Jackie Wilson - Fast On Water 2017

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Jackie Wilson

Circuit > Hall of Fame
The following article is an edited version of one that appeared in the All About Horsham Magazine, 2015

One day, I was reading the West Sussex County Times with my good friend Johnny Maidment and saw an advert for the Olympia Boat Show at Earls Court. We went up and  parked right outside the front door. That advert changed my life. Between us, we bought a 14 foot Jack Broom boat. We started to go boating at the weekend.

I started buying boat magazines, and saw that the London Motor Boat Club was starting to hold races with boats like mine taking part. Back then, the big race was a six hour race held every October in the heart of Paris. Bob May had taken his boat, Yellow Peril, and was winning until it broke down. The boat was up for sale, and he sold it to me on the condition that I joined the Racing Club at Iver. So I did.
It turned out I was good at it. I bought a new boat, The Derry Devil, and was winning a lot of races. It was all for fun - there would be inboards and outboards racing together and there would be 30 drivers in each class. It was a sport that was going places.

We started racing other Motoring Clubs all over the country. The best drivers from all over the world went to the Paris Six Hour Race. I went there for the first time in 1964. The guy whose boat we were racing was killed on the Seine two weeks before. If I had known that, there is no way I would have got in it! But at that time it was the most exhilarating thing I had ever done in a boat.

The boat speeds went up dramatically. We were doing 45mph when I started, and by 1964 the speeds were up to 70mph. When they started developing the hulls they went to 80mph, and that was too fast for the shape of the boat.

The death rate escalated. In one season, seven people I knew personally were killed powerboat racing.
I did a deal to take on the garage at Southwater. I paid £20,000 for the garage. The bank wouldn’t lend me the money and I had a row with the manager, but Eddie Jegla walked in there and guaranteed the money for me. I had many a row with him, as I do with most people, but Eddie did that for me and never asked for anything in return.

I ran the garage and a marine dealership there and we had a good life. Powerboat racing kept growing and it really took off when the engine manufacturers went head to head. Mercury and OMC both set up a ‘works’ team and I was part of the Mercury team. As a factory driver, suddenly I wasn’t paying for boats, engines, travel, everything. It was  tremendous fun, but it led to a decline in the number of drivers. A lot of my old friends were left behind. The works drivers went off all over Europe and America to chase big pots and the others were still paying for everything. It wasn’t a level playing field.

The Mercury team was me, Renato Molinari and Don Pruett, who was an American Indian. The OMC team was made up of Jimbo McConnell, Cees Van Der Velden and Cesare Scotti. Later there was Bob Spalding and Tom Percival, whilst the Americans like Billy Seebold would come over sometimes. Billy and Renato were the greats, but the best driver I ever raced against was an American called Billy Sirois. The boats then were running 125mph, and today the F1 boats are running at the same speed. The boats have changed, but the speeds have not. At one point, F1 powerboat racing was on the verge of being something big. It was almost there, but it fell apart when OMC and Mercury pulled the plug on it. It had everything going for it to be a spectacle. It seems difficult to imagine now, but there was not a lot between rallying, motorbike racing and F1 cars back then, and power boating was not far behind. We used to get 250,000 people at the Brish Grand Prix at Bristol.

I should not be here. I had a big shunt in Lake Havasu in America in 1970. The boat flipped and just kept climbing. I came out when the boat was in the air, and I fell headfirst into the water and it tore my nose off. I needed about 140 stitches. Another time on Lake Windermere another driver cut my boat in half at 100mph.

I remember in Havasu, Billy Seebold once raced Johnny Cash’s boat. Cash’s drummer W.S Holland was a hydroplane racer too, and I was asked if I could bring some bits back for his boat whilst I was picking up my own parts from a factory in Holland. I had to take them up to the Albert Hall where Cash was performing. I asked for some tickets in exchange, and we had a box. Afterwards Johnny Cash took us for dinner!

Perhaps my career highlight was turning up at Bristol in 1978 with the new Cosworth engine. We went straight out and got the lap record. I won the Paris Six Hour Race in my last ever race in 1979, racing with my son Mark. We had a long stop due to a fuel leak, which put us a few laps down, but Mark refused to give up and put tape around the petrol tank. He was adamant that we should rejoin the race.

We kept getting fastest times and in the end the boat wasn’t touching the water. We reached ridiculous speeds, and we were leaking fuel as my balls were on fire! It looked like the boat would take off at any time, but it didn’t and we won the race on the last lap.

I gave up after that. My head was telling me to slow down but I wanted to go as fast as Mark. After the race, Brenda said ‘one of you is stopping racing’. Mark went on to be a very successful F1 Grand Prix driver. I did still drive boats from time to time, including working on the Disney film, Condorman.
We moved to Brooklands Farm in Shipley. We had more fun there than any time of my life really. I had all five of my kids - Sandra, Mark, Boo, Kim and Sammy - round me and all the grandchildren too. It really was Wilsonville!

Barry Sheene had a boat, and used to come into the Southwater garage in his Rolls Royce. One day, I had just flown a helicopter into the garden. Barry insisted that I take him up, but I said ‘no’ as I had only started pilot training. He jumped in and wouldn’t get out until I took him up over the village of Southwater. Seven days later, he dropped in at the farm in a brand new helicopter!

Craig, Mark’s son and my grandson, has done wonderful things in boat racing, and has won the P1 Powerboat World Championship. I am proud that the Wilson name still lives on in powerboat racing.

Jack at the bottom of the picture followed by 
Don Ross, Billy Don Pruett, Charlie Sheppard and ?
Cooking something up! Jack watches on as 
Steve Kerton creates dinner
Jack in his Cosworth powered Hodges. Bristol 1978
Inside back cover, Bristol 1977 Programme
Jack and Gary Garbrecht. Bristol
Jack with a young Denis Burton at the Chasewater 
Regent 3 hour race, 1964 . The boat was a bluefin 
named Mr Keikaefer built by john merryfield with a 100 Merc.
Rear view of Jack's Cosworth powered Hodges. 
Bristol 1979 with the infamous wing
fitted to the Hodges
The following article by Christopher Wright was originally published in Powerboat and Waterskiing Magazine, January 1980.

For 20 years Jackie Wilson has lambasted his way through the sport of circuit powerboat racing, winning, flipping, calling a spade a spade and making many, many friends. Now he has decided to call it a day, so let’s have a look back to the early days, the highlights and lowlights of a distinguished career which in many ways is a history of the sport.

‘Yellow Peril got me going,’ says Jackie. ‘I was minding my own business at Poole at Harbour in 1959 and I saw this incredible boat zooming over the water. It was during the Duchess of York Trophy, always run then over a 100 miles. And did that Yellow Peril shift – sometimes it would get up to 40mph!’
‘Don’t forget in those days they were all two-seater monohulls. You weren’t allowed to race by yourself. Cyril Benstead, Commodore of the London club, wouldn’t ever allow a family partnership if you had kids and my wife Brenda was refused permission to race with me.’

‘Mind you, passengers sometimes had rough luck. Like the time in 1962 Mike Bellamy told his passenger to lean out and see how far the chasing boat was behind him and the poor devil cut his nose off on a buoy as he leaned out.’

‘You see, the buoys were made of  a damn great tyre with an oil drum bunged in the middle of it. The idea was to go round them, not hit them. If you did run into one you came to a very sudden stop at 40mph.’
‘Boats used to be impaled in the tyres and there they would stay until someone tugged them out.’

But back to the Yellow Peril. ‘She was owned by Bob May, who decided to sell her in the November of ’59, and I stepped in. the boat was £170 and the engine, a 6-cylinder 78A Mercury, was £380, lot of money in those days – especially for me – but I thought ‘what the hell’ and got it.’
But things didn’t quite work out according to plan. ‘She wouldn’t go fast enough so Bob May came round one Sunday and spent the day showing me some racing tricks. One of them was an elastic band he wrapped round the throttle. That kept it wide open and that was how he drove throughout the whole race. Turns, bends, buoys – it made no difference – he never took the elastic band off.’

Our hero did not make a massive impact on the sport in his first season. ‘My first race was the Spring Trophy and I finished about last and didn’t win a race all year.’ There were one or two reasons. ‘I kept on flipping and I couldn’t afford enough petrol for three heats. The sport was a lot more expensive than it is now. The spare parts and the petrol, apart from the cost, were difficult to get hold off. We had to drain the tanks from our vans to get round the course.’

‘In fact one of my breakthroughs in circuit racing came in ’61 when Eric Weston and I pooled our resources and we began to finish all three heats. We drained my van, Eric’s van and when we could get away without being caught we used to drain the odd couple of gallons from Eric’s brother’s Mercedes. A heat always lasted 12 laps then until TV came along and it went up to 25.’

Back to the Wilson saga and in 1960 he bought a boat no-one particularly wanted. Known as the Derry Devil the hull cost £90, engine £300 and it was the very devil to drive. ‘She was a bit of a cow but I got the hang of her and we started winning races. I was in the boat with my father, who weighed 81/stone. I weighed 10 stone at the time and being so light we were very successful. We took the London Challenge Trophy and the Daily Mirror Trophy that was the one everybody wanted to win because you got a lot of publicity. They were both at Iver. The Cotswold Club had not been formed then.’

‘The sport was full of characters. Commodore Cyril Benstead of the London Club was a massive man who weighed 20 stone. No-one argued with him and his word was law. When he wouldn’t let Brenda in the boat with me because we had children that was the end of that.’

‘The boats were usually fibreglass and I remember 1960 was the year a lad called Norman Fletcher dug a hole in his garden, called it a mould, filled it somehow with fibreglass, entered the hull in the Boat Builders Trials and finished very high in his class. You can imagine that happening nowadays.’
Wilson then bought and sold a succession of boats but the sport changed in 1962 when Charlie Sheppard designed a single-seater. The marine Motoring Association had the muscle then, not the UIM, and the new single-seater regulation changed everything. That’s when speeds began to build up and, skipping a few seasons, Mercury decided in about 1968 it was time to form an official racing team and invited Jackie to join it. ‘It made hell of a difference. They provided the equipment and even gave me £200 for a win. I then started to travel and raced regularly in America. Never did me much good though. I didn’t win one race until the Parker Enduro in Arizona, last February, when I took the inboard class with the Cosworth. One thing I did do in the United States was to chop my bloody nose off. It was at Havasu in 1970. The boat flew up and so did I. The trouble was the boat was heavier than me and came down before me. I landed on it head first. What a mess that was. It took 44 stitches to sew it back together again.’ Never mind Jackie you’re still a pretty boy.

Mercury and Wilson parted company in ’71, soon after Jackie and a fellow called Renato Molinari had finished second in the Paris 6-hour. ‘They reckoned we should have won and at the inquest a certain gentleman from Italy started pointing the finger at me. Well, I had the fastest lap times and no one passed me so it wasn’t my damn fault. And I told ‘em – very clearly.’ I’ll bet he did.

There followed a two-year break, when Wilson raced only as a co-driver in the Paris 6 hour. ‘I bought my garage then and I just didn’t have time to spare. But no matter what I wasn’t going to miss Paris.’ Wilson’s love affair with the Paris 6 hour began in 1959 and lasted 20 years. He won the XU class in 1964 and , of course, the ON last year with his son Mark.

In between he has finished in every known place, when he did finish. His first attempt was with John Derrington in Yellow Peril, but they had to pull out with smashed mountings. ‘Oh, we’ve had everything happen to us at Paris, but I’ve always enjoyed it. It’s a great course and a great setting, with the Eiffel Tower in the background.’

‘Anyway the garage sorted itself out and back we came in force in ’74, when Bill Brown and I pooled our resources. I bought the boat and Brown the engine and things went along fine until Carlsberg came up with sponsorship worth £25,000.’ For reasons we need not delve into, Wilson and Brown failed to reach agreement on certain issues and that was the end of that partnership. ‘To hell with it I wasn’t going to carry on with the team. I didn’t like the situation one little bit. But I kept on racing – and beating Bill Brown.’

Wilson and Brown did meet again during Windermere Record Week. ‘I was given the green light and was heading for the start line when Bill’s boat came up on my blind side and sliced mine in half. Charming. But it was purely an accident and they do happen, especially in this game.’ But Wilson has made his mark at Windermere in rather more pleasant ways. He broke the world R3 litre record in ’75 at 89.82mph and increased it to 98.92 in ’76. He also broke the OZ world record in his Cosworth when screaming across the lake at 123mph. Wilson said the most frightening moment in his career came when he turned his EU over in Paris and couldn’t get out. ‘I like to be comfy when I’m racing so I stuffed sponge into the cockpit and wedged myself in solid. Certain bits of the body can get a bit bruised you know, especially your bum. So I turned the thing over and couldn’t get out. Wedged in tight. Things started to turn red and I thought ‘Good bye Jackie’, but it’s amazing what you can do when you have to and with the most superhuman tug of my life I yanked clear. God, the air tasted good.’

The saddest time was at Parker last year after he had won the inboard class. ‘Keith Duckworth had stepped in for a season and thrown all his racing know-how into the team. The Cosworth ran like a dream and never missed a beat during the seven hours. We were so chuffed, going all that way to America and after all that effort actually winning. There was a beautiful gold trophy we should have won but they wouldn’t give it to use because we had an ‘un-American engine’. I was sick – but we soon got over it.’

‘The happiest moment was at Chasewater in 1966. Brenda had just had our daughter, Sammy, and Charlie Sheppard said that if I won the Regent Gold Cup in the Boat Builders Trials he would buy her a pram. It was a Bristol EV with a Carniti engine and I won the trophy. And when I crossed the finishing line the flywheel flew out into the lake. So what! I’d won the pram.’

And on the future of circuit racing? ‘I’d like to see an ON class of engines bought from the factory of bog standard equipment of three carburettors and a racing lower unit. Let everyone have a chance, not just the top works men. That’s not good for racing or for spectators.’

His overall impression of 20 years in racing? ‘Marvellous. Absolutely bloody marvellous. I’ve loved it and I reckon I’ve had more fun in the sport than anyone else ever.’ That’s quite a tribute to both racing and Jackie Wilson. No-one’s in doubt when he doesn’t like them, and on the other hand his friends are friends for life. He is a great character and has been a true competitor for 20 years. We shall miss him racing but look forward to hearing that dour voice now cheering on his son from the bank. Well done, Jackie, and thanks for all the excitement you’ve given so many people for so many years.
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