INDYCAR finally hires Derrick Walker to head competition
When Mark Miles, currently CEO of Hulman & Co. invited Derrick Walker to talk about his views on INDYCAR, little did Walker realize he was interviewing for a new job. Not that Walker’s plate hasn’t been full for the past few years, working with Falken Tire Motorsports to run their American Le Mans Series GT program for the past three seasons and with Ed Carpenter Racing, a team he helped build and manage beginning before the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season began.
The veteran mechanic, team manager, team owner takes over the reins as president of operations and competition for INDYCAR the day after the running of the 97th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race on the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval. He’ll take off his Ed Carpenter Racing shirt at the end of the day on May 26th and put on his INDYCAR shirt the following morning. According to Miles, there will be an official “shirt-changing ceremony.”
Probably the most important aspect of Walker’s assignment is the fact that he answers only to Miles, without his actions filtered through others. On the other hand, Brian Barnhart, Will Phillips, Trevor Knowles, Jon Koskey and Beaux Barfield, together with their minions, all report directly to Walker. The Scot, a gifted communicator and a man whose common sense is renown through racing paddocks around the globe, is bound to enhance those commodities in the competition department of INDYCAR.
Miles stated that Hulman & Co made the decision to hire Walker because of the need to “strengthen this organization. It’s a good organization but we’ve got a lot to do. We decided to bring the strongest horse we can find to help us with our technical and operations and racing – our product, really – and then separately to find additional leadership to help us with our commercial activities for INDYCAR.”
Recognizing that he’s actually going to “the dark side” as he segues from long-time team background to an official’s offices Walker reminded, “I’ve been around enough to see the good, the bad, and the ugly of the competition sports, but that doesn’t deter me. I think I’ve had probably a good 20-odd, maybe more, 25 years of INDYCAR, which has really helped me a great deal, and I feel if I can give something back to the sport in whatever way that is, then I’d love that opportunity.”
There’s been a call in the Indy car ranks for added manufacturers and suppliers to the series, which is enjoying some of the best competition ever seen since the Indy Racing League began competition in 1996. Walker intends to be circumspect with regard to those facets and move forward, as is his custom, with deliberation.
“Unless there’s a very good reason not to have more manufacturers or more of everything that helps make competition happen, I think that would be missing the point,” Walker said. “That’s the history of INDYCAR, and the sooner we can get more guys in battling it out there, the sooner the fans are going to be interested in what we’re doing. The fans come, the companies come and everybody hopefully enjoys what we do and makes money doing it.”
Until the final Sunday in May, Walker will continue to work with Ed Carpenter Racing and its owner, Carpenter noted, “Derrick has done a phenomenal job for ECR. He really was the architect of our team and helped us establish a very strong foundation that will continue to lead to future successes. I am confident he will do an outstanding job at INDYCAR; he will be an asset that will also help the race teams within the series.”
Walker has more than 40 years’ experience in the racing field, and owned his own race team for 19 of those years. Beginning at age 21, Walker joined Cortune Engineering Ltd, racing an ex-works Le Mans Austin Healey Sprite as well as prepping customer sport racing cars.
He joined Ron Tauranac’s Motor Racing Development as a mechanic and went to Roger Penske’s Grand Prix team in 1976 as chief mechanic for driver John Watson. This led to a 13-year association with Penske, evolving into overall responsibility of management for Penske Cars Ltd, which designed a manufactured a series of Penske Indy cars at Poole, Dorset in the United Kingdom.
In 1980 Derrick Walker came to the US and became Penske’s vice president of racing with overall responsibility of the race team operations at Penske Racing Inc in Reading, PA and design/development of Penske’s Indy cars at Poole. While with Penske, With Walker, Penske’s team won five Indianapolis 500 Mile races, six Indy car championships and 28 Indy car races. Drivers at his disposal included Mario Andretti, Tom Sneva, Rick Mears, Danny Sullivan, Al Unser and Bobby Unser.
In 1988 Walker became general manager and part owner of Al Holbert’s Indy team, which was beginning the Porsche Indy car program. He managed that team for two years following Holbert’s death in a plane crash. After that, Walker formed his own Walker Motorsports Ltd in late 1990, with the 1991 Indianapolis 500 as their first event. Willy T Ribbs became the first African American to qualify for the ’91 Indy 500 race.
Throughout his 19-year team ownership hegira, Walker has fielded multi-car teams in 414 races in INDYCAR, Firestone Indy Lights and Formula BMW. There were six victories, 16 pole positions as Walker shepherded drivers like Gil de Ferran, Scott Goodyear, Christian Fittipaldi, Robby Gordon, Sarah Fisher, Alex Tagliani, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Paul Tracy, among others.
Walker’s primary focus from the start of his latest career will be to foster inclusion and innovation in the INDYCAR paddock. “We have to open up that door just enough to allow it to grow and improve and innovate, yet keep it in a measurable amount.” What’s important to Walker is not to price manufacturers, suppliers and teams out of the INDYCAR marketplace: “We can’t have such a super-expensive series that the fans can’t afford to come along and buy a ticket. I think balance is the key.”
Yes, Derrick, it certainly is.
Written and photographed by Anne Proffit