Will Davis first caught my eye in 1984 when the rookie expert made the National short-track finals at San Jose and St. Louis. Will next showed his half-mile promise in 1987 at the Middletown, NY National with a 6th place finish. Will went on to be one for the best short-trackers and half-milers ever to slip on the steel shoe.
Daytona was a special place for Will. When he was a kid his dad sponsored riders and the big trip of the year for Will was Daytona to watch his dadís riders compete at the Memorial Stadium short-track races. In 1988, Will etched his name in the Daytona history book as he won the 600 National race that was the last event ever held at the venerable track before it fell to the wrecking ball. I remember how proud Will was in victory circle, it was the first time I saw the depth of his emotion as he welled up telling the crowd how much the win meant to him and his dad. The win gave Will confidence as he made six Nationals that year and finished a remarkable second on the Hamburg half-mile cushion track.
1989 was Willís breakout year. At the Lima National, Will borrowed a back-up Harley called "Old Paint" from his friend Steve Morehead. Will with rooster-tails flying, he took Old Paint to the front and won his first of 31 Nationals. Morehead who finished fifth was one of the first to greet him in victory circle, "I guess you gave me the wrong bike," laughed Will. His eyes again filled with the emotion of the moment.
Willís 1990 season was another step forward with 11 National mains and seven top-10 finishes. But perhaps more notable were two crashes that tested his mettle. Will high-sided over the Peoria jump and was knocked unconscious. Will never came to terms with the Peoria jump, it would cause him difficulty through out his career, but he never stopped coming back. After his crash at Peoria, Will, with the heart of a champion, raced the next week recording a top-10 finish. At Ascot, Will had a scary crash. Coming off turn four he slipped and hit he wall head first, busting a gaping hole in his helmet. Remarkably, Will bounced up off the track and walked away to race the following week at Sacramento. Will was one tough competitor.
In 1992-94, Will rode the Honda RS750 to five wins -- all on half-miles. The Hondas were best known for their performance on the miles, but Will could not find the magic on the miles. Despite being close on the Hondas, Will didnít win a mile on the potent Hondas, a theme that would earn him a nickname later in his career.
Will, back on Harleys, won his first of three Sedalia half-miles in 1995, posted seven podium finishes and finished fourth in the GNC points.
Will was a major player in the MARS Series which featured dirt-track bikes with standard dirt-track tires on asphalt short-tracks and half-miles. I remember seeing Will dominate one of the seriesí first races at the Barbersville half-mile during Daytona Bike Week. It was a sight to see. Will would drive into and through the corners so hard that his tires would be smoking. If memory serves, Will won both the 750 and 600 classes that night. Afterward, I asked him about his technique. He said, "If both tires arenít smoking, you know you arenít going fast enough." Will was definitely fast enough. He won five MARS Championships.
If you knew Will early in his career, you know why the riders endeared him with the name "Winkiní Will." Will had a nervous twitch in a lazy eye that produced a lot of winking. Easy going Will didnít seem to mind the name, at one point he even had it stitched on his leathers. I canít remember the year for sure but Will and I were hanging out at the big dealers show in Cincinnati. Will was telling me of his racing plans for the year, his new sponsors and mentioned that he had just picked up Arai as his helmet sponsor. Right behind us was Araiís west coast man -- industry good guy -- Bruce Porter, who handled racer support for the company. They had not met so I introduced them and after a little bench racing Bruce noticed Willís wink. He asked Will about it and offered to send him to a specialist in California that Arai had worked with to help a rider with a similar situation. Within months, Winkiní Will wasnít winkiní, except on very rare occasions. But he was still Winkiní Will to his friends in the pits.
In 1996, Will was back on his short-track game with wins at Daytona and Lasalle, IL. He also won the Lake Odessa half-mile and led the series points race most the first half of the season. He suffered a broken leg at Oklahoma City that derailed his championship hopes. Davisí toughness was apparent again as he only missed one race riding the remaining races with that broken leg to finish third in the series.
Will also joined the seven-racer Racing for Kids team in 1996 and participated in numerous hospital visits each year. Will would go into a race venue a couple days early to visit children in hospitals, signing autographs and handing out Racing For Kids material. Often times he would deliver a sizable check on behalf of Racing for Kids to hospitals to improve children's treatment. Racing For Kids became a passion for Will and it showed; the kids loved his visits.
1997 might have been Willís best year on the track. On the TCR Racing team, Davis won a career-high seven half-miles. He led the points through the 17th race of the 22 race series. It was during this season that Will earned the nickname "Will he-ever-win-a-mile Davis." A master on the half-miles, he had come so close to winning on the miles that everyone thought the next Mile would surely be Willís first. He was a front runner and led a number of the mile races on the white flag lap only to be denied at the checker. Will would finished second in points that year to Scott Parker.
With eight podium finishes and four half-mile wins, 1998 was another banner year for Will. He was in contention for the GNC title much of the year finishing a very close fourth in the championship chase. Will would again dominate the Daytona short-track to kickoff 1999. He would add two more half-mile wins to his impressive list and finish third in points.
In 2000, Will would mount his most serious bid for the Progressive Insurance Grand National title and achieve one of his career goals. Will roared into title contention mid-season with back-to-back wins at the Joliet, IL and Hutchinson, KS half-miles. Going into the next race at Charlotte, NC will was one point out of first place. Davis was on a roll and was looking forward to three wins in a row at the first National ever held in North Carolina -- his home state. A win there would have put Will in the Progressive Insurance National points lead. But it was not to be. Will received a temporal fracture and concussion in a church league softball game the week before the Charlotte race and would have to sit it out. Davis, with tears in his eyes, explained the fluke injury to his home state crowd but vowed to come back next year and put on a show for the fans. Davis would attempt to return to two weeks later, but his old nemesis -- the jump at the Peoria TT -- again proved problematic for Davis. An early practice crash over the jump which slammed Willís his head on the track, left him in no condition to race.
Will fought back two weeks later at the Hagerstown, MD half-mile. With a dramatic last lap pass Will won the event to move back into second in points. Lady luck would frown on Will the next week at Sedalia. After leading most of the race his clutch would start failing eventually dropping him to 10th while one of his title rivals Joe Kopp won the race.
The next weekend was the big triple header Dirt Track Hall of Fame weekend in Springfield. Davis battled extreme heat, high humidity and road-race star, and former teammate Nicky Hayden for most of the 25-lap short-track National in one of the most hard fought races of the year. Hayden would eventually win, with Will a close second. That moved Will just seven points out of the series points lead.
On Saturday, in the Hall of Fame race, Will lost his other nickname. Davis, who had dreamed about winning the most coveted dirt track race of all, The Springfield Mile, ran a perfect race. He worked his way slowly to the front conserving his tires. At the end it was a three-rider battle with Terry Poovey and Joe Kopp. Davis, who had been there before but had always come up short, played his cards perfect on the last lap. He led off turn four, with a quick move to the inside he broke the draft just long enough to win the richest race of his career. "I have wanted this one a long time!" Davis said. His win propelled him to a first place tie with Joe Kopp in series points with Carr 2 points back.
Sundayís Springfield Mile wasnít as favorable to Will as he was oiled down by another motorcycle on his way to the front. Davis still finished a respectable fifth, beating title rival Chris Carr but losing 5 points to second-place Joe Kopp. With two races to run, Will felt good about his championship hopes. Always the optimist Davis said, "I know we can do this."
But Willís luck turned. At the next race on the mile at Vernon, NY, Will experienced motor troubles on his two primary bikes and had to ride a parts bike that wouldnít handle. Kopp finished second while Will could only manage a 10th, dropping him 15 points down going into the season finale at DuQuoin.
Will needed a win with Kopp finishing 11th or worse to win the Progressive Insurance Grand National title. Unfortunately for Will, rain washed out the races and the finale was canceled. Joe Kopp won the No. 1 plate. Will was denied a chance to run for the coveted title. I remember Will driving up to Joeís hauler where the championship celebration had already started. Amidst overwhelming disappointment, Will found Joe and congratulated him. Will came toward me on the way back to his van, overcome by the moment. We talked briefly, I told him that his time would come. Will, like I had seen him handle the other racing disappointments said, "Things happen for a reason. We will be back. This isnít going to stop us."
Willís 2001 season started like he was a man on a mission. Over the winter he and his dad built a Daytona-like short-track at his dadís house, complete with a limestone surface. At Daytona, Will was in a class by himself easily winning his favorite race for the third time moving him into a tie for third on the all-time National short-track win list.
Willís season after a sixth in Houston turned sour, a broken rear brake fitting on the starting line excluded him from the Springfield Mile final and left him wondering what could have been. After setting the fastest qualifying heat at the Joplin half-mile, a motor let go while leading his heat race forcing him to semi and an eventual third row start. A broken mount on a new rear shock while leading his heat race in Superior ended in a 14th place finish. Throughout Willís tough time, he would rebound with his positive attitude, "Things happen for a reason. We will turn this around, we are going to get 'em next time."
At Charlotte Will did that in a big way. Racing in front of his North Carolina faithful for the first time, Will had an incredible night. He won the fastest scratch qualifying heat and won his regular heat race. The National final was as if crafted by a Hollywood writer. Up front a six-rider pack in almost mile drafting position waged war for the victory. Will was the only one using a low line around the track. He worked his magic with the red North Carolina clay that he loved so much and methodically moved to the front. When he took the lead his Carolina faithful filled the dirt track at Loweís Motor Speedway with the cheers. With five laps to go, Kenny Coolbeth hoping to earn his first National win, went around on the high side for the lead. The closing laps were a duel to the end with Will on the bottom of the track and Kenny on the top. Side-by-side the battle waged until the last corner of the last lap when Will willed his Moroneyís Harley-Davidson to the win by half a bike length. The partisan crowd showered Will with thunderous applause. He put his tuner Mike Wheeler on the back of his bike with the checkered flag and placed his young son Cole, waving a No. 21 hand fan, on the tank for his victory lap.
I was fortunate to greet him on the front straight-away for the interview. I told him, "dreams do come true." Will holding back the tears of sweet victory said, "First I want to thank the Lord. Sometimes I get so worked up and I really get emotional, and Iím definitely that way now. There are a lot of people I love here tonight, people that have known me since I started racing motorcycles at six years old, but they never got to see me do it. My whole family, my teachers, kids I went to school with, my pastor, my mom and dad. My dadís always been the biggest deal behind my racing. He doesnít get to go racing as much anymore. I love you mom and dad. This ones for yaíall."
"Itís like I told people, that (church league softball) accident was just meant to be," said Davis. "And now this was meant to be. It couldnít have been any better with that close finish. Itís just unreal. This year we started thinking, ĎWhat are we doing wrong?í But then when the chips are down, we come through."
The following week, it was meant to be again. Will was the class of the field, he won his scratch heat, won the fastest heat race and walked away from the competition to win his 31st National at Harrington. Will, with 26 half-mile wins, ranks second on the all-time half-mile win list.
At his final race, Will was at ease. He was the winningest rider at Sedalia with three-straight victories. He won the fastest scratch heat. Will seemed to be headed for another victory. In opening ceremonies I interviewed Will. He said, "I love this place J.B. It reminds me of that red clay back home."
Will was called home that night.
Will Davis was a humble man who handled adversity with an almost unflappable ease. He shared his victories with those who made it possible. His love for children showed through his service to Racing for Kids and was evident in the extra moments he spent with the kids at every autograph session. I never heard Will make disparaging remarks about anyone. He was man of great faith.
Will was so special. Not only a great racer, but one of the best people I have ever had the privilege to call a friend. His approach to life, and his dedication to racing, were inspirational.
When I close my eyes I can see him beaming in victory circle surrounded by his loved ones at that magic night in Charlotte.
Will now rides on the Wings of Angels
I miss you Winkiní Will.