Editor's note: This article was first published in the June 15-30 issue of The Trucker newspaper on stands now.
On Nov. 18, 2012, at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the Penske racing team for Brad Keselowski was on edge when five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion Jimmie Johnson was cursed with a pit road mistake and a rare part failure, opening the door for Keselowski to earn his first-ever championship in the series.
Among those holding their breath was mechanic and one of Keselowski’s two hauler drivers, Michael “Bama” Williams.
“It’s a lot of excitement on one hand and on the other hand it was a lot of relief,” Williams said of his team becoming the 2012 Sprint Cup Champions. “It’s the greatest thing. You accomplished your goal.”
However, if Bama truly had it his way, he’d be the one at the racecar steering wheel.
Growing up in Blue Springs, Ala., Williams’ involvement in the trucking industry started at birth. As he told The Trucker, “it’s in the blood — trucking and racing.”
“Mama and daddy they drove a truck, so as a young kid, it’s cool to ride with daddy in a big truck,” the 38-year-old said. “My dad raced. My very first memories as a kid were being at the racetrack.”
When Williams turned 18 years old, he bought a 1978 Oldsmobile Cutlass. He busted out the windows, put in a roll cage and let lose.
“It’s always been about the speed … being able to control out-of-control,” Williams said. “It’s hard to explain. It’s a weird sensation; it’s a drug, it’s addictive.”
Blazoned with the No. 7 (his high school jersey number) and later the No. 15, Williams took his racecar all over his home state.
“The thing that sticks out most … was in the first year I was racing,” Williams said. “We started to race; the two leaders were side by side in front of me. I was right on them and I glanced to the left because I was going to pass by them on the bottom … I saw straight into his car.”
For Williams, it was an adrenaline high.
“It was wild,” he said. “You’re less than inches from disaster, a wrong move here or there and everyone is wiped out.”
While he’s been at the wheel for countless local and regional races, his favorite track to drive at has always been South Alabama Speedway.
“I would go every week, every time the gate was open I was there,” Williams said. “Now it’s fallen off tremendously because work comes first, we’re racing every weekend. But anytime I can, I’m there.”
However, every great racer will have his story of struggles. Williams said his first race was rained out. The second try, a gear broke in the right end of the racecar.
“The whole time it’s been one thing after another,” Williams said.
Rain will go away and broken gears can be replaced, but staring at the face of your crying mother after a hard wreck, those memories don’t fade, Williams said.
“It was right after [NASCAR driver] Neil Bonnett got killed at Daytona. It freaked everyone out because I wrecked the same way he did. When all was said and done the whole inside of the car was torn up; I cracked my helmet,” Williams said. “The motor was outside of the frame … The only thing I can remember is checking my mirror going into the corner, no one was around me.”
A young racer, Williams’ memories were foggy after hitting the wall hard.
“The seat had broke away, so I was sitting sideways. My mama had sat in the stands that night and I saw her sitting on the fence looking in the window and crying,” Williams said. “So I knew it had been bad.”
The verdict was a severe concussion, coupled with a badly bruised leg.
Even in the midst of serious injury, backing down “never even crossed my mind,” Williams said.
“We took the car back home and tried to fix it and brought the same car back the next week to try to race it,” Williams said. “A guy took me out on purpose. I was going back to the racetrack and show him I was good enough.”
Williams was always the underdog, picking parts from junk yards and working on the car with his own hands. In order to support his love of racing, he went into farming, but at the time in Alabama, the industry was hurting.
“If I wanted to continue racing I had to get a truck to get more money,” Williams said.
At 20 years old, Williams started driving Freightliners and Macks for various companies. In 2001, while moving heavy equipment and materials for a construction company, Williams’ work was haulted because of heavy rain. That same rain that once ruined his day at the track would lead to a dream job.
Williams spoke with James Finch — who still owns the NASCAR Phoenix Racing Team — down in Panama City. As luck would have it, their hauler driver had just turned in his notice.
“They were like, ‘You know how to drive a truck right?’” Williams said. “‘You want a job?’ I said, ‘sure let’s go.’”
Williams had only watched NASCAR races on television, looking up to drivers like Jeff Gordon, who started racing about the same time as he did.
Suddenly, he was hauling a racecar to Daytona International Speedway for the July race.
“It was controlled chaos; it was Daytona, the biggest track of the year,” Williams said. “The amount of work you have to do, it’s almost overwhelming for a guy first coming.”
After Finch, Williams worked with driver Brian Vickers and started with Keselowski a year ago.
“Those guys are regular people, a lot of fans don’t get to see that,” Williams said. “[Keselowski] he’s a very calm, laid-back guy. He doesn’t get rattled. The biggest thing is that he never gives up.”
Williams said driving a hauler is not comparable to freight hauling.
“They’re not flexible,” Williams said. “You have to be there, but you have plenty of time to get there, you don’t have to run all night most of the time.”
Williams said the best thing about being a hauler driver for NASCAR is charity work.
“We do a lot of charity work and a lot of these parades we do especially the ones at Bristol [Motor Speedway, Ky.], it goes to the Make-A-Wish Foundation kids,” Williams said. “Being able to give back and for a split second make them forget their troubles … then I’m willing to do it.”
A memory he’ll never forget was a Make-A-Wish Foundation ride he gave at Bristol to a three-year-old girl — the same age as his then oldest son — with a crippling brain disease.
“Her mom sat up there and we talked” in the truck, Williams said, adding that the little girl, exhausted from the day, lay down in his sleeper berth.
“When I laid down that night, I could still smell her hair and everything,” Williams said. “It makes you stop and realize how precious these kids are … I’ve been blessed.”
Living in Boiling Springs, S.C., the married father of two boys, Williams has already built a go-kart for his seven-year-old son Brice.
“When he’s ready to go, it’s sitting there,” Williams said, though he said he wouldn’t push his sons to race. “If my boy does take an interest in it, I’d like to race with him.”
Williams said he’d like to keep moving up the ladder at NASCAR, freeing up more time to race on weekends.
And what would be better than racing Keselowski? Williams got a sly pep in his voice when The Trucker asked if he would ever race alongside his team’s champion driver.
“I wouldn’t mind it to happen, but I think they’re a little reserved,” Williams said. “Obviously he’d get beat. How would it look for the defending champion to get beat by his truck driver?”
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