IndyCar hires Derrick Walker as new competition chief
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- IndyCar drivers and owners have always considered Derrick Walker to be a beacon of leadership.
Now he's switching to what Walker calls the "dark" side.
The well-respected former team owner was hired Monday as IndyCar's new head of competition, ending the worst-kept secret in Indianapolis. Speculation that the 68-year-old Scotsman would lead the competition department kicked into high gear last week when four-time series champ Dario Franchitti, also a Scot, said Walker had been hired.
Turns out, it was all true.
"I know I'm not going to please everybody every day," Walker said. "There are going to be some days when some people will think I'm a jerk and there will be some days where I probably will be a jerk. I just hope there's more good days than jerk days."
Walker takes over May 27, the day after the Indianapolis 500 is scheduled to be run and what he'll find is an organization still trying to close the popularity gap with NASCAR.
Until then, he will continue to serve as general manager for Ed Carpenter Racing, the one-car team owned by Tony George's stepson. George's family owns Indianapolis Motor Speedway and George was the founder of the IndyCar Series.
It's a whole new start for Walker, who is now talking about containing costs and improving safety -- issues that have become annual themes since the series was founded in 1996 -- while fans continue to urge officials to boost speeds. Walker's job is finding the balance between drivers' concerns, fans' wishes and team limits.
The good news is that drivers and owners feel like they finally have someone from their side working in the series office.
"He gives you exactly what you need from that side," said Josef Newgarden, who drives for Fisher -- the only woman to own an IndyCar team. "There are two equations there. You've got to figure out how to please the fans and the outside world and you've got to please the inside world of the drivers and teams. I think Derrick is the perfect guy for those inside the wall because he knows how to run a race team, and I think he's able to bridge that gap between the fans and the race teams."
Walker started his racing career as a chief mechanic and built his reputation by working with or for some of the biggest names in racing history -- Graham Hill, Rick Mears, Roger Penske, and Al and Bobby Unser. He eventually started his own team, winning six races and 16 poles in 19 seasons. He also was a trendsetter, helping Willy T. Ribbs became the first black driver to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 and later giving Sarah Fisher a foothold in the series.
And after more than four decades in racing, he's ready for a change.
Those who know him believe IndyCar picked the right guy.
"Derrick has done a phenomenal job for ECR," Carpenter said, referring to his own team. "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 there that will help the race teams within the series."
Walker has a much larger challenge looming.
Despite having one its best seasons on the track, the television ratings continue to lag far behind those of NASCAR. There's little Walker can do about the television contract.
The more immediate concern is getting fans to the track. Outside of a handful of venues, the series has not been drawing big crowds, something Walker believes can change if the teams are able to limit expenses.
"We need to reduce the inflationary aspect of it because owners don't just get (hit with) it, the fans get it because the costs get passed on to them in the form of ticket prices," Walker said.
He does not pretend to know everything.
Walker said he will spend the next few weeks pulling double duty -- working to keep Carpenter's burgeoning race team near the front of the pack while trying to get initiated into the world of racing executive.
Walker will report directly to Mark Miles, the chief executive of Hulman & Co. and the man who made the decision to hire him. Miles said race director Beaux Barfield, Brian Barnhart, the president of IndyCar operations and strategy, and Will Phillips, the series' vice president of technology, will all now report to Walker.
"I have no doubt we will be more stitched together as a team," said Miles, who was previously in charge of Indy's Super Bowl committee. "I think we'll be a higher performing team under his (Walker's) leadership."
First, though, Walker must get comfortable in a job he never dreamed of taking until Miles offered.
"I am going to the dark side," Walker said, drawing laughter. "There are a lot of good people at IndyCar that have been on that side of the fence a lot longer than me."