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Cannonball Run seminar at Amelia Island was one for the ages

Mon, 21 Mar 2011

I don't think I've been to a bad car show, and that includes the local Kamaro Klub in the Dairy Queen parking lot. But I tend to judge the shows by the afterglow--how much you remember a day or two after the event.

I tend to remember a lot after every Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance, and that is mostly because the founder, Bill Warner, uses his annual North Florida show to do exactly what you and I would do if we ran a big show--invite our heroes to come talk and invite the cars we'd like to look at ourselves.

At this year's show, one of Warner's panel seminars was on the original Cannonball Run, the 1970s-era cross-country nose-thumb at Ralph Nader and his seldom-merry band of Safety Nazis, which is how Cannonball founder Brock Yates referred to Nader's acolytes. The panel featured Yates, wife Pamela and about a dozen other culprits who were pleased that the statue of limitations has run out on the crimes against humanity they committed by driving across the country fast.

Attendees included Dan Gurney, Peter Brock, Oscar Kovaleski, William Jeanes, Judy Stropus, Bill Broderick (you know him: The flowing-red-haired "hat guy" who for years worked every NASCAR race for Union 76, greeting each winning driver in victory lane, and making sure he was wearing the correct cap) and Bill Warner himself. It was ably moderated by Spin & Marty-star-turned-motorsports-journalist Tim Considine.

This is probably a good place to note that you have in large part Brock Yates to blame for anything automotive related that I have written over these past 25 years or so, because introductions made and connections completed with Yates's help largely got me where I am today, which I alternately curse and thank Yates for on a regular basis.

When I was executive editor of Car and Driver, Yates actually sort of worked for me, as much as Brock Yates has ever worked for anybody. He had an admirably deft touch for doing what he wanted and making you think it was your idea.

Not long ago, Yates wrote in a column for Vintage Motorsports about his battle with Alzheimer's, honorably putting out there in public what many of us knew but would only mention to friends. It was even braver for him to agree to appear on the Cannonball panel at Amelia Island, ably assisted by his Lady Pamela, who was there for all of it, anyway. Actually, I couldn't tell much difference--Brock never remembered my name anyway, typically calling me "pal," or "friend, or "Buddy," or--as was his universal salutation for many of us at Amelia this year--"teammate."

Many who work in automotive journalism today, frequently online, seem to consider themselves at the vanguard of chance-taking, innovative storytelling, but let me tell you, others have been there and done that, most notably Brock Yates. At Car and Driver, I'd come up with a new idea, thumb through the files and learn that, yes, Yates had done it 20 years ago. His too-infrequent trips to the office in Ann Arbor, Mich., were invariably entertaining, often sobering: Once he overheard a couple of editors grousing about having to go cover some sort of story but were having trouble arranging for timely, direct and likely first-class airline seats. "Just take a car and drive there, dammit!" Yates said. "This is, after all, CAR and DRIVER magazine!"

Which was the whole point of the Cannonball Run, in which Yates and his friends took cars and drove there, dammit, as fast as the law would not allow. The trips from the Red Ball Garage in New York City to the Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach, Calif., with the target being somewhere in the 40-hour range, were so remarkable that someone should have made a movie about them. Wait, they did, sort of: The large and enthusiastic audience at the seminar was treated to the official Yates explanation that the Cannonball Run movie script Brock wrote was originally quite serious and good and intended for Steve McQueen. But he got sick and it ended up in Burt Reynolds's incapable hands, and it turned into a Three-plus Stooges spoof.

Otherwise, hearing these aging, hitherto-upright citizens talk about their adventures in the handful of Cannonball Runs that Yates orchestrated was amazing: Kovaleski's account of loading up a van with five, 55-gallon drums of 130-octane fuel so the van wouldn't have to make a fuel stop. Stropus's admission that the three-girl team that consisted of her, racer Donna Mae Mims and a friend did indeed roll their Cadillac limo in Texas, and you can only imagine what happened to the portable toilet inside the upside-down Cadillac. And Pamela Yates's tale of the cross-country ambulance ride, where she was the morbidly ill "patient" who, because of "lung problems," couldn't fly in a pressurized plane and must be transported on land--which, she said, was one of the few story lines the movie got right.

And then there was Gurney's explanation of why a Formula One champion would take the risk of accompanying Yates across country in a Ferrari: Gurney turned him down, then mentioned it to his terminally ill father-in-law, who advised Gurney that our time here is far too short and to not let opportunities slip by.

Finally, there was the entirely unexpected voice of sports car's elf-in-residence Toly Arutunoff, who was run down on an interstate highway in Amarillo in February when he stopped to aid a spun-out motorist in a snowstorm and lost his leg. Arutunoff, who has always had the enthusiasm of a 16-year-old talking about fast cars, still has it, judging from his piped-in phone call to the panel.

Really, you should have been there.

By Steven Cole Smith