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Jackie Wilson: From Baker to Racer

Jackie Wilson

I was born in Shipley near Bradford on 30th January 1932. At that time I think my dad was a lorry driver and mum was a busybody.

We moved to Lightcliffe in 1938. I lived at 16 Ivy Terrace and I could tell you the name of everyone in the street. I remember on the railway bank we found a truck that was full of peanuts. We cut a hole in the side of it and a shower of peanuts came out. I had to go to court when I was aged eight years old!

My dad was a flight engineer in the RAF during the Second World War and was on 36 operations. His last flight was one of the Thousand Bomber Raids over Germany in 1945. The war was great fun for me. I would sit with my brother, watching the bombers fly over followed by the fighters shooting a trail of bullets.

I left school aged 15, working as an apprentice draftsman, but all my boss made me do was sweep floors. One day, I just erupted. I said ‘I’m not sweeping floors anymore’ and he smacked me round the head and knocked me to the floor. There was a huge spanner next to me as I landed. I picked it up and whacked him as hard as I could. He just went down.

I ran home, crying like a baby. I said ‘Mom, I’ve killed the boss! I’ve killed the boss! I hit him with a spanner and he’s dead’. She rushed down there and he was sat down with a towel around his head. I walked in and he shouted ‘you’re fired!’

My grandparents were bakers, and in time I learned how to ice cakes. I worked for my dad, who opened his own shop, and he used to fill the windows with wedding cakes that I had made. It came to the day when my grandfather wanted to give me his bakery, but for reasons I’ve never understood my mum refused to allow it. So I thought, that’s it, I’m off.

I came down to Sussex to work for Frank O’ Clee at a bakers in Southwater. It is 60 years this month since I arrived from Bradford. When I arrived I remember seeing an old chap called Yorkie who used to sell
newspapers in the Carfax.

I thought I knew everything back then, and I thought I was the greatest baker on the planet! So after two years on the same pay I asked for a rise as Brenda and I had by then had our first child, Sandra.

Frank said he couldn’t afford to so that was the end of my days in baking. Eddie Jegla, my next door neighbour in Oak Road in Southwater, gave me a job as a labourer for three shillings an hour. That was the biggest pay rise I ever had!

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 later won the Duke of York trophy in that boat, beating the factory teams. 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!

The garage closed in 1982. We were constantly in dispute with Total as they gave us very little on the petrol, but it was the bypass opening that was the killer. My takings went from 1000 gallons a day down to 100 gallons a day.

I moved to France in 2000 with my second wife, Jill. We lived there for twelve years, and I’m pleased we did it. We met some wonderful people, even some French people! But they’re a cranky lot and I’m glad to be home!

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.

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