Often confused with a fellow driver with the same name, Bill Cantrell was a versatile driver who raced just about anything with wheels during a career that spanned from 1936 through 1965.
A Missouri native who moved to Southern California before his racing days, Willard “Bill” Cantrell should not be confused with William “Wild Bill” Cantrell, a hydroplane standout and two-time Indy 500 starter from Louisville, Ky.
Racing out of Anaheim, Calif., Cantrell raced midgets and roadsters with limited success until breaking through in 1942, becoming a winner and finishing second in United Midget Ass’n points to Johnny Parsons in the World War II-shortened season.
After the war, Cantrell hit his stride on the United Racing Ass’n Red circuit (stock-block engines), winning 32 features on his way to the 1947 title. Cantrell also won URA championships in 1951 and 1952. In 1953, Cantrell made his lone attempt at Indianapolis, failing to qualify. In 1954, he scored a unique feat, winning the final feature races at Carrell Speedway in Los Angeles for both track roadsters and midgets.
Cantrell also drove in the first race for NASCAR’s top series held on a permanent road course — at Willow Springs, Calif.
In 1957, Cantrell continued racing midgets successfully, but as their popularity waned, he found himself racing sprint cars and, eventually, jalopies, where the man who’d raced alongside Parsons, Walt Faulkner and many future Indy 500 drivers now found himself racing alongside a youngster named Parnelli Jones.
Professional sports-car racing hit the Southern California racing scene in 1957 and Cantrell was one of the oval trackers on hand. In his road-racing career, he earned at least two class victories and twice competed in the Times Grand Prix at Riverside Int’l Raceway. In June 1957, Los Angeles Speedway opened — and Cantrell dominated the California Racing Ass’n sprint cars at the track, scoring eight of his 10 season wins there and finishing second in points. The track’s name was later changed to Ascot Park.
Then came Act II, or even Act III, of Cantrell’s career. Now a grizzled veteran known as “The Silver Fox,” Cantrell became a consistent winner in the CRA. He won eight times in 1961 and six more in ’62, finishing as runner-up in points both years. The following season, he won four more CRA events and made his lone Champ Car start at Sacramento — at age 48.
During the same three seasons, he collected 12 USAC midget triumphs and also raced supermodifieds. In January 1965, Cantrell drove in the NASCAR race at Riverside before retiring to become a starter and an official.
Cantrell became USAC’s West Coast midget director and an official with the NMRA TQ midgets and USRC midgets.
Winner of an estimated 120 midget features, “The Silver Fox” died in 1986 and was inducted into the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 1999.