SOUTH BOSTON, Va. (WDBJ7) -- When Gene Williamson took the green flag at South Boston Speedway on a recent Saturday night, two things were certain: he was the only driver in the field that raced in the track’s inaugural season in 1957 and no one had taken a longer break in their driving career.
Williamson, who will be 80 in a couple of months, drove a restored 1838 Ford Sedan modified in the Southern Ground Pounders Vintage Racing Club feature.
He finished sixth in class, which is his normal style.
“I’m not fast, just steady,” he laughed.
Williamson and the Southern Ground Pounders were part of South Boston’s 60th anniversary celebration on August 26 and he had a special tie to that anniversary.
He competed in three races at the track during that first season in 1957.
Williamson grew up in Buffalo Junction, which is east of South Boston, just off of U.S. 58.
When he heard a racetrack was opening just up the road from his family home in the summer of 1957, he decided to give it a shot.
“Our neighbor had a bunch of junked Fords out in a field. I gave him $10 for a ’39 Ford sedan,” recalled Williamson. “It came with a radiator and transmission. We put an engine in it, a roll cage and different tires.
“I ran in the jalopy class. I didn’t hobnob with the big class, but I remember Eddie Krause, Runt Harris and those guys. They were the big names.”
Williamson raced at South Boston three times in 1957. “I finished in the money once. I won either eight or 10 bucks.”
There were few rules in 1957. Actually, Williamson remembers only one: “the gas tank had to be in the trunk.”
There were safety considerations, though.
“My helmet was a World War II helmet liner. My safety belts were borrowed off my father’s mule harness.”
Williamson was set to come back strong in 1958. With help of friends, he put together a new car for the jalopy division. “It was better than our first one,” he said.
But then he got to the track and found out there had been a rule change over the winter.
“Our class was for six-cylinder cars in 1958 and ours was eight. They let me run the first night with the car, but we didn’t run anymore.”
And just like that, his racing career was over.
“I fell in love with a beautiful red-head woman in Clarksville,” said Williamson, referring to his wife of many decades, Brenda.
He went to work for the postal service, eventually retiring after a long career. Retirement didn’t work so great for him though; he and Brenda still run a lawn-care service just outside of Richmond where they live.
He remained a life-long race fan, returning often to South Boston to watch races along with trips to Richmond, Martinsville, Bristol and Charlotte.
But he never thought much about driving again until he started visiting the garage of his neighbor Mack Tatum.
The garage happened to be filled with vintage racecars.
He began helping Tatum around the shop and even hauled cars to the track. Before long he was crawling through the window again.
“Mack lives up the street from me. He asked me a couple of years ago if I’d like to drive again,” said Williamson. “It was the first time in 56 years I had driven a race car. It’s something I really enjoy doing.”
And this time, Williamson has no plans of walking away from the sport.
All four of South Boston Speedway’s division championships will be on the line on September 16 for the GCR Presents Spaulding Equipment Company PASS 150 in what will be the final night of points races for 2017.
In addition to the 150-lap PASS Super Late Model race, there will be a 100-lap Late Model race, a 50-lap Limited Sportsman race, a 30-lap Budweiser Pure Stock race and a 15-lap Budweiser Hornets race.
Tickets for the rained-out August 12 PASS Super Late Model race will be honored on September 16.