Fred learned a lot in Australia that winter – especially how the Australians . . . ‘fiddled’, was the word he used. ‘I grew up a lot on that tour,’ said Fred. ‘Parker taught us a lot about life.’ That he also learned a lot about speedway on that tour there is no doubt. He came back to England and Wembley and won the World Championship. It had been a mere four year apprenticeship, with one year out with that ankle injury. It happened on Thursday September 21st1950. He gave much of the credit for his first world title to his mechanic, Cyril Spinks. ‘Cyril was very, very good,’ said Fred. ‘All the time I raced for Wembley I never broke down – never broke a chain, never dropped a valve.’ Their tactics on that night can only be described as shock and awe. ‘We decided we could win if we went out and broke the track record in the first heat,’ said Fred. ‘Everything went according to plan. It was a tremendous psychological blow.’
His second title three years later came after he broke all the rules – the night before the Wembley Final he and Pat went clubbing in London till 4 am – not because he was a hell-raiser, but because he didn’t realise that wild nights on the town were not the way to prepare for winning World Championships.
But he acknowledged that riding every week at Wembley was a colossal advantage, because World Finals were always held there then. Crowds were enormous and he was in awe of no one. The big names of the track –Jack Young,Graham Warren,Ronnie Moore,Aub Lawson,Alan Hunt,Tommy Price,Brian Crutcher– meant nothing to him. He was at the top of his game, leading the National League point scorers.
Yet, although he had a benign reputation off the track, he said: ‘It’s amazing how nasty you can get.’ It was why I described him as a Jekyll and Hyde.
In the 1951 Final, as outgoing champion he did poorly, winning only one race. But he remembered his meeting with eventual champion Young in Heat 11. ‘I made the gate on him,’ said Fred, ‘but Young was really motoring. For a couple of laps I could hear him trying to come under me and, when that failed, he tried to go round me. It must have been marvellous to watch. ‘I was coming down the finishing straight on the third lap and I could hear him right behind me. I left it late going into the turn and threw the back wheel out. It hit Youngie and I could hear the clanging and banging.
‘I don’t think I’m a really nasty person, but I was thinking: “Well, that’s Youngie through the bloody fence.” But because we’d got into a bit of a skirmish I was a little wide coming out of the turn – and he came up the inside. He put up with all that and then passed me on the inside. I really did think I’d put him in trouble on that corner.’ According to one report, when they got back to the pits,Jack Youngapproached Fred who was expecting him ‘to have a go at me’. But he just said: “You bastard, Willy . . . “ ‘
After his second World Championship win, Fred thought that as he had been at Wembley a long time he was worth a bit more than mere points money. He reasoned that the top footballers of the day were going for £35,000 and Split Waterman had been transferred to Harringay for £3,000 plus a percentage of the fee. Fred said: ‘I was World Champion and I thought I was worth the same sort of money so I went to Elvin and asked for a transfer too. Sir Arthur - I always called him Sir Arthur - said he wouldn’t transfer me. So I said I ought to have some extra cash then. We were pulling in fantastic crowds at Wembley but all we got was £1.50 a start, £2 a point and our bikes done. ‘He said: “It’s against the rules and I’m Chairman of the Speedway Control Board, so you won’t get an illegal payment out of me.” ‘So I thought I’d test him. I gave him an ultimatum – unless I got some more money I wouldn’t race any more. He threatened to have me banned completely, so my one and only attempt at blackmail failed miserably.’
Fred told me: ‘The best moments I had in speedway were of course the World Championship wins. The worst were riding with my brother Eric. We had some nasty accidents together and he always came off badly. Eventually I had to refuse to ride with him. When you go into those corners you really don’t care about anybody, and Eric was always the unlucky one.’ Ian, Fred’s other brother, who became a top International with Swindon, paid this tribute to Fred. He said: ‘It is very sad. He never believed he was a star. I remember at one international, Fred stood down from a ride to let Eric ride with me . . . and we crashed. He was always there for me.’ A year after quitting racing Fred was Ian’s spannerman at the 1957 Wembley World Final.
I first met Fred, and experienced his modesty, unselfishness and desire to put something back into the sport, at a specialSpeedway Starmagazine fan-festival weekend. It was an all-star question and answer session and a full house turned up to see the line-up of World Champion Tommy Price, Birmingham captain Phil ‘Tiger’ Hart, Belle Vue and England captain Jack Parker and Fred. He had driven a considerable distance early on a Sunday morning . . . and would not even accept a breakfast on me let alone any travelling expenses.
More than half a century after hanging up his leathers Fred was always available to do his PR thing for the sport. I never knew him to turn down a request to do a personal appearance to further the cause of speedway racing. In three years time,Fred Williamswould have been 90.
The last time I saw him was on Grand Prix day last year in Cardiff. He had come to support me at a book signing session in the town. He stayed for two hours talking and being gracious to the many fans who approached him. And then, with a protective arm round his wife Pat, they disappeared unrecognised into the crowds. That night he presented the winner’s trophy in the Millennium Stadium to the man who was to succeed to the crown he had worn with such distinction so many years ago,Chris Holder.
It wasn’t always like that. On one World Final night at Bradford he had been refused entry unless he paid his entrance money like everyone else. Obviously he had been unrecognised then as well. What was troubling him was that brother Eric, World No.4 in 1955, had also been refused entry and he asked me to help sort things out.
It saddened me greatly that, though other speedway personalities with far lesser pedigrees than Fred have MBE attached to their names, I was unable to get his name onto a Royal Honours List, in spite of two nominations and the backing of Fred’s home town MP, Lords Coe and Montagu and even a direct appeal to the Prince Of Wales himself.
When Fred hung up his famous dimpled leathers, he wasn’t finished with speedway, or Wembley. He answered the call from the man he liked riding with best for the Lions,Trevor Redmond, who had helped resurrect the sport at the old Empire Stadium in he early 1970s.Bert Harkinswas in that team, and he said: ‘Fred was the ideal team manager. He always supported his riders and as a former rider you could always rely on his advice.’
On the morning of Saturday January 19thFred’s daughter Sarah and her family had been tobogganing when they saw him drive up to their house . . . but he didn’t get out of the car. Sarah said: ‘We thought it was rather odd because he hadn’t got Mum with him, and he never went anywhere without Mum. You could tell straight away that he’d had some sort of stroke. He kept saying: ”I can’t get this bloody car to start. But don’t fuss, don’t fuss.” ’
An ambulance was called and Fred was taken to the Great Western Hospital at Swindon and, Sarah says: ‘They were absolutely fantastic, they could not have been better. They told us he’d had a massive stroke, very deep seated. ‘He was still pretty coherent. He said to Mum: “They asked me what day of the week it was and I was jolly lucky I got it right and said Saturday, because you made me wear my Monday socks today.”
‘He was making a huge big joke, but then he had another massive stroke and they said it was very serious, and he was not likely to recover. Nearly all the family managed to get there.
‘He had a peaceful night but in the morning there was no response and then just after nine o’clock we lost him. It is desperately sad, but thank goodness it was sudden. We are all very cut up and missing him desperately, but we are bearing up.’
Fred was justifiably proud of his sporting family. Wife Pat, the Olympic skater, granddaughter Joanna who followed her onto the ice, daughter Jane became an equestrian star, son David has had a successful professional golfing career. And there is a younger grandson whose name is . . . Freddie.