IRL: CHAMPCAR/CART: Behind the scenes with Derrick Walker

Indianapolis, Oct. 31, 2000 - This is Part II in a series of interviews with Walker Racing owner Derrick Walker. Derrick owns the only open-wheel team that competes in both CART and IRL and is in a unique position in that he has an insider's...

Indianapolis, Oct. 31, 2000 - This is Part II in a series of interviews with Walker Racing owner Derrick Walker. Derrick owns the only open-wheel team that competes in both CART and IRL and is in a unique position in that he has an insider's view of both Champ Car and Indy Racing. He's one of the first at the racetrack each morning and one of the last to leave. These interviews are designed to find out more about the man behind the team and how much the business of racing really means to him.

Q: It seems like the sport of open-wheel racing as a whole is in a bit of an upheaval right now. What are the biggest issues that CART and the IRNLS need to address right now and down the road?

Derrick Walker (DW):When you look at a lot of the measurements in CART, I'd say the series is still quite strong. We have three engine manufacturers who put a tremendous amount of resources into the sport to win. We're probably going to have more teams next year, and we've got two more race events added to the schedule for 2001. What's not so good in CART right now is that there is no CEO. No ship can steer without a captain. It has to have direction, and it has to have a long-term plan. As long as there is no CEO, the ship will just be floating along on the water. However, the CART board is very active with interim CEO Bobby Rahal, and the board is very focused on the big issues that include finding the CEO.

Q: How much of the CART planning is done in the off-season? Are there as many owners meetings, franchise and budget committee meetings as during the season? What do you all still need to decide on for next year?

DW: CART is evolving and a lot of the power has shifted to the public board. This board is made up of several owners and has a majority-voting share in the franchise board. The franchise board is a kind of an owners group that gets included in the decision-making process, but its power is less. I think that to move to the next level, we need to have a strong front office. The Board of Directors has an overview on the business aspect of CART and I believe that the real control should be in the front office. It'll take bringing some key people into that front office to get that kind of leadership.

Q: What about NASCAR in relation to open-wheel racing. There has been a lot of talk about empty seats at races this year. Can open-wheel racing capitalize on this?

DW: I think NASCAR has its own particular challenges and I don't think CART has to change anything in its business to capitalize on it. As the competition in NASCAR gets better and better, and the fan following gets bigger, the price goes up. To a large extent, the problem won't be fixed because the more money you've got, the more you'll spend, and its very difficult to keep changing the rules to try and stop people from spending money because that just doesn't happen. The popularity of NASCAR has increased the costs and it'll be interesting to see how NASCAR management handles that situation. That is their challenge.

CART needs to focus on open wheel racing. What do the fans want to see? How do we make ourselves fan-friendly? How do we manage our series? How does the rule book work? What's our market share going to be in the years ahead relative to IRL? I think that's what the big focus of CART has to be.

Q: Does the addition of Indy Lights to some of the IRL race weekends mean a thaw is coming in the sport as a whole? Or was that purely a business decision?

DW: CART is a public company and Indy Lights is a division of that company. As a public company, we're charged with making it a profitable business. There's an opportunity for Indy Lights to race with the IRL and if it's profitable than I think you see a division making its own decisions. IRL could quite possibly start its own kind of Indy Lights Series, but it's chosen to see if running with the Indy Lights would make sense. It's good for racing in general. There will be Indy Lights competitors who can't get an opportunity or resources to run in CART because it is a big step, whereas right now - I'm sure it's not going to stay that way - right now the IRL has less races and the cost is less, so there is an opportunity for an open-wheel racer to continue on in open-wheel racing and move up to the next level. That's a little bit of a negative for CART, but as I've said, it's a public company, and we need to grow the public company of Indy Lights as well as Championship Racing. Time will tell as to whether it's the best thing for Indy Lights, but it's really about making the series better.

Q: You've made the HANS Device mandatory for your open-wheel drivers, and so has CART for next year. Should the IRNLS do so as well?

DW: The HANS Device is the latest chapter in driver safety. If you look at the history of driver safety, things used to happen like nose sections breaking or falling off, or wheels stayed attached after an accident and came back into the driver cockpit. Many things have been improved since then, seat systems are much safer, driver head protection is much better and you can look at the HANS Device as another step in driver protection. I haven't heard any negatives about using this device, and I think that any form of racing can use it. If there is adequate data available that says that this is a total positive, I think it should be made mandatory for all open-wheel racing.

Q: What about the Indianapolis 500 schedule for 2001? Is going back to a three-week schedule going to hurt the chances of the CART drivers who want to run that race?

DW: It depends on your perspective. When you're looking at this from the Indianapolis 500 point of view, if it's important to have a lot of CART drivers there, then you should change the schedule back the way it was. Or if you are the Indianapolis 500 and you want to just run your event and anybody that turns up, turns up is fine, than that's different. There's a real danger from the IRL perspective that if the schedule is more available to CART, then obviously more drivers will come there. Because of the CART capability with the dollars they have, they could mount some serious efforts to get in the Indianapolis 500. This could jeopardize the ability of IRL teams to get in the 500, maybe not right away, but down the road.

So, if you are at the helm of the Indianapolis 500, you have to make a choice - what is the role of this race and what is important to you. The Indianapolis 500 has to manage its own business. By the way that the schedule has been set up for 2001, it looks as though that seems to be what the 500 has thought necessary, so then the ball is really in CART's court. So CART must ask, is it necessary for all our teams to run at the Indianapolis 500? I think CART as it is needs to take care of itself and it can't be all things to all people. It's not impossible for CART drivers to race in the Indianapolis 500 with the schedule the way it's been proposed, it'll just be a little more complicated. Both sides just need to figure out what is important to them, and I think that this is what is happening.

DW: Q: You spent most of your youth in Australia. Talk about going back there every fall for the CART race.

DW: Australia for me is one of those familiar places because I lived there when I was young and most of my early childhood memories are from a very far away place in Western Australia which doesn't look like it's any bigger now than it was when I lived there 30 or 40 years ago. Australia is on the other side of the world and seems to suffer from the rest of the world looking at it "down under" as they say. It's a beautiful country and one that would be a good place to make your home in if you weren't living in America! It is a very young and undeveloped place and it's always a nice trip for me to go there. I like to extend my time there by a few days and relax and unwind a little bit.

Q: How exhausted are you at the end of the CART season? Is it worse this year since you have also added the IRL team?

DW: I am exhausted at the end of the race season. This year more so than others, we ran in two series in 2000, and it seems like the more you do, the more you've got left to do. The exhaustion is more or less from the pressures of trying to continue the team in the business of open wheel racing and in the process raise us to another level. If you look at the year 2000, I'd look back with a great deal of disappointment in many areas. Our CART program suffered greatly due to a lack of competition, lack of resources, accidents, and many other things that happened this year. The fact that we have a good solid team of people kept us doggedly consistent during the season. Our relationship with Honda seems to have disintegrated for some reason, which is a big regret on my part, but I guess I don't fully understand why. So we're going to move on and seek another engine supplier if the Honda engines are not available to us next year.

On the IRL front, I'd say that the season was moderately successful in that we initiated a new program with a new rookie who has gotten stronger and stronger as the season has gone on. Our understanding of IRL has gotten much better. Next year we must clearly define our two programs much more independently in the sense of numbers into two completely stand-alone programs, which they basically are at the moment, but with more capabilities so they both can move to the next level. We're flat out trying to build the necessary funding level to do that. We just need to revitalize ourselves with some different programs and we'll know fairly soon what we'll be doing in 2001.

Q: Do you look forward to the last race of the year, or not?

DW: Damn right I do! By the time you get to the end of the season, if you're not running for the championship then you just want to get the old out and bring in the new. It will mean we are separating with Shinji. We regret that we both haven't done better, but as I've said before, life goes on. So we'll just move on to the next program and try to do better. We got the race done with Shinji in good order, shook hands and wished him well in his future, and then work towards the 2001 season.

Q: What is your favorite racetrack and why?

DW: The most exciting racetracks for me are the super-speedways like Fontana. Like all super-speedways you hang on to the railing and hope you can just get through the weekend. Obviously the danger level and the speeds at these kinds of tracks are very high. I like all the racetracks we go to as long as they have atmosphere, and as long as the fans turn out to be entertained.

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Bobby Rahal