John Willoughby: Greene Publishing, Inc.
When you hear the word NASCAR, what do you think? Do you recall that 2001 afternoon in Daytona when Dale Earnhardt lost his life? Or do you remember the greatness that Richard Petty achieved when he won his 200th race? You don’t think of a hometown resident going and racing beside Darrell Waltrip, do you? Well, it happened.
Gordon “Don” Williams was born on May 14, 1947 in Madison to Robbie and Gordon Williams Sr., who owned a local hardware store. Williams went to Florida State University to pursue a business degree. Williams and his classmates differed in choice career paths, though. After graduation, his classmates went on to careers in law while Williams was only interested in racing.
During that time, race car drivers with college degrees were scarce. Williams only told his two sisters when he raced because his parents did not approve of what was happening. “It was never discussed in our home,” said his mother, Robbie.
Williams began working as a traveling ball-bearing salesman for a company based in New York. His area of work was throughout Florida and Georgia. Rumor has it that Williams had multiple significant others throughout both states.
The charismatic gentleman began racing cars in 1973, on short tracks in Columbia County and Volusia Counties. The track in Volusia County still stands. He often won, and for a family that despised racing, his parents said nothing about the trophies that kept appearing in his room. He raced on dirt tracks but never on tracks larger than half a mile.
One track Williams always wanted to race was Daytona International Speedway. The large 2.5-mile track was dreamed up by Big Bill France Sr., the man who started NASCAR. Daytona International Speedway was built and completed in 1959 and will host the 60th annual Daytona 500 on Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018.
Williams finally got the chance, but he never knew it would turn deadly. In 1979, Williams, who was then 31 years-old, paid 25 dollars and bought a NASCAR license. He then bought a Chevy Chevelle stock car and entered it in the Sportsman 300, one day before the prestigious Daytona 500. Williams told his mom and dad that he was going to Daytona and would be back Saturday night, but he never told them he entered into the race.
“I thought he was going down [to Daytona] to work, and I thought he might go to the races as a spectator,” said his mother, Robbie. “On Saturday morning, I got the Jacksonville newspaper, and there it was in the starting lineup: ‘Don Williams’.” His mother called the hotel but was never able to speak with him. Williams was already at the track.
Williams had never raced on asphalt before racing at Daytona. He never raced at such a high speed either. He started the race in the 38th position. On the fourth lap, coming out of turn two, a wreck occurred. Joe Frasson and Freddie Smith wrecked, leaving Frasson’s car disabled in the middle of the track. Another driver slammed into Frasson, and the cars exploded. Frasson escaped uninjured. Williams was in the back of the field, yet he was somehow injured worse when his car got caught up in the wreckage.
Williams car wiggled, turned toward the wall, turned back and then hit the wall again, hard with his right-rear. The car wasn’t badly damaged, and it is still a mystery why Williams was injured as badly as he was.
Robbie and Gordon Williams received a call shortly after from a Reverend telling them that Don was injured badly in an accident. The Reverend told Williams’ parents that their son would likely be dead by the time they arrived. Williams was taken to the Halifax Hospital where he was diagnosed with a broken arm, chest injuries and head injuries. He was given a forty to fifty percent chance of surviving. Williams managed to live. Just weeks after the accident on Wednesday, Mar. 7, Williams was taken off of Life Support and was able to breathe on his own but was still in a coma.
Daytona International Speedway paid for rooms and rental cars for the Williams family while Don was still in the hospital. Williams had also received the highest level of insurance NASCAR had offered, an amount of 15,000 dollars. By the time the newspapers got word of Donnie Allison and Cale Yarbrough fighting and Petty winning the Daytona 500, the Williams family had used up all of the insurance funds. A trust fund was eventually set-up, giving the family $50,000 in donations from good samaritans.
Williams’ mother recalled that NASCAR officials never contacted the family. The France family, founders of NASCAR, refused to be interviewed regarding Don Williams.
Throughout the 1980’s, Williams lived in a permanent vegetative state. He was conscious but unable to move. The Williams’ family became quite angry at the France family for lack of help and concern. NASCAR was not required to offer the same benefits to its drivers as a company would to their employees.
Don’s father always fed him. When Gordon died in January 1988, Don wouldn’t eat. Robbie cared for him by herself until she collapsed from exhaustion in November 1988.
On May 21, 1989, Don Williams died in Perry, after ten years of being trapped in his own body. His mother, Robbie died in 1992.
NASCAR racing is much safer now. After the death of Dale Earnhardt, NASCAR invented a Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) Barrier. All concrete walls on the track are now covered by SAFER Barriers. NASCAR also invented the Head and Neck Support (HANS) device to prevent neck and head damage like Don Williams and Dale Earnhardt incurred. Multiple rules and regulations have been put in place since 2001 that allows a driver to walk away from a severely mangled car, unharmed.