DIEZ: At 76, Williams is still going strong

I've mentioned local racer J.R. Williams in this space recently, and I got the chance to sit down with him last week.

At 76, J.R. is not only one of the oldest midget racers around, but is also somewhat of a renaissance man. He is a retired airline pilot, an accomplished writer, a licensed sea captain and a professional photographer.

Williams got back into racing a few years ago when he moved to Carson City and met dwarf-car guru Vuki Wilson. Vuki got J.R. hooked when he took him to a race, and at 67, Williams was 2001 Dwarf Car Rookie of the Year.

In 2003, J.R. got the opportunity to get back into his first love, midgets.

When I visited him in his shop he had just finished repainting the chassis for his dirt midget.

His pavement car was sitting on the other side of the shop, and in the middle was a recently acquired third chassis that he figures will be on the track by mid-summer.

Williams started racing stock cars in his native Pennsylvania in 1950 when he was a sophomore in high school, racing under an alias because he was underage.

"I went to my first race with a buddy when I was in 8th grade, and as we walked up to the track we couldn't see the cars, but I heard this buzzing like hornets," Williams said. "When we got up to where we could see them, they were midgets, and I was immediately hooked."

J.R. was good enough to secure rides in both stockers and Ford V8-60 powered midgets. He raced against a lot of the up-and-coming drivers of the time, including a skinny little Italian kid named Mario Andretti.

Williams learned to fly in a Piper Cub on a grass airfield in Pennsylvania so he could save time getting to and from the races.

After a stint in the GM Institute he decided that he would rather work on cars than learn to design them, so he quit and held a series of automotive-related jobs.

But if a job interfered with his racing, the job had to go. He eventually owned a gas station and garage, but as his flying hours built up he got his commercial license (renting a plane in Hawaii to get more cross-country time), then an instructor's ticket.

He began flying charters in a DC-3, which led to a job offer from Hawaiian Airlines. This led to a dilemma that resulted in the first time a job took precedence over racing.

Williams had gotten a ride in an Offenhauser-powered midget, and for the first time thought he might be able to take a crack at Indianapolis in 1963. But the lure of the islands called, and his racing career was put on hold.

What looked like a temporary job at Hawaiian turned into a 31-year flying career that saw him move up from DC-3s to L1011s, which he called "a really sweet airplane."

While in Hawaii, Williams did some sports car racing in an MGB, but he was so good they kept moving him into faster classes.

He gave it up and got into sailboat racing and then eventually cruising. He would eventually own a number of sailboats, and after retirement, he cruised the South Seas for five years before settling down in Carson City.

Since 2003 Williams has raced midgets with the United States Auto Club (USAC) and the Bay Cities Racing Association (BCRA) at Salt Lake City, Lake Havasu, Irwindale and Chico.

Williams will be going back to Indy this year to race and to attend the 500 with some old racing buddies.

But that's just part of a planned 30-race season. He has a new 240 horsepower Chevy Ecotec engine in his dirt car, and plans an upgrade to 320 horses.

His asphalt car uses a 185-hp Ford Focus engine, and he takes pride in beating cars with bigger engines and more power.


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