BILL & ANNE WILLARD
“Merrittville’s First Family of Auto Racing”
When looking back at Merrittville’s past, it’s hard not to talk about racing without mentioning the Willard family. Bill’s love affair with auto racing became intertwined with his family business. Bill hailed from Rockway, Ontario and for those of us that grew up in that area, we knew it consisted of two thriving buildings, those being Willard’s Garage and Auto Wreckers and the Rockway Community Centre.
Bill’s love for auto racing blossomed in the 1950’s and he started fielding cars mostly Ford Coupes, when Merrittville Speedway was in it’s infancy. Bill and Anne Willard raised their two children, Al and Betty in the quiet hills of Rockway’s agricultural community. However, the roar of the flathead V8’s could be heard from within the walls of the wrecking yard. Emerging from the confines was the bright red #777 to be driven by Don Taylor and the #21 driven by George Winger. Willard’s cars could easily be recognized by their bright red paint, trimmed in black and white lettering, with large numerals, usually with a #7 in them on the doors.
While the Willard family contributed greatly to the racing community, many people remember the Willards as great lovers of country music. The Willards along with Orv Merry and family, formed the “Rockway Serenaders” and would travel locally, usually in the racing off-season to perform at local functions, being it a wedding at Lipa Park or a Saturday night dance at the Birch Palais at Turner’s Corners. On of my father Ken’s memorable moments with Bill, was attending a grand opening of Bill’s new garage at the wrecking yard, it was a simple affair with lots of “Rockway” hospitality. The other, was a hair raising ride with Bill to the stock car races at Syracuse in the 1950’s since Bill loved fast hot rodded street cars.
The Willards, at one point at Merrittville Speedway, fielded as many as four cars for various drivers, all painted red and trimmed in the familiar Willard colours. Those drivers were: #77 – Terry Edwards #78 – Stan Friesen #79 – Al Willard (a brief career) #777 Bev MacTavish At this time, most of Willard’s cars were either six cylinder G.M.C. powered Chev coupes, or V-8 Chevrolet powered coupes. The overhead valve V-8 was starting to outperform the old reliable flathead Fords.
When track owners Ken Kavanagh and Bill Russell, held a special event such as a demolition derby, Willard’s Auto Wreckers would supply the cars, usually driving them from Rockway through the backroads of Pelham and Thorold township in a long procession snaking through the hills of St. John’s. I remember riding in these cars, and as my love for restored old autos grew, I remember how many of these restorable 1940’s model cars we smashed up. As well, Willards also provided the towing service at the Speedway for many years as needed.
A few years later, Bill and Anne moved the family to Louth Street and the Willards Towing Co. flourished as a business, later to become affiliated with the CAA. The Willard family business grew and the bright red tow trucks started to turn yellow as the CAA road service took shape under the direction of the Willard family.
During the 1970’s and 1980’s, Bill and Anne enjoyed their other winter time passion, snowmobiling. For many years, Bill and Anne as members of the Lincoln Snowmobile Club, practiced safe snowmobiling, putting many miles on their sleds. During the early 1980’s I visited with Bill and Anne, along with track owner Stan Friesen to buy their sleds. While Stan bought the sleds, Bill referred me to Fletcher Smith, their brother-in-law, and I purchased his sled. Again the sleds were the familiar bright red. One memory of the past was a red #77 coupe in the shed, that Terry Edwards had once driven in the Limited Sportsmen class at Merrittville.
During the 1980’s Bill Willard Jr. carried the family banner racing in the Limited Sportsmen Division and later in the Sportsmen Division. Bill enjoyed much success and was later jointed by his sister Tammy, who started out racing go karts and later, Sportsmen cars, fielded again by father Al and the Willard family. The #77 and #777 were brought back to life as these two youngsters raced at area ovals, but their home was Merrittville Speedway.
Bill was also a very charitable man, working for many causes but one in particular was the Christmas Dinner and Turkey raffle, for the “West St. Catharines Businessmen’s Association”. Bill was in his glory at the microphone calling numbers and kidding with many of his friends, while I supplied the turkeys for the event. He was truly at home in Rockway, the West Hill was an important area of small businesses as well as many family farms. Unfortunately in 1990, Bill was diagnosed with cancer, but before his passing, a special night was held at Merrittville Speedway in his honour and the #77 and #777 were retired. The plaque is permanently displayed on the Walls of Fame at the Speedway.The Willard family continued to field cars for both Tammy &Bill jr. through the 1990’s with each winning Sportsmen Championships in their own right The 77jr. with CAA sponsorship continues to be a force to be reconned with under the Willard family banner.
The Willards continue to support stock car racing at Merrittvile as they have for50years&we are indebited to the entire Family &it all started with a love of the sport that was passed on from Bill sr.&Anne toBetty, Allan &Laura toBilljr.&sister Tammy&now to thenext generation with Tyler McPherson graduating from Go-karts to the 777 Hoosier –Stock under the watchful eye of former racer ,Mike Granton.
We surely hope that Bill jr. keeps driving for the Willard family racing team ,but when he finally hangs up his helmet,Tyler will be watching for his chance to try & keep the racing tradition alive in the Sportsman division. For over thirty years, our family has lived near Rockway and Bill’s old wrecking yard is still functioning today. Somewhere in the distance, I can still hear the old flathead of the #777, being tuned up for it’s next race breaking the silence of the rural air.
Thanks for the memories and your 50 year’s of contribution to our area’s #1 sport.
P.S. All of us on the Merrittville Speedway Alumni wish Allan &Laura a happy retirement from CAA & hope to see you at our annual Reunion &we appreciate your support as a Sponsor of our evening.