In January 2014 Larry Lawrence did a two part profile of John Williams titled “The Berkeley Burner.” I knew John a little and his story is interesting. I’m using much of Larry’s work in this story, and adding my own related experiences. I apologize for the labels but I want to make sure you know who’s talking.
“It might have been one of the few towns in America in the 1970s where a black kid, who happened to have a fascination with motorcycles, would be encouraged to chase his dream of becoming a top-flight road racer. John Williams grew up in Berkeley, California, home of the University of California, Berkeley, and to a famously diverse population of freethinking individuals who, instead of telling a young Williams he was crazy for wanting to chase that particular dream, actually encouraged him and in some cases helped him along his journey.”
John did become a racer and a really good one. At the end of my disastrous 1979 season with the BMW I decided to see if racing my Ducati would bring back the joy I felt when racing. Dale Newton was still working on his company’s recovery and his powerful Ducati Superbikes were not available. So I dusted off my 1974 750 Sport and went to a club race at Sears Point. I had met John a couple of times already. He was working at TT Motors, a shop I sometimes visited. He was very shy, soft spoken and not at all chatty.
Anyway, I knew he was the AFM’s current 750 Production class leader, riding a Kawasaki KZ650 (bored to 750cc I believe), a bike that was 4 or 5 years younger than my Sport. As I recall we had a back and forth battle, each of us leading at different points. I passed him on the last lap and thought I could hold him off, but he made a desperate lunge inside at the last turn, the slow hairpin near the pits.
“Going into the final turn Williams simply waited until Ritter hit the brakes on the Ducati, then he shot inside him, the KZ skidding in protest. ‘Of course I was way too hot into the turn,’ Williams admits. ‘I had the bike sideways, chattering the whole way through, but somehow I made it and held on to win. Paul came by after the race. I’m sure he wasn’t too pleased, but all he said to me was, ‘I guess you wanted it worse than I did.’”
Actually I was a little annoyed, not with John but with myself. When John went past me he overshot the corner and I almost got slowed enough to turn inside of him, but missed it by about 6 inches. If I had tried to go to his inside I would have clipped his rear tire and probably crashed. It was literally a matter of inches. It was a block-pass, really, and it worked. I had to follow him through the turn and he got to the finish line before I did.
By 1981 John was riding for Dale, not in Superbikes but in the Battle of the Twins class. By then the European twins were no longer competitive in Superbikes.
“It passed with little fanfare, but on September 12, 1982, at Seattle International Raceway in Kent, Washington, history was made. John Williams won the AMA Battle of the Twins, becoming the first African-American to win an AMA National road race. This, some 30 years after black riders were first allowed to compete in AMA national events. Nothing was mentioned about it in any of the coverage of the era. It’s not clear anyone recognized the significance of the occasion and that includes Williams himself. ‘I wasn’t thinking of my win that day in terms of making history,’ Williams admitted. ‘I was so focused on climbing the ranks as a racer, that it was just another step towards my goal of becoming a factory rider.’
“The relationship between Newton and Williams proved a fruitful one. Williams would go on to win a total of four AMA BoTT races on Newton’s machines. ‘Those bikes were probably the best race bikes I ever raced,’ Williams said.”
When my wife read this she was astonished. “This is a big deal! The first African-American to win an AMA National. Why was everyone so quiet about it?”
I had to think for a minute. “I just treated John as a racer. His being black was no big deal. Nobody in the AFM ever said anything about it that I heard.”
What Larry doesn’t mention is that John not only got to race the Newton Bevel-driven-cam twins, but also the 600cc F2 and 750cc F1 racers Ducati built using the belt-driven-cam Pantah motors. I remember talking to Dale on the phone about those bikes.
“It’s amazing, Paul,” he said. “After a race with the bevel twins when I did the tear-down you could tell it had been used. Scuff marks on the pistons, things like that. When you take the F1 apart after a race it looks brand new!”
“Williams figured international experience would help him so he went to Britain to race 250s in their national series and run the Isle of Man. He raced for Mal Carter in the British series and ultimately finished 22nd in the Junior
TT in ’81.”
John returned to the U.S. for a try out with the Yoshimura team but it did not go well.
“With his factory Superbike dream crushed and sponsorship in America drying up, Williams took an offer to race in South Africa. This was during the end of the apartheid era and it was controversial for any American performers or athletes to even go to South Africa, but Williams was offered a paying ride and he went. It turns out his presence as an African-American racing in South Africa, may have done more than he could have dreamed in breaking down barriers in the racially segregated country. ‘I think a lot of people were surprised,’ Williams said. ‘I think it changed the minds of a lot of people on what black people could do. I remember at Kyalami all the spectators, all the participants were white. The only blacks there besides me were the people picking up the trash.’
“Williams remembers catching the eye of one of those workers and he a detected a smile. While stopping short of saying he became a hero to blacks in South Africa, Williams did become somewhat of a celebrity in the country and was on TV a lot during his three years of racing there. He met a beautiful aspiring actress there and got married. He didn’t want to raise children in South Africa so he moved back to America and started his life away from racing. He’d figured he’d gotten the racing bug out of his system, but in 2002, now in his 40s, Williams bought a Yamaha TZ250 with the idea of just doing local races for fun. ‘I ended up doing the entire AMA 250cc GP season,’ he says with a laugh.”
“Today Williams continues to have fun occasionally on Supermoto machines. His son followed him for a while in that form of racing and actually got an invite to do the Red Bull Rookies. Williams looks back on his career now and finally has the distance from it to start to grasp his significance in the sport. ‘On one hand I look back and am proud to be the only African-American to have won an AMA National road race,” Williams said. “But as proud as I am of James Stewart in motocross, I have to say I am a little disappointed that no one else has emerged to be a contender in road racing since then.'”
John Williams is a Facebook friend and he still doesn’t say much. I’ll send him a notification of this story and see if I can get a comment. John?