Eric Williams has won just about everything there is to win at Thunder Road. Milk Bowl, check. Labor Day Classic, check. Governor's Cup, double check. King of the Road, check. There is little left for him to prove, and that may be a good thing. He may not have another shot.
Less than eight months ago, Williams celebrated his first Late Model track championship at the Barre oval and was an American-Canadian Tour winner at White Mountain Motorsports Park in New Hampshire. Now, he faces the reality of sitting idle while his friends and foes bang fenders on summer Thursday nights.
For more than 15 years, the Hyde Park racer has simultaneously invoked the ire and awe of many Thunder Road race fans for his exciting, aggressive style. His infamous "Sea of Red" fan club has riled up thousands of spectators, and although not always popular, have become a fixture at the track. Williams has scores more detractors than supporters, making him Thunder Road's modern-era villain, and therefore, a promotional gold mine. The days of his metal-crunching battles with drivers like Cris Michaud, John Donahue, and Dale Shaw have become part of the track's lore.
And sadly, those days seem to be numbered.
Williams' winning efforts have long been heralded as those of the ultimate low-buck underdog. He landed Cellular One as a sponsor earlier in the decade, easing his own financial responsibilities with operating a Late Model team. When Cellular One changed its identity to Unicel, the company continued to support Williams. But now with telecommunications giant AT&T buying out the more rural Unicel, Williams was left to fend for himself. And in the tough economy the country is facing, he has almost no other support.
"It's a bummer not having sponsors. Unicel sold out, and all our contacts went with them," he said. "We're only going to race, as of right now, part-time. It takes some pretty good financial backing to be able to run. I can't spend that kind of money myself. Not that we had a ton of it (with Unicel), but at least we had enough."
Williams said he would have looked forward to the added attention and prestige of trying to defend his Thunder Road championship in the track's 50th season, but for now will shift his primary focus to helping his son Tucker in his first season of Street Stock racing. In the mean time, he'll stay on the radar by racing occasionally.
"The plan right now - it could change if something comes along - is to just run some big shows. All that (prestige) stuff, I ain't really been thinking about it," he said. "Not to sound blunt, but that's the way it is. We're a small, low-buck outfit. I would love to be able to come and win another (championship) right in a row, but I also would like to see Tucker do well.
"I don't race to prove things, I race because I like to race. I'm glad that I had a good year, if that happens to be my last full-time year, you never know. I'd like to think the economy will turn around. If I hang around at least some, maybe something will come along. I certainly ain't saying I'm all done racing, it's just as of right now I don't have the funds to race full-time."
If Eric Williams doesn't find the funds he needs, he could be done racing forever. And Thunder Road fans - whether they like Williams or not - will see an era draw to a premature close.
(Photo courtesy Thunder Road)