Without Brock Yates, it is safe to say this site would not exist.
Yates wrote the screenplays for "Smokey and the Bandit II" and "The Cannonball Run"- that would be enough to get a man into the history books around these parts, but Yates actually created the real life 'Cannonball', and that's not just history...it's historic.
In 1971 Yates, a writer for Car and Driver magazine, created the inaugural Cannonball Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. There were no hard and fast rules, save for one: "All competitors will drive any vehicle of their choosing, over any route, at any speed they judge practical, between the starting point and destination. The competitor finishing with the lowest elapsed time is the winner".
Yates team was the only entrant in the first race, but he wrote about it in Car and Driver and seven months later, ran another Cannonball with eight teams. Three more races were run in 1972, '75, and '79.
It was in the '79 race during which Yates, and his friend Hal Needham actually ran an ambulance. They never made it to the finish line, but they did decide to collaborate. Yates wrote Needham's next movie, "Smokey and the Bandit II" and then, of course, "The Cannonball Run".
I was surprised Mr Yates had time to speak to me, not because I'd heard anything bad about him- 100% to the contrary, in fact, but because he has been and still is regarded as North America's top automotive journalist. This is not a man resting on his laurels. When we did speak, he was gracious, gregarious as hell, and full of great stories and tid bits about Cannonballs both real and cinematic.
Brock's personal site www.brockyates.com is currently under construction and will cover 50 years of automotive history.
So you were the one that basically started the whole thing off, the whole "Cannonball" idea was yours.
Yeah, I started the Cannonball in 1971 based on Cannonball Baker and the runs across the United States. We ran it through the seventies. The last one was in 1979 which led to the movies.
It still exists in some form today, doesn't it?
Well, not really. We do an event called "One Lap of America". We use the name Cannonball on it a little bit, but all the competition is run on race tracks. The highways are just used to get to the next events. There's no speed issues on the highways, so it really has nothing to do with it. We use the name Cannonball but it has nothing to do with the old ones.
Now you ran five Cannonballs, and one of them you ran with Hal Needham.
Correct. With the ambulance that we used in the movie.
Which leads me to my next question: How much of what you used in the movie was actually based on real life?
Not a lot really. The ambulance was really the central piece in "Cannonball I". There were a couple of cars that actually ran in the event. The movie was really placed against the event. We did New York to Los Angeles just like we did, but other than that, it was all fictional.
So you guys just decided to make the movie while you were on the road? It just kind of came up "Hey, let's make a picture"
Well I had done "Smokey and the Bandit II" with Hal, so we knew each other, we were good buddies. Actually, he was here at our house and we were talking about The Cannonball, and one thing or another and he said "We gotta make a movie about that", and I said well, they'd already done one, they'd done "Gumball Rally". And he said "Screw it, who cares?". I'd tried to stop "Gumball Rally". They knocked on what I thought were my ideas, but I was unable to stop that, obviously. Anyway I said they'd done it and, Hal said "Hell with 'em, we'll do a better one."
And Roger Corman had done one too ("Cannonball" (1976))
Yeah, I created a monster. I really set the 20th Century ahead a long way! Knocked it back to the 19th, not one of the great civic acts of the century, let's put it that way!(laughs)
How did you meet Hal? Did you guys meet working on "Smokey II"?
I'd met Hal before that at the Bonneville Salt Flats. He was attempting to set a land speed record for the rocket car and I'd come out to work on some magazine and television stuff so I'd met Hal earlier than that. So we were good friends. For some reason or another, we got to be good buddies.
He's a terrific guy. I did an interview with him earlier this year, and he was just super. A great guy to talk to .
He sure is. He's one good man.
So that's how you basically started working in movies.
I'd done a couple of...not really any major efforts... "Cannonball Run" was really the first one I put together and "Smokey and the Bandit II".
Now I read your book "Cannonball! World's Greatest Outlaw Road Race" and I understand you originally planned the movie to be a lot more serious than it turned out to be.
Well...I wanted it to be a bit more aimed directly at the event, but once Hollywood got into play and Al Ruddy who is a good friend of mine, the producer, good guy, he said "Come on, this is a comedy, let's have some fun with it and not get too serious about this thing." And, of course, it hit Siskel and Ebert's ten worst movies of all time(laughs) so it did make a list!
You didn't write the second one.
Naw,I helped it a bit, but basically, I was not involved with it. Not deeply involved, no.
I understand you'd originally wanted Steve McQueen to star in the first one.
Yeah I did, McQueen wanted to do it, and he became ill and couldn't do it, so we poked around and Burt stepped up and took the role.
Were you involved in getting any of the cast assembled, because you guys had an amazing cast...
Hal, Al and I did spend a lot of time messing around with the idea and messing around with the characters and yeah, I can't remember specifically, but I had some impact on that.
I understand Captain Chaos was all your creation, 'cause that's the character people remember from that movie.
Yup, he was ours and Dom DeLuise, he was a great guy, just one super guy. But we just played with the scenes as we went along with it and it just kind of grew. We messed with it a lot as we went along with it.
I loved the James Bond stuff. That was hysterical, really funny stuff.
It was fun. And Roger Moore was a super guy to work with. Very easy to work with. He had a great time with it. He was very relaxed.
And I imagine Burt had a lot to do with the creative process 'cause he was the biggest star around at the time.
Burt was easy to work with and of course the dialogue was made up basically...all the screenplay stuff I wrote was used in a very "open door" respect. Just everybody kind of had fun with it.
You had a cameo in the film, sort of started the race off. Were you on the set a lot?
In fact, I did that in one shot, as a one take deal. Most of it was a one take movie. We shot very little film. An awful lot of it was just a one shot scene, bang, out the door. the movie didn't cost that much. The most cost was probably the actors. I mean, the scenes were done in California. It was really pretty easy to do.
Well Hell, you could never put a cast like that together nowadays with the amount of money it would cost, I mean there's just no way.
Well exactly. We had a lot of fun doing it. But as they say,...we never won an Academy Award for it, put it that way! (laughs)
Well I don't think anybody expected to, they expected to make a movie that would make some money and everyone succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.
Did you continue working in film at all after that?
Well, I've got a film out there right now, a screenplay. I don't know where it's gonna go, but it's called "Yankee Lady" and it's about a man and a woman who go to Le Mans. It's a racing story and I think it's really quite interesting. Motor racing is now the second most popular sport in the United States with NASCAR and it's high time for a movie about the sport. And this one would be international, so I think it will work but...who's to know? My agent's got it, and we're putting it out there and we're gonna see what happens.
I really wish you the best of luck with "Yankee Lady", but I'm surprised that after all these years, no one's ever gotten around to remaking any of the "Smokey" or "Cannonball" movies.
I wouldn't be surprised if someone didn't step up and try to do it, but nothing has happened at this point. Well the movie industry is scattered all over and it's not like it used to be where there were five or six of the major studios and they pretty much controlled it, but now it's gone all over the world. And it's not doing that well, and I really believe that comedies and light stories like "Cannonball" would really work today. I mean there's been so much heavy stuff and the movie industry really needs to revamp itself and think about large audiences, and especially young audiences.
Brock, thanks again so much for this. As you know, we've got an interview up here with Needham, so talking to you has been great. Of course we'd also love to talk to Burt, but Needham said that's never gonna happen...
Naw, I think he's a pretty tough nut to crack.
Again, thanks so much.
My pleasure. Anything I can do to help, just let me know.