cultural gap between them and the good ol’ boys is one of planetary dimensions. Add to that swish group the earnest weekend sports-car workers: junior ad agency and Wall Street types who form the heart and soul of the New York SCCA Region and any common ground between the “sporty car people” and the “redneck stockers,” as the opposing camps referred to each other, disappeared completely.
Into this scene came Neil “Soapy” Castles and his crew. They walked into the registration shack and sauntered over to sign up for the race. The Chrysler they had with them had been in so many crashes that its appearance resembled the surface smoothness of a bag of walnuts. Shocked as they were to witness the appearance of his haggard hunk of iron and its crewmen, the amateur registrars did their best to greet Soapy and his boys with good will.
“Welcome to Bridgehampton, Mr. Castles,” said a pretty weekending secretary in a racing jacket covered with emblems.
Soapy grunted and began signing the entry forms. Then he looked up, his watery blue eyes squarely engaging her wide, innocent gaze. “We ‘un goin’ to git a chance to race with them sporty car boys?” he asked.
“No, Mr. Castles,” the girl replied. “They will race separately in the preliminary events. You’ll just be racing with the other stock cars.”
“Aw, shit, that’s too bad,” Soapy said. “I was fixin’ to kill me a couple of them little gentlemen.”
I only met Brock Yates once, in the pits at one of the early Molson Indy races in Toronto. But I’ve read everything by him and about him and feel as if I know him.
He’s been a treasure and it’s such a shame that his illness has robbed us of his insight and his passion.
Sunday Driver was published in 1972 by Dell Publishing Co., New York, N.Y. First Dell printing in Canada was in May, 1975.