Get To Know Bill Huth, The Man Behind Willow Springs Raceway. Great Read!

Get To Know Bill Huth, The Man Behind Willow Springs Raceway. Great Read!

Doug Stokes wrote this awesome piece about the man, myth, and legend behind Willow Springs raceway. I’ve had the pleasure of racing there on multiple occasions, and can tell you that it’s awesome. I love the big track there, even though most folks can’t stop talking about the Streets course. The big track is one that requires balls and skill, plus the brains to know which one to utilize where on the track. The Streets and all the other courses there at Willow Springs are still awesome as well, and they have events there non-stop. The man behind the legendary facility, and a character like none other, was Bill Huth. I’ve only been going there for the past 8 or 9 years, but Doug Stokes has been going for more than three decades. His account of Bill Huth’s life is awesome and worth every minute of the reading required. Check it out below.

Thanks Doug… and God Speed Bill.

Bill Huth   1924 – 2015

(I find it difficult to separate my personal memories of Bill Huth from my recollections of his Willow Springs track.  He was there almost every time I visited the place over a span of more than 30 years.  My guess is that there are as many stories about this guy as there are people who ever met him … here are a few of mine.)

It was said that Bill Huth had won Willow Springs, the high desert race track complex that he so dearly loved and worked on tirelessly for more than 50 years, in a poker game…  

A number of years back I asked Bill Huth about that transaction while sitting in his office at the track.  He put his big cowboy boots (the ones with the outline of Willow sculptured into the side of each one) up on a pulled-out desk drawer, and, in that totally authentic low and slow western drawl, he cracked a wry smile and simply said:  “Well, Doug, that’s not exactly true.”

He really did buy the run-down, dilapidated,  smack-dab-in-the-middle-of-nowhere race track for a song, and it really from a guy that he had played cards with, but; even though he’d gambled professionally at one time in his unbelievably diverse life, but, sorry, he did not win the place playing poker.

Being an inveterate PR-type I remember quickly looking around the room to see if anyone else had heard this blasphemous bit of legend-bashing.   Luckily we were quite alone.  I stood (to finally be taller than the lanky 6 foot + guy) and addressed him in my best and most stentorian/ PR expert voice, saying:  “… Bill, don’t ever say, write, or even think  that thought ever again!”  (there may well have been an oath or two at the beginning and end of my statement).  I then went on to dutifully quote the character Maxwell Scott from the film “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”:

Ransom Stoddard: “You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?”

Maxwell Scott: “No, sir. This is the West, sir.  When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Contrary to the movies Bill Huth was a legend and a real man who worked an almost forgotten race track in the middle (really off to one side) of the Mojave Desert into a place where millions of miles of racing, testing, and filming was done.

Huth persevered and preserved the place when Riverside was in its heyday and attracting all the attention and huge crowds, and he was still there 33 years later when that great track was tractored-out.

Willow was the birthplace track for so many racing machines from the LeGrand formula cars to the first Cobras … everyone/everthing (from Formula 1 cars to NASCAR stockers, to sports cars in their heyday, to a 24-hour record run on go-karts) ran there, everyone tested there and everyone tried mightily not to take what he always called “The Antelope Valley Cutoff” which consisted of overshooting the deceptively tightening Turn 9 and driving (or more the likely, tumbling) out into the scrub brush that lay beyond.


When Riverside opened in 1957 Willow suffered.  It was not the bright new star that Riverside was, and it was almost forgotten by the racing clubs in favor of the shiny new track that was “closer” (not by much) “to LA” than WSIR.  In 1988, when Riverside went down, Willow was still there; Bill Huth and his family firmly at the helm, race-ready, and thank you very much.

At one time racers who flew in to Willow were allowed to land their light planes in the infield and walk across the track to work.  I can remember a whole “airplane parking lot” full of Piper Cubs, Moonyes, Cessna, and Aeroncas at Cal Club races.

When the FAA finally frowned on that practice, drivers arriving in the pre-cell phone days would announce themselves with a low pass over the track which would signal a crewperson to hustle on over to nearby Fox field for a pickup.  There were many such flyovers, but particularly memorable was one that saw a World War 2 era P-51D Mustang roar overhead about 100 feet off the deck with the pilot and his passenger waving to us groundlings through the bubble canopy … fully inverted.

… I believe the pilot/driver was a dentist who raced a Formula B Brabham.

There were other flyovers as well, like the time that a Rockwell B-1 test crew met up with some of the event participants in a local bar one Saturday eve (Willow was only about  five or six miles from Edwards Air Force Base where they were stationed).

Chatter about the road races at the track ensued and the sauce was going down pretty easy … “Hey, we’ll come by and take look tomorrow,” said the jet jockeys.  And they did.  Low and so friggen slow as to appear that they would drop out of the sky.  (You know those invaders-from-outer-space movies where the alien space ship comes over and blocks out the sun?)

Right … looking up all you could see was the belly of the beast and all you could hear was the ear-splitting roar of its four GE F-101 engines trying desperately to hold the barely-moving supersonic bomber in the air over the raceway.  I’ve always liked the moniker: “Aluminum Overcast” (the name of a G-model WW2 B-17 that makes regular air show appearances around the country) that day at Willow that name was precisely what we all saw.

Early-on the bikes (motorcycles, and there was plenty of great amateur and pro motorcycle racing at Willow) ran the track clockwise (left to right as one looked out from the pit area) and weekend practice sessions (where both bikes and cars were present … cars always running counter-clockwise) were always interesting.  There was a large wood-framed tin sign at the track entrance off the pits.  It had a big arrow painted on it and was used to indicate the direction that the track was in use for during that particular session … bikes or cars.  One year the Cal Club decided that it would be cool to run the track “the other way”, clockwise.  I seem to recall that Bill did not think too highly of the idea, but OKed the show after the sports car people said it would cool.

As it turned out Mister Huth was right, and, by the time that the noon break rolled around on the first day a whole bunch of good drivers, Willow regulars, had gone off, many having turned turtle, that part the county was drained dry of ambulances, and I don’t believe the experiment was never attempted again.

At one time, the only weekend that the track was dark was Christmas, with over 300 days a year booked on one or the other of the circuits on site.  That sort of usage is still strong today.

Huth’s legacy is in the millions of remembrances of the place that are an indelible part of the memory of everyone who ever turned a lap there.

For me his most lasting legacy is in the millions of dollars that he turned down flat from offshore interests who wanted to buy his racetrack and turn it into some sort of sports/club/ranch or another.  The number of greenies was astronomical (even when brought up today) his (printed) reaction was something like, “…What (the hell) would I do with all that money.”  His private reaction to me (which we’ll leave at just this) was somewhat different.*

His other legacy is the fact that he requested (and got) historic status for the grounds … thus assuring its future.

Over the years, Huth constantly upgraded his self-proclaimed “Fastest Road in the West” adding buildings, paving huge swaths for parking, adjusting and sculpting the earth around the track for better spectator viewing and increased driver safety, and building a whole set of additional mini-road courses and an oval short track to accommodate a whole catalog of various styles of racing machines.

He was never satisfied with the status quo; I really don’t remember ever going to Willow (which is precisely one hundred miles from my front door) without seeing some sort of improvement that had been wrought since my last visit.

My own experience at the track goes back to the early days of the first outpost of the Jim Russell Driving School at Willow.  No on-site garages there back then; we (the students and the instructors) had to load up the cars our selves at a small garage just behind Juanita’s Indian Lodge in metro Rosamond.  We trained and practiced on the 2.5 mile course and one day, the Shelby people showed up with two Cobras and a GT40.

We were called in and told that, if we saw one or the other of the above coming up on us not to try to get out its way, but to stay on the line that we had chosen, and that the Shelby drivers (in this case Lew Spencer and Ken Miles) would drive simply around us.  They did, sucking the wind out of our lungs every time one exploded by on the staightaway with about a +80 mph difference in our relative groundspeeds.  I still believe to this day that was the start of the strange music (of Tinnitus) in my ears.

But then, Willow Springs, if one spent any time at it at all, put strange music in everyone’s ears … the high desert was a place where all sorts of raw-boned wonderment was part of the everyday adventure.

I even remember the only track project that Bill Huth ever failed at … planting a small stand of willow trees on the inside of turn one.   To the best of my knowledge there was no “spring” on the racetrack acreage but Huth wanted some willow trees on the property.  They didn’t last out the summer … the track did … and is still steadfastly providing testing, tuning, great racing, driver training, and filming opportunities year around, thanks to the laconic, laid-back cowboy who (and I swear this is true) won Willow Springs in a poker game more than 50 years ago. -DS

Our thoughts go out to his family and all of his friends and associates … For many of us, Bill Huth simply was Willow Springs.

*I really can’t remember a time when I did not see Bill Huth smiling broadly, and I know that he did when talking about turning down all those millions for the place.  I’m not sure that he heard the news before his passing  (I sort of hope so because I like to think that he’d get a big old smile out of it), but the people who wanted to buy Willow from him went south after he turned them down and bought a big old track in Texas. Badly located and little used, it will close in June this year.

Doug Stokes

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One thought on “Get To Know Bill Huth, The Man Behind Willow Springs Raceway. Great Read!

  1. cyclone03

    Very nice write up , I was greeted by Mr. Huth when he sold me a ticket for the AMA national back in ’82.

    BTW that little used track in Texas is Texas World Speedway , bummer they went belly up. LOL Races back on Schedule for this year. Seems it is going in limbo like Riverside did for years.

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