It began early in Stephen's life.  Having grown up in Corona, California he was present during Corona Road Races of 1913, 1914 & 1916.  As a young man in his late teens and early twenty's what he saw likely fueled his lifelong interest in automobiles.  Not only did the automobile provide him with a means of transportation to remote areas where he could take photographs of pristine scenes, according to daughter Bettie:
"Daddy loved to drive and he was excellent.  He wanted his cars to be in perfect condition and powerful.  When he would go into the  Oldsmobile dealers in Bishop in later years, he’d ask to take the car out and test it - - it had to be able to go up Sherwin Grade (the new one)  at 100 or it was no good.  He never had a serious accident.  Once, late at night coming back from Palm Springs  [to Mammoth]  in the summer,  he hit a cow  down near Hot Creek.  That Packard was never the same again, but he was ok"

The Corona Races
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Corona's Grand Boulevard’s circular shape has always been a unique feature that attracted the attention of anyone visiting the city or viewing a map. The three mile boulevard hosted the best in international auto racing in the 1913, 1914, and 1916 Corona Road Races. Road races were popular throughout the United States and Europe, and Corona’s Road Races each garnered thousands of spectators as well as drivers from around the world. The first race, seen by over 100,000 spectators,  was held on September 9, 1913 and offered $15,000 in prizes, one of the largest purses offered in auto racing.  Racing legends Earl Cooper, Teddy Tetzlaff, Barney Oldfield, Eddie Rickenbacker and Bob Burman were some of the drivers who participated in the first road race. Earl Cooper was the winner. The Willard's home at 916 E. Grand where Stephen grew up was situated right on the race track, so he was right there to see the action .


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The Willard Home at 916 E. Grand

Having been give his first camera by his Father at age 14, by the time he graduated from High school  he was a proficient photographer and had begun his lifelong career.  Young Stephen at age 19 was there with his camera to record the excitement of the first race and again in 1916.


1913 Race
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Willard Photo of Teddy Tetzlaff who turned in  the fastest lap in
tryouts and  was one of the early favorites
1916  Race
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Willard Photo of Bob Burman from the 1916 race in his Peugot. 
Burman rolled over  during the race and died 3 hours later. In 1911 he had set a speed record of 141 miles per hour at Daytona.

Willard's Early Automobiles
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Early photo of Willard's encampment on the rim of Grand Canyon

Willard chose a 1909 Chalmers Detroit as the vehicle that would endure harsh conditions and take him to remote desert and mountain locations.  It served him well for many years.

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Willard Traveling through the mesquite thicket on the floor of Death Valley,  
January 20, 1920  in his 1909  Chalmers  Detroit

 

According to Bettie:
When he had the Chalmers, before he met Mother, Daddy was out in Dale Sink, beyond 29 Palms, where he camped in the moonlight.  It was warm and he was sleeping on a blanket on the sand.  Suddenly he awoke,   looked around and found himself surrounded by wolves!!!  He has a    flashlight by him which he played in their eyes and inched toward the car.  They backed up a bit and he was able to get into the car.  That was close!!!”


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Willard pausing to read a sign in Death Valley. 
The sign gives distances to nearest sources of water and feed

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Willard taking a lunch break with a friend in Death Valley
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Willard changing a demountable rim tire (36 x 4) while on a trip to Death Valley in 1920.
Willard made numerous trips to the desert in his 1909 Chalmers Detroit to take photographs for his scenic postcards.  After he eventually gave the car to Harold Guseman at the Mammoth Garage, Harold used it for years as a tow car (the first in Old Mammoth).


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Willard Postcard of his 1909 Chalmers entering Palm Canyon

Willards Pierce Arrow in front of his stuido


Willard's Pierce Arrow parked in front of the Mammoth Lakes Studio

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[He] made me feel Like I would Fly!
Bettie summed up her father's joy of driving in this unique way:
When I was four, they built the big house in Palm Springs.  One day Daddy took me out to see it.  As we crossed the Tahquitz bridge, I       looked up at the   speedometer and we were going 40.  There was no  windshield on that car and the wind in my hair and the rise of the bridge made me feel like I would fly.”

       

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