Freddie Williams: A Personal Tribute
Freddie Williams - double World Champion and speedway legend
Journalists are supposed to be blasé and treat every interviewee as being either just another piece of copy or another welcome fee, something to keep the news editor and the bank manager quiet.
I have usually managed without much trouble to maintain a proper sense of professional detachment when given the opportunity to interview prime ministers, film or pop stars, or high-flying industrialists.
But when it comes to speedway legends, I'm as much a prey to a sense of awe and a touch of hero worship as the next fan.
Especially when the person on the other end of the preliminary handshake was Freddie Williams, a true giant of the sport. Freddie's death a week ago, at the age of 86, will have saddened every true follower of the shale game.
His speedway career was long over by the time I was introduced to the sport. Never having seen him ride, except on flickering newsreel film, I knew him solely on account of his proud record, as World Champion in 1950 and 1953, and as a leading member of a Wembley Lions team that won five consecutive National League Division One titles and had two National Trophy successes and two London Cup victories.
A good number of riders who had been Freddie Williams' contemporaries were still active and successful when I first started to watch speedway in the early 1960s. By that time Freddie had been retired for several years, giving up the game when in his early thirties.
The reasons for his decision to quit at such an early age - his career spanned just ten years - were high on my list of questions when the chance of an interview came along.
I approached him whilst researching my book The Golden Age of Speedway, and any sense of apprehension I might have had about talking to a living speedway legend were dispelled by his good-natured willingness to talk frankly about his career.
One early tribute to Freddie Williams following the announcement of his death remarked how he had borne the title and status of World Champion with great dignity for sixty years.
My belief is that, both at the time of his triumphs and for much of the time during the decades that followed, Freddie had maintained his good humour and his dignity in the face of sometimes open, sometimes whispered claims that sought to disparage his triumphs.
Of course, said the detractors, Williams, like Tommy Price, his team-mate and predecessor as holder of the World crown, was a Wembley rider and had home advantage in world finals.
He was a former grass track rider, they said, and had the advantage of gaining his 1953 victory on a wet and greasy track.
I suspect that these jibes hurt Freddie Williams more than he would have ever cared to admit. He managed, at least in public, to shrug off the detractors largely because of his special quality of being able to keep a firm sense of proportion about his achievements.
This gift came across with great clarity in his patient and considered responses to my questions.
Having experienced the realities of life in industrial South Wales before World War II, his feet were always firmly on the ground.
He told me: "Winning the World Final brought me £500 at a time when my dad was probably getting £4.50 a week slaving his guts out in a steelworks. Although speedway fans could be fanatical, no-one really jumped up and down and hugged and kissed you when you won things in those days. When I won the titles, it was just a job of work as far as I was concerned."
That same sense of proportion brought about his decision to retire in 1956, just four years after his second World title.
"When things are not going well, and you are finding racing difficult, that is the time when you are most at danger of hurting yourself. I had a family to consider and I made up my mind after a difficult race at Belle Vue that it really had to be the end of my racing career."
Fred denied to the end the suggestion that home advantage was a deciding factor, saying: "I had the break too at the start of races, not because I was a Wembley rider - believe me, there is no such thing as secret practice on the track before a World Final - but because I have always concentrated on getting away."
His modesty shone out as he agreed that his grasstrack racing experience was a help. "I knew the answers before the skids occurred."
I had the privilege to meet Freddie Williams on a number of occasions at speedway events following that interview. To see the respect he commanded among his contemporaries only served to confirm my impression of a truly great champion.
This article was first published on 27th January 2013
"Enjoyed reading the article and the wonderful photos that accompanied it. He was indeed a very unassuming person dedicated to his family and always supportive and how appropriate that he was given the honour of presenting the Speedway World trophy in Cardiff. I'm sure all the tributes and memories shared will help the family during this sad time. I'm very proud to say that Fred was my uncle and although I am far away in New Zealand reading all the tributes such as you have written make me feel closer to my UK family. "
"Fred along with Brian Crutcher was my boyhood hero, my memory was that he won every race both during the meeting and also the second half which were much more prestigious in those days.My memory was that he declined very quickly and the year after winning the world title only qualified as reserve the following year. He always seemed to take a wide line on bends and was latterly often pased because of this by newcomers Moore and Briggs. Also knew him latterly as he had a car showroom in Wembley next door to where I worked. "
" I have been reading this article as a result of doing a bit of research on Fred Williams. My mother was born in Taibach near Margam, Port Talbot her maiden name was Williams. She has spoken many times of her cousin who raced speedway and went on to have a motor cycle garage. I decided to see what I could find out about Fred after a niece of my mother visited her and asked how Fred was related. I never realized that he was such a great champion and one I'm very proud to be a relation of especially as I am a keen motorcyclist myself."
"I came across his grave in the village of Wellford near Newbury, why was he burried there? I enjoyed your article very much, brought back happy memories of going to speedway with my father when I was little."
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