It was indeed a tough day. It has indeed been a tough fortnight. Firstly the death, after a long battle with prostate and bone cancer of Australia’s favourite racing son, then the death of New Zealand-based ace tuner, Don Billinghurst. Last week we heard of the death of Cameron Macmillan, founder of Welbank Industries and the Australian Bugatti Club.
So it was with a decidedly heavy heart that I made my way to Parramatta yesterday morning to attend Warren’s memorial service. I knew that there would be a big crowd and that the traffic would be dreadful so I opted for the bike and it turned out to be a good decision. The grand and beautiful cathedral seemed to be a bit of an odd place for the memorial service for a motorcycle racer but, on more reflection, it became more and more appropriate as the service was dignified and befitting the honour that was a accorded to Warren by the attendees.
Most of the service was taken up with eulogies by various people who had played important parts in Warren’s life. The main speaker was Jim Scaysbrook whose eulogy was one of the best that I have ever heard. The right mixture of celebration of Warren’s achievements and detailing his battle in his final years, Jim opened his remarks with the words, “I suppose that, if Warren were to be asked to comment upon his demise he would say something like, ‘Unfortunately I was unable to complete the race due to a technical issue with the chassis.'”
Next was a very personal speech by Kiwi ex-racer, Stu Avant. Stu told of the racing side of Warren’s life and echoed many of Jim’s words about Warren’s technical brilliance and his search for engineering perfection. But he also spoke of their close personal friendship and how Warren had fought with all the tenacity that he had to stave off the cancer. He also paid tribute to Warren’s wife of over 30 years and spoke of how she had stood by her husband for all of that time. You could see that Stu was struggling and he had to draw on all of his determination to get the job done.
Then followed a very difficult assignment for Warren’s sister, Julie, who let us see behind the very thick curtain of privacy with which Warren had surrounded himself. She spoke lovingly of the family man that we never got to see and how he had battled for many years with his debilitating disease. There was scarcely a dry eye in the place by the time she had finished.
Finally, Tom Lamont, Warren’s long-time golfing partner told us about Warren’s life away from bikes and he detailed how Warren’s constant pursuit of perfection affected him when faced with the constantly changing world of golf.
As noted at the beginning, it has been a bad fortnight and I arrived at the church to be met with the news from my good mate in Queensland, Rory Macdonald, that Honda racing star of the 80’s, Big Bad Dennis Neill, had passed away from complications following surgery. Dennis, the noted hard man of production and superbike racing in the Golden Era of racing, had a stellar career that embraced Castrol Six Hour races, many other production races all over Australia and, of course, his domination of the March 1981 road closure event in Canberra.
So it was against the background of these multiple losses that we gathered to remember Warren. It was billed, not as a funeral, but rather as a “celebration of life” and so it proved to be. In spite of the tears and the hardship, there were many smiles and enjoyable moments. For me it meant being able to say farewell to one of my great heroes, but also to catch up with and renew acquaintances with dozens of friends who I haven’t seen for a long time, some of them more that 30 years. The names won’t mean anything to you so I won’t detail them but they sure meant a lot to me.
It was a fitting send-off to a man who they called “Rocket” and he would have been heartened but probably a little bemused at the size of the congregation and the many kind words that were spoken.
So now the two favourite sons of that great era of racing, Gregg Hansford and Warren Willing, have gone and it was fitting indeed that John Woodley, the man who featured in what was possible Warren and Gregg’s greatest race, was there to also say goodbye to another of his sparring partners.
I now realise what a wonderful happenstance it was that I was able to see and talk to both Warren and Dennis at the Sheene this year. My dad used to say that life is lived forwards and understood backwards. How right he was.
They say time heals all wounds and I hope that the family will know the comfort of their loved ones at this time and that they will, in time, come to terms with the loss of Warren. It will take a while.