ANYONE will tell you thatFred Williamswas the quintessential Mr. Nice Guy of speedway – though he did have his on-track mean streak, as every man who ever reached the summit of the sport did.
And that’s why I called him The Jekyll And Hyde World Champion. Fred, who reached that summit not once but twice, died on January 20th very suddenly after suffering a stroke.
When his long time friend and sometime track rival,Reg Fearmanwas told the news, he said: ‘I am devastated. Freddie seemed as if he would go on for ever. He looked so well. He was always up for a laugh and eager to be involved in whatever was going on. He was a great friend and a credit to the world of speedway racing - there will not be another like him. He wore the crown of World Champion so proudly for 60 years.’
Fred was unique, of course. Not only is he the only Welshman to win the world title, he was the only surviving British rider to match the late Peter Craven and become a double World Champion. Affectionately christened ‘Fredlams’ by another long time rival and friend,Barry Briggs, Fred, born in 1926, was in his ninth decade. And this is the saddest and most emotional obituary I have ever had to write.
BecauseFred Williamswas my friend.
He was also a warm, modest, fun-loving gentleman – in the truest sense of the word - of the track, with a perpetual twinkle in his eye. He rode for the most famous team in the world, Wembley – and only for Wembley - for ten years, and in all that time, he confessed, he found it irksome to sign autographs for fans, bow to the inevitable demands of the media and accept all the other trappings of fame. When the suits closed Wembley to speedway in 1957 with the death of ‘the biggest friend speedway ever had’, Sir Arthur Elvin, who had not only championed the sport but legitimised it as well by opening up his fabulous Empire Stadium to the infant motorised spectacular entertainment in 1929, Fred had called it quits on his racing career as well.
And he spent the rest of his life trying to pay back to the sport what he came to realise had been an attitude he very much regretted. He said many times, and most recently: ‘I went about things the wrong way. I know that now as I have got older.’ He had considered all that celebrity, and the hero worship that went with it, something of a nuisance.
He always insisted: ‘I never understood why people would think me marvellous. I never considered myself a great World Champion. A fortunate one, yes. There were better riders than me in those World finals that I won.’ Be that as it may, Fred Williams went about ascending to the top of the speedway world in as dedicated, determined, meticulous and comprehensively prepared a way as any World Champion either before or since his two successes in 1950 and 1953.
But in the rough, tough, relentlessly demanding – often cruel - speedway world, you don’t win two World Championships unless you also have a high degree of motorcycling talent. And Fred certainly had that. He also possessed the required amount of ruthlessness on a bike. ‘You had to be ruthless to be a winner,’ he said.
I could blind you with facts about the career of Fred Williams, but there was a lot more to Fred than the world’s best speedway star. He was the dockyard apprentice from Port Talbot in the Welsh Valleys, tutored with younger brothers Eric and Ian on how to race motorcycles on grass by his hard taskmaster father – ‘second was never any good for Dad’. And there was the newspaper advertisement by Wembley managerAlec Jacksonwhich resulted in Fred attending practice sessions at what he later described as ‘the Rye House abattoir’. It was hardly glamorous for the 20 or 30 young men with ambitions to become speedway stars, described as ‘rough-looking herberts’ by Fred. ‘You’ve never seen anything like it,’ he said. ‘They were all a load of nutters. Crashing into the fence, blood and gore everywhere.’
Jackson saw potential in young Fred who in 1946 recalled walking with Wembley captainBill Kitchen, the length of that intimidating arena from the dressing rooms at one end to the pits at the other. In those days there were regular Wembley crowds of up to 75,000 people – sometimes more - and the waves of adulation that rolled down from those packed terraces to bathe the fans’ leather clad heroes in sheer idolatry would not now disgrace a David Beckham or a Tom Cruise. This exposure to the vast Wembley crowds immunised Fred against the speedway equivalent of stage fright when it came to the major meetings such as World Finals, as all around him were falling to pieces with big occasion nerves.
It was an invitation to stay atBill Kitchen’s house after a particularly bruising day at Rye House that inspired Fred to become a speedway champion. He remembered: ‘Bill was my absolute idol. He had a beautiful house at Wembley. We had a lovely supper and then I was shown to a room all to myself. It had a washbasin, and on a shelf above was one of those aftershave spray things. ‘The following morning, there I was spraying on this aftershave and thinking: “This is what it could be like for me if I was a speedway rider. And that’s what triggered it all off for me.’ “
Years later, when Fred owned his own beautiful house near Wembley, he had a young aspiring house guest himself.Bert Harkins, who remembers: ‘Freddie was a great friend, and it was through him and his wife Pat that I met my wife Edith when I rode for Wembley. I was staying with them and Edith was theirau pair.We have been treated as part of the family ever since.’
Fred had painful memories of his first second half race at Wembley. He said: ‘I’d never seen a speedway meeting and when the tapes went up I looped and went over backwards onto the concrete starting area. It was an absolute disaster. ‘That was my first meeting at Wembley, and I never, ever looped again.’ The very last surviving member of that marvellous early post-war Wembley side which won seven league championships in eight years, two National Trophies, three London Cups and one British Speedway Cup, is now Split Waterman, also in his 80’s.
Whenever Wembley were at other London tracks the young Lions would be taken there to race against the local youngsters. Split recalled: It was at Harringay one Friday night and our first really competitive race. There was Charlie May, Bronco Wilson, Fred and me. Guess who won? Me!
‘But I remember another incident with Fred. We had to go to race at Belle Vue one night and Fred and I rode there on my BMW motorbike. When we got there we were knackered. We got into real trouble with Alec Jackson, but I think Wembley won in the end.’
Before Fred could really get going he badly damaged the tendons of an ankle in a grass track accident. ‘You would have thought that Wembley would have written me off then,’ he said. ‘But they didn’t. They more or less said: “When you get right come back and start again.” That was in 1947 and the record books showFred Williamsscored exactly a single solitary point for Wembley that season – exactly the same number that, ten years later, a young man namedIvan Maugerscored for Wimbledon.
It took years for Ivan to get the breaks which made the speedway world sit up and take notice. It tookFred Williamsone year. Fred’s big breaks came in 1948 with big breaks – to an arm and a thigh – to his Wembley team matesBill KitchenandGeorge Wilks. ‘That put me into the team,’ said Fred, ‘and I began to score points.’
The following yearJack Parkerwas putting together an England team to travel to Australia for a winter series. And at a Speedway Riders Association meeting none of the so-called big names seemed to want to go. Four virtual novices sitting together,Howdy Byfordof West Ham,Cyril Rogerof New Cross,Dent Oliverof Belle Vue and Fred, shouted: ‘We’ll bloody well go.’ ‘The next thing we knew,’ said Fred, ‘we were on the boat.’