A TRIBUTE TO 2 WILLIE HARRISON
No historical record of BriSCA F1 stock car racing would be complete without a feature on Willie Harrison and his 36 year racing career, during which he notched up 118 Final wins. He is quite simply one of the rare greats of Big League oval racing, a naturally talented driver of consummate skill, with an engaging personality that endeared him to fellow drivers and countless legions of fans, and a wonderful ambassador for the sport.
Willie took to the tracks as a teenager in 1954, right at the birth of the short circuit phenomenon that eventually was to capture the imagination and support of so many people and become a way of life. Even in that first season he began his winning ways. His car was a 1937 Vauxhall powered by a 'S' type Bedford engine that he used until the 1958 season.
It was Sheffield in 1955 where one of my favourite stock car stories occurred. Willie won three finals in succession and during one of them the stadium floodlights failed. In the dark but undaunted, he switched on the headlights of the big Vauxhall and took the chequered flag!
He drove under the number 374A allocated by the Northern Stock Car Company until National numbering was introduced in 1957. At first he switched to 107 but this changed to the now familiar number 2 in 1958, coinciding with the debut of his new 99 Jerzy Wojtowicz (one of the two World Champions in 1955) built Auburn-chassied car with Ford bodywork. Later in 1958 he purchased the 1957 World Final winning Chrysler Coupe built by 42 Aubrey Leighton. This car had seen better days but Willie took it to a Final victory at Norwich before it cried enough. From it, he rescued the Oldsmobile Rocket engine and the special rear axle which he fitted to a new Bedford-chassied car. Although he didn't achieve spectacular results during the late 50s and early 60s, he added at least one Final win to his racing CV in most years.
Marriage in the early 60s inevitably led to some financial constraints but in 1966, stock car racing won over domestic needs when Willie teamed up with 36 Rod Falding to purchase the 1963 National Points winning car again from 42 Aubrey Leighton. At the time it was a 'state of the art' machine powered by a 383 Mercury engine. And what a great buy it turned out to be! Willie piloted it to ten Final wins in the 1966 season and continued to use the car until 1970, clocking up another thirteen Finals along the way. In 1970 he took possession of a new machine built by 100 Tony Neal and fitted an up to the minute 428 cubic inch Ford engine. Final victories duly followed with five in 1970 and six in 1971.
Domestic meetings were one thing, World Finals were a different experience altogether. The number that Willie should have won or deserved to have won mounted up but something always seemed to go wrong - gremlins, bad luck, tangling with other cars, being taken out - it just never seemed to be his night come the World Final. Two occasions I remember in particular. 1972, Willie had racked up several Final wins going into the World Final at Belle Vue. What a race took place between 396 Doug Cronshaw, 391 Stu Smith, 306 Mick Noden and Willie - nothing to choose betwen them for almost the entire race until Cronshaw spun and left Smith in front with Willie second. He challenged Smith towards the end of the race but seemed to mistime his hit and ended up in the fence on the home straight minus his front axle. Fast forward to 1977, the season he debuted a new Chevy powered car. The World Final at Coventry saw Willie lead the first few laps and his fans dared to hope that this could be the year. But then along came 261 Johnny Goodhall to force Willie onto the centre green. He lost time but recovered to finish third. Was Johnny 'out of control' as was claimed or was there a settling of old scores? Whatever, it doesn't matter now but at the time many fans were beginning to think that the No 2 driver was destined to be one of the greatest not to win the World Title.
Back in the winter of 1974 Willie was part of a team of six drivers that toured New Zealand for almost six weeks. He was among those who won a Final but also suffered a racing accident in which he broke a leg. The healing process became complicated and it took Willie out of racing for the whole of 1974. By the following year he was eager to return and ended up having his best season ever for Final wins with twelve. Over the next three seasons he won a total of 20 meeting Finals.
1979 was the silver jubilee of the sport and Willie's car was in-keeping with an appropriate livery. A picture of my model of this car is below:
Sponsorship of the Grand Prix series by the Daily Mirror and the heightened publicity provided added excitement to a year of celebration. Willie led the GP series going into the last round at Odsal Stadium Bradford and only needed twenty points to guarantee the championship title. But bad luck struck before the meeting got underway when he was hit by a trailer in the pits and suffered another broken leg. Stu Smith went on to take victory but in a superb gesture he presented the trophy and winner's cheque to Willie via his son Paul.
Willie recovered from that physical setback and in 1980 recorded four Final wins followed by a further five Finals in 1981. It was in 1981 that he brought out a radically new car for the World Final - the one with the famous wedge profile. In 1982, he had six Final wins and one of those was the fulfillment of a career long obsession. Nobody who was at the old Belle Vue stadium on Saturday 25th September for the World Final could ever forget the occasion. Willie took an immaculate flag to flag victory. On his parade lap with the WF trophy there was hardly a dry eye in the stadium. Personal driver favourites were briefly forgotten as fans and drivers alike rose to salute Willie. How those old wooden stands thundered to the sound of stomping feet from an appreciative audience, mingling with the cacophony of air horns. The pleasure that Willie's victory gave to everyone present was there to see on so many faces and the atmosphere was vintage Belle Vue - electric! What a victory, what an occasion, what a dream come true - unforgettable. A picture of my model of Willie's World Championship winning car is below:
1983 saw the new World Champion take the gold roof, and the permanent smile on his face, to four Final wins.
It was health issues that eventually led to Willie's retirement but not before another Final win in 1985.
In 1990, he was awarded a Testimonial Meeting at Long Eaton stadium on 25th November and what a fitting tribute and thoroughly enjoyable occasion it turned out to be. Willie actually promoted the meeting courtesy of Keith Barber.
Fortunately, Willie was not lost to the sport as he became Team Manager for his highly talented son Paul who took over the number 2. Now in his early 70s, Willie is still a welcome sight around the tracks.
In 2004 for the Golden Jubilee celebrations, Willie came out 6th in the All Time Top 50 BriSCA F1 Stock Car drivers and at the official dinner he was one of those to receive an award for being among the most influential figures during the sport's first 50 years.
I will finish this tribute by recalling the 1976 World Final at White City Manchester. As I walked to the stadium among crowds of fellow fans, Willie's coach passed by and perceptibly the buzz of anticipation and excitement elevated several notches. This was the effect that Willie had wherever and whenever he raced. I hope the above few words do him justice.
Like many long established fans I consider myself privileged to have witnessed Willie, Stu Smith, Frankie Wainman Senior and others creating the historical legacy handed on to the current generation of stock car drivers and fans.
UPDATE MAY 2012
At Coventry Stadium on Saturday 5th May 2012, Keith Barber, author, historian, ex stock car driver and promoter, launched his latest publication - 'The Harrison Dynasty' - a superb verbal and photographic tribute to this remarkable stock car family.
From father Willie's involvement at the launch of stock car racing in 1954 and his subsequent success, as detailed in the above tribute; to son Paul's modern day racing achievements, as recalled on his separate driver tribute page; to grandson Bradley, already a gold top winner in the mini stox and increasingly demonstrating great things to come - it is a stirring story of dedication, passion and unforgettable memories.
Pictured below are Willie, Paul and Bradley in book signing mode in Coventry's Speed Square followed by pictures of Keith Barber's book:
Also pictured below is the very car in which Willie became such a star driver. Built by 42 Aubrey Leighton, it was repainted for this occasion and driven for the first time in over 40 years by 75 year-old Willie:
Willie went on track to impress grandson Bradley by flooring the accelerator on the Coventry back and home straights, demonstrating that time does not diminish the instincts of a legendary stock car driver. Both Paul and Bradley followed (or rather tried to keep up!!) with Willie on laps of honour in their F1 stock car and mini stox respectively.
Pictured below are the cars of Paul and Bradley parked in Speed Square:
A bitterly cold night at Coventry maybe, but the occasion and the special warm tribute paid to Willie, Paul and Bradley by an appreciative audience, together with a thoroughly entertaining and competitive night of stock car racing was more than enough compensation.
Below are models of the two No2 World Champion Cars from 1985 and 2011 and the picture has been signed by both Willie and Paul:
Etching on metal painted black of Willie's 1982 WF car