by: Tim Leeming
When asked to sum up his racing career in one sentence, Haskell Willingham says “It didn’t end the way I wanted it to.” To realize the full impact of that statement, one must go back to the very young years of Haskell’s life, when his father would take him and his two brothers to the local half-mile dirt track on Thursday evenings in the late fifties to watch the early pioneers of stock car racing battle for the wins. It was as that little boy that Haskell Willingham realized he wanted to be a race car driver. Not that such an ambition is an oddity among young boys growing up in that era who just happened to discover stock car racing through one means or another. Haskell was just one of those boys who happened to pursue that dream, and with more than moderate success.
Haskell was only 15 years old, already quite the “tinkerer” when he decided to put some roll bars in his older brother’s abandoned 1949 Ford and tinkered with the engine to make himself a race car. Then, in 1966, Haskell built a 1956 Ford six cylinder to run in the Hobby, Cadet, or Limited Sportsman class, whatever it was being called at the time, to run at The Columbia Speedway. Haskell chuckles when he recalls that he “won a bunch” and at that time, the rules were that when you were dominating that class in racing, you got “kicked up.” For Haskell, that was the opportunity to drive for Marion “Preacher” Cox out of Hemmingway, South Carolina, one of the premier Late Model Stock Car builders of the day. The number 50 Marion Cox machine was a dominant force throughout its years in racing, but with Haskell piloting the car, it was almost unbeatable. In 1968, his first year driving the car, Haskell won 18 times.
Haskell and the “Preacher” would remain together for five years, during which time wins would continue to pile up as they ran the circuit of Columbia Speedway , Charleston Speedway and Savannah Speedway. During the 1969 season, the Cox-Willingham team would win the track Championship at Columbia Speedway and practically dominate Savannah Speedway as well. But 1969 was somewhat a bittersweet year for Haskell, as he was very close to the accident in the February Permatex 300 Late Model Sportsman race in Daytona that took the life of fellow competitor Don McTavish. The accident occurred ahead of Haskell on the 10th lap of the event, with McTavish running in the top five. Debris from the horrific crash littered Daytona International Speedway from turn four to the tri-oval when the entire front of McTavish’s Mercury was sheared off and he was then hit by Sam Sommers, who couldn’t avoid the spinning carnage. Debris from the wreck damaged Haskell’s 1961 Ford Starliner, and although the car was repaired to finish the race, chances of victory were gone.
During the turbulent years of the late sixties, America was engaged in conflict in Viet Nam, which required young men to serve their country. Haskell did his service, but it did interfere, to an extent, with his racing career. Haskell kept driving, and kept winning, in the number 50, but there were times when his military duties interfered enough to prevent accumulating the points needed to repeat as a consistent points champion, although he continued to win races.
Columbia Speedway was where Haskell got his start, as already noted. When asked to describe Columbia Speedway , Haskell says “It was the finest dirt track I ever raced on in my life” He goes on to talk about how smooth the surface would become during races, and how hard the clay would mold, making it necessary to actually run “asphalt” tires on the car to be competitive. Even the tone of his voice, when talking about The Historic Columbia Speedway, takes on a more mellow sound, as if he is recalling a part of his youth so very special to him. Haskell really doesn’t talk too much about the competition he faced during those years he raced, but the name of Lil’ Bud Moore did come up when he recalls epic battles at Columbia Speedway.
In 1986, Haskell took the wheel of an underfunded NASCAR Busch Series (now NASCAR Nationwide series) car and his success there is best described as “moderate”, but that was not the fault of the driver. Busch Series, being just below the Cup Series, required high dollar teams to be competitive and the team for which Haskell was driving was not exactly in the high dollar ranking.
Eventually, Haskell would discover he required cataract surgery and in those days, such surgery was not the common place, easy to rectify surgery it seems to be today. Competitive driving seemed to out of the question, but Haskell was, and always will be a racer. Going back to the tinkering days that got him into the sport to begin with, he began to build cars for drivers in the short track series and was involved in the NASCAR Goody’s Dash Series for a bit. But it wasn’t long before he realized that his part of the “racing deal” was driving the cars, not building the cars, not working on the cars, not being on the crew, but driving them.
Like all little kids who grow up with the dream to drive race cars, and especially to those little kids who realize those dreams, Haskell can’t get the sport out of his blood. He still treasures his memories and especially of all the eventful milestones in his life that happened at The Historic Columbia Speedway. So, his career didn’t end the way he wanted it to, but along the way, he won track championships; he won many races; he drove at Daytona, Talladega and other superspeedways, and he made the Willingham name a prominent part of stock car racing history. No, not the way he wanted it to end, but along the way, he made memories for himself and for so many fans of his who watched him compete through the years. Thanks, Haskell.
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(Editor’s note: Tim Leeming is a member of the regular cast of the Tuesday evening racing show ” Racing Through History”, presented on Zeus Radio Network by RacersReunion®. Archives can be found by following the link. Live broadcasts can be heard from 7:00-9:00 PM every Tuesday. Please feel free to join us in the RacersReunion® Chat Room for the show.)