In his nearly half century of auto racing, Bill Okell thought he’d seen it all – on the tarmac, at least.
The 68-year-old Saanich-based driver brought home gold at the Sports Car Club of America 29th American Road Race of Champions on Nov. 6 Road Atlanta in Braselton, Ga., after racing to what he initially thought was a second-place finish.
“It was totally unexpected,” Okell told Black Press Media.
When he entered the race, Okell was astounded to notice an all-too-familiar name on the GTL class entry list: Gary Johnson. Memories of a fateful 2014 encounter at the Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, Calif. immediately swelled to the surface.
It was Okell’s first national championship and he says Johnson drove into the back of his MG Midget during his third practice session, damaging it substantially. Okell says he never received an apology from Johnson.
“Normally in auto racing, you get out and say you’re sorry and talk about it, or just hold a grudge,” he said. “But I expected him to get out and apologize to me because I did nothing wrong, he just slammed into the back of me. He actually ignored me the rest of the championship.”
Eight years later, meeting at Road Atlanta would be the first time the two went head-to-head since their collision. In the championship final on a slick track in the rain, Okell got off to an early lead in his Mazda Miata but was soon passed by Johnson somewhere around the fourth lap, he said. As the race wore on, Johnson started pulling away.
Although Okell held steady throughout the remainder of the race, he was certain that he’d be going home with a silver medal. On his cool-down lap he even began thinking about what he would say to Johnson when they would inevitably meet on the podium.
“I realized at that point that I was going to have to talk to him on the victory podium,” Okell recalled. “But I decided I was going to be the better person and shake his hand and congratulate him. I just wished that he could apologize for nailing me eight years ago.”
Ultimately, Okell finished the race in place – less than 12 seconds behind Johnson. The championship’s post-race weigh-in, however, found Johnson’s MG Midget to be underweight. In an unusual twist of fate, Johnson was disqualified and Okell awarded the gold medal.
“I go up there and I stand on the second place podium fully expecting that Gary Johnson would be in first place,” he said. “And the guy announces in front of everyone, ‘Bill, what are you doing? You’ve been upgraded to first place.’”
While Okell said that he would’ve preferred to beat Johnson cleanly, he’s satisfied with his effort and happy to bring the gold medal home to the Island as the only Canadian driver in the race.
“Sometimes life can be unfair and sometimes life can give you gifts. It was just my turn to receive a gift.”
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