Former world champion motorcyclist Charlie Williams returns to the racetrack
PUBLISHED: 00:00 03 August 2017
At 67, Charlie Williams from Oakmere still loves the thrill of the race, writes Paul Mackenzie
When he roared away from the start line of the 1972 TT race Charlie Williams began a career which was littered with silverware and podium finishes. He competed all over the globe and is a former world champion and now, at the age of 67, he’s still feeding his need for speed.
Charlie will compete at Donington Park this month in preparation for a race at Goodwood in September where he hopes to retain a title he won last year on board a replica 1933 bike.
He’s remained involved in the TT too, and was persuaded (‘it didn’t take much persuasion, to be honest’) to race again in 2014, 30 years after his last appearance in the classic race.
He finished ninth overall and won his class, but found things had changed while he’d been away. Not only are the bikes faster and more powerful but as a father and grandfather, his perspective is rather different as well.
‘I’m less competitive now than when I was younger,’ he said. ‘I never thought about the dangers when I was younger but as I approached some of the corners in 2014 I was thinking “what if?”. You can’t race like that, you’ve got to have complete confidence.
‘It was a good experience but life gets more precious,’ he said. ‘My wife came up to me at the end, gave me a kiss and whispered ‘please don’t do it again’.’
And although he won’t return to the iconic TT course, he does still enjoy track racing – a passion which began when he was a schoolboy.
Charlie could almost hear the roar of the engines at Oulton Park from his childhood home and became fascinated with motorcycle racing on visits to the track with friends.
He was a pupil at John Deane’s Grammar School but said: ‘After two or three visits to Oulton Park I decided that was what I wanted to do and after that education took a back seat,’ he said.
‘I made plans as best I could for a career in racing but it wasn’t easy in a family with very little income and no interest in bikes.’
His dad was football fan who took the young Charlie to watch Chester City but he died just weeks before his son’s first race. His mum saw him race just once – he fell and broke a wrist and asked her not to come back.
After school he worked as a mechanic at Hawker-Siddeley in Chester and then at Dugdales in Alvanley. ‘I had a burning desire to go racing and I knew they sometimes sponsored riders,’ he said. ‘In the end I rode their bikes for years.’
He started his racing career as a sidecar passenger but said: ‘I loved doing it but the guy I was racing with wasn’t great – I think we crashed in every race – and I thought I could do better.’
With the help of friend and local race rider Allen Steele, Charlie graduated to the bike and Steel entered him for his first race in July 1969 and just three years later the pair lined up together for the TT.
‘He had done the race a few times and not won but he made a prediction on the night before the race that he’d win and I’d do well,’ Charlie said. ‘And he was right – he won and got the fastest lap time and I came fifth and was named the best newcomer. Dugdales then gave me a bike for the following year and I won it.’
It was the first of eight wins on the Isle of Man and he also competed with distinction in short circuit races around the UK and in endurance events across Europe into the early 1980s.
‘I have always loved the exhilaration of being on a bike, it really gets the adrenalin going, not least the TT. It’s almost 40 miles and it throws everything at you, you’re at sea level and then going up over the mountain. There is tremendous danger and I suppose that is a part of the thrill for fans and riders.
‘Fans love to see bikes whizzing past – when I was younger we were going at over 170mph and they are over 200mph now so it is exciting but there is a dark side. If you crash, there’s a damn good chance you’ll be very badly hurt or you won’t survive. I have lost a lot of friends over the years – John Williams from Heswall, my endurance race partner and the best man at our wedding, was killed in a crash in 1978.
‘I had about 50 accidents during my career, none of them really bad but I’ve had broken wrists, collar bones and a badly broken leg but it’s inevitable really that you’ll have some injuries in your career.
‘All you think about when you’re racing is the next bend but it does put your family through hell. On a track you’re going past every couple of minutes but in the TT you might only pass them every 20 minutes or so. There are commentary posts and if you don’t appear at one of those, panic sets in.’
In Charlie’s case, the panic was for his wife, Anne. The couple met in 1973 and married at Alvanley the following year. The couple have two daughters (neither of whom wanted to follow in their dad’s tyre tracks) and five grandchildren.
When he was last featured in Cheshire Life, in August 1980, we described Charlie as ‘Sporting topper’, a description, our correspondent said that ‘rings as true as the rounded note of his finely-tuned motorcycle engine’. He added that Charlie possessed ‘a determined, jutting jaw and a ready smile’ and was ready to become a ‘legend in his own lifetime’. Anne, we suggested then, was Charlie’s time-keeper and had ‘to keep his silver well polished’.
Charlie took a step nearer to becoming a legend in the weeks after that interview was published by winning the Formula Two Class of the Formula TT world championship.
And later that year, with an eye on life after his racing days, he launched Everything but Bikes in Chester, selling biking gear, equipment and parts but, as the name suggest, not bikes. He retired from the business in 2013 and has since started work on his autobiography, which he hopes to have finished before the end of the year.
With next month’s Barry Sheene memorial race in his sights, and no sign of his life-long passion for bikes dimming, there’s every chance that there are still plenty of chapters of Charlie’s life to be written.