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Kramer Williamson: Another of the greats is gone

Published August 5, 2013

In my life, I have been fortunate to have seen – live and in person – the greats of just about all forms of motorsport. I can’t list them all, but here’s a sampling:

Stirling Moss, Ludwig Heimrath, A.J. Foyt, Gary Bettenhausen, Bobby Allison, Jimmy Clark, Dindo Capello, Danny Sullivan, Richard (the Gas Man) Griffin, Lee Roy Yarborough, Gilles Villeneuve, Kenny Roberts, Allan McNish, Paul Tracy, Donny Shatz, Dale Earnhardt, Sebastian Vettel, Yvon Duhamel, Eppie Wietzes, Bobby Unser, Warren Coniam, Cale Yarborough.

Get the picture?

There are names in there that everybody is going to recognize – Jim Clark, for instance – and others that will have some of you scratching your heads. For instance:

Richard Griffin, the Gas Man, is not the Richard Griffin who writes about baseball for the Toronto Star. The Gas Man Richard Griffin dominated the California Racing Association sprint car circuit for a decade or more and I used to cheer for him when the tour visited Manzanita Speedway in Phoenix when I would go to Arizona to cover the Indy cars. He was something else.

Add to the puzzle list the name of a guy who’s the subject of today’s column, Kramer Williamson, who died Sunday as the result of injuries suffered in a crash on Saturday night at Lincoln Speedway in Abbottstown, Pa.

I saw Kramer (nobody knew him as anything other than “Kramer”) race for the first time in the 1980s at the Can Am Speedway outside Watertown, N.Y. I’m not sure if the race was sanctioned by the Empire Super Sprints (ESS) or another of the travelling sprint car clubs of the time but in any event he won it and it was thrilling to watch him do it. I saw him several times after that and he never ceased to amaze.

I don’t know quite how to describe people who are true masters of their craft. But there can be 20 sprint cars, or Formula One cars, or Indy cars, on a track and your eyes seem to gravitate to one over all of the others. (This can be said about other people in other groups or other sports, of course, but we’re talking about racing here.)

I mean, when he was alive, you automatically locked in on Ayrton Senna when he drove out of the pits. There was something almost other-wordly about him. It was unexplainable.

On the short-track scene, you were hard-pressed to find anybody who didn’t know when Jim Shampine was out there. He drove like his car was on a magic carpet, it moved so much more smoothly than anyone else’s.

Kramer was also like that. Yes, he lost races but he always seemed to be in the hunt for the win and that’s what made it so exciting to watch him. That, plus the fact that his pink-coloured Pink Panther racing car (always numbered 73) was kinda hard to miss. It stood out in a crowd, if you get my drift.

Kramer was inducted into the U.S. National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 2008 and only the top guns are included in that august body. Over the course of his career, which began in 1968, he won more than 400 races and numerous track championships. He won the prestigious Williams Grove Speedway National Open and was a World of Outlaws feature winner. In the URC, where he raced exclusively in recent years, he won 67 features and three championships.

It really doesn’t matter what happened to cause the injuries that resulted in his death. It’s auto racing and it’s a dangerous sport. But there seem to have been more deaths – certainly more high-profile deaths – this season than in recent years and some of the sprint car sanctioning bodies might be inclined to take a look at what could be causing them rather than just putting them off as the law of averages catching up.

Now, Kramer never liked to talk about his age. He was 63 when he died and there’s no reason why he shouldn’t have still been out there. However, a younger body can generally absorb punishment inflicted when a race car flips several times; an older body, not so much. Whether that had anything to do with what eventually happened, who knows? But it’s a thought.

An awful lot of people are going to miss the guy, particularly folks who promoted the races because he was a crowd favourite and a big draw wherever and whenever he showed up

“Kramer had such a love for this sport that included his competitors and race fans. He was an intense driver that always found a way to bring some humour into any situation; it was just who Kramer was,” said promoter and URC co-owner Bob Miller.

“Kramer will be sadly missed and our sympathy goes out to his family.”

Kramer leaves his wife Sharon, son Kurt and daughter Felecia. A funeral will be held Thursday.

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