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A Special Tribute To Club Member Wal Willmott

Close to 100 people attended a tribute to club member Wal Willmott at our clubrooms last Saturday afternoon.

Noel Atley welcomed everyone along with Club President Rachael Beck and thanked Wal’s family – daughter Samala and son-in-law Mark – for attending and supporting the tribute.

Michael Clark, Barry Keen and Bill Gavin shared their memories of Wal, with Michael and Bill travelling from the North Island to be with the club.

Clark began by describing Wal as a modest man and praised the marvellous turnout which he said showed what Wal meant to his friends at Teretonga.

He recalled Wal at Ruapuna, ten or twelve years ago working on a car while other mechanics gathered to admire what one described as a surgeon at work.

Clark tracked Wal’s career from his own early hillclimb efforts to his meeting with motor racing journalist Eoin S Young who made the appropriate introductions for Wal to become a mechanic for Angus Hyslop. He also introduced Wal to Bruce McLaren who helped him into a job with the Cooper F1 team in the UK. Bruce saw something in Wal and invited him to work for McLaren when he started his own team. Wal lived an exciting life in the UK counting the likes of Beatle, George Harrison, among his friends and Clark recalled some of the hi-jinks that went on in the McLaren factory in those early days.

In 1968 Wal married and settled in Australia where he worked for the likes of Allan Moffatt and Frank Matich, and spent many hours with his charter yacht in northern New South Wales before eventually moving to Southland where he met Noel Atley who he described as like a younger brother – a younger version of himself. Noel went on to become a great friend to Wal.

Once in Southland he became a driver again, four and a half decades on from his previous attempt, with a Ford Star Car which he converted to his “inside out sports car”, plus a Brabham BT21 Replica. Wal loved Invercargill, Southland and the Teretonga community.

He began to spend the southern winters working for Canadian Jay Esterer and of course was involved in the Bruce McLaren movie and became quite the celebrity, being interviewed at Goodwood and the like.

In July 2016 Wal collapsed at the luggage carousel at Auckland airport and spent three weeks in Middlemore Hospital in Auckland and the prognosis was not good. Wal appeared undeterred and continued to plot and plan how to make his race car go faster.

Wal reinvented his diet and lifestyle and did not want people to know of his illness, saying he did not want people to look at him differently.

At last December’s race meeting Wal entered four races, winning three and setting a personal best lap time and earlier this year he was a Golden Inductee into the New Zealand International Grand Prix Legends Club.

Sadly Wal passed away at Southland Hospital on Friday 7 June.

Barry Keen said he and Wal had both been around in the 1960’s through the Tasman Series and when Wal came to live in the south they both clicked because they were from that same era.

Motor racing writer Bill Gavin recalled the conversations between Young and Wal as they both claimed to be the first employee at McLaren with Wal always protesting that he was the one of the two who actually worked at McLaren.

Gavin worked on the narration of the John Frankenheimer Grand Prix movie in the 1960’s while Wal worked on some of the cars. In February at Hampton Downs when Wal was made a Legend of the NZIGP he turned to Bill and said “who would have ever thought that?”

Tributes were also read from Howden Ganley, Tish Amon and Wal’s sister in the form of a poem.

Noel Atley returned to close official proceedings drawing attention to the fact that both Bruce McLaren and Wal Willmott had enjoyed their last wins on New Zealand soil at Teretonga Park, a nice parallel between the two. Noel said he had been really privileged to know Wal and that he had taught him a lot before closing the formal proceedings for a beer and stories, just the way Wal would like it.

Photographs:
Wal with Jamie Conroy at Taupo – Geoff Ridder.
A section of the many club members who attended the tribute.
Tribute table.
Speakers from left – Bill Gavin, Barry Keen, Michael Clark
NZIGP Legends Club membership badge on the Inside Out Sports Car.
The Inside Out Sports Car.
Wal’s daughter and son-in-law Samala and Mark Bolton.

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