Bombers Gulf Coast Champion Williams Hopes Positive Attitude Rubs Off on Fellow Drivers
For a few days a few years back, T.J. Williams stared down death.
Doctors mentioned cancer and ordered up a biopsy. Instead of cowering in the face of his own mortality, though, Williams began taking stock of the life he led and what lay ahead.
A childhood bent and twisted around stock cars with his father — the pair was at Talladega in 1969 for the first NASCAR race and returned every spring until 1981.
Half his life, ol’ T.J. spent as a professional cowboy, competing in rodeos across the nation. Williams even stuck his toe into drag racing for a while during the 1980s and ’90s.
“I had done everything I had wanted to do,” said Williams, now 52. “The only real dream I never pursued was driving a round-track racecar.
“As I was waiting (for the biopsy results), I did a lotta soul searching. I asked myself, if I knew I only had a year to live, what was the one thing I wanted to do? It was racing.”
Turns out, the Birmingham native, who lives these days in Poplarville, Miss., was a natural on the “round track.”
A testament in consistency, Williams took home Gulf Coast championship honors as a Bombers rookie last season thanks to a trunk full of top-10 finishes between Five Flags Speedway and Mobile International Speedway.
Watching Williams compete, though, it’s plain to see that his goals in racing extend beyond the protective walls.
A beacon of positivity every night he straps in, Williams is proof that a selfless attitude could earn you more checkereds in life than on the asphalt.
“If it’s self-centered, it can be pretty unfulfilling,” he shared. “Doing something for the greater good, the greater cause, that’s always more rewarding.”
Williams believes his next racing endeavor will be the perfect vehicle to help him give back.
He already has decided to make the leap several divisions up to Super Stocks when the 2014 season kicks off at Five Flags in a couple of months.
Thanks to his new title as “Gulf Coast Champion,” Louisiana 1st Choice Auto Auction has promised Williams enough sponsorship that will let him race comfortably the entire year.
And Williams already has a map for how he wants to give back. He is ironing out the details, as a third-party fundraiser, to have a logo for Victory Junction put on the hood of the Super Stock car he’ll drive.
Victory Junction was started by Kyle and Pattie Petty a decade ago in Randleman, N.C., to help enrich the lives of kids with chronic medical conditions or serious illnesses.
“It’s a way to give back,” Williams said. “It’s a way to still make an impact instead of just tearing up racecars.
“We didn’t go to Victory Junction to get a sponsor. When you align yourself with the right people, and do right things, and stay positive, positive things can happen to you.”
Williams isn’t your average racer.
For one, it’s clear to see the optimism oozing from his every pore. For another, he’s prone to quoting late motivational speaker Zig Ziglar for inspiration.
Picking up the sport late in life makes him unique, too. Williams’ first race two Decembers ago was the Snowball Derby for Bombers.
“I wanted to enter an earlier race, but I was afraid if I tore it up, I wouldn’t go,” he said. “Plus, this was the big enchilada. The rest of (the races) might not seem that big a deal.”
His ability to market himself to sponsors and feed a grassroots fan base is another advantage Williams has over other racers.
He credits his rodeo background for knowing how to create a buzz.
“We’d come into town and produce that entire event,” Williams said. “Walmart visits, school visits, we’d do anything to draw a crowd. You learn if people aren’t coming through the gates, we didn’t have job.
“Some of these guys racing every week at Five Flags feel entitled to have a place to race. Getting to race is a privilege.”
For an old soul that has witnessed some of the south’s iconic short tracks fall by the wayside, Williams wants to ensure the same wrecking ball doesn’t fall on Pensacola’s high banks.
He remembers all too well the void that was left when Birmingham International Raceway was torn down in 2009.
He shutters at the thought of Five Flags’ famed half-mile asphalt oval suffering a similar fate.
“The first time I came through the gates at Pensacola, I remember how big a deal it was,” Williams said. “I am so excited be at the racetrack, to have a chance to do something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.
“It makes you want to try and do whatever you can to be helpful to the cause.”
Blessed with a second act, T.J. Williams’ story is shining a light to where the asphalt on a round track can lead you in life.