Indianapolis, Aug. 3, 2000 - Walker Racing owner Derrick Walker is an interesting guy. He owns the only open-wheel team the CART and IRL series and is in a unique position in that he has an insider's view of both Champ Car and Indy Racing.
Indianapolis, Aug. 3, 2000 - Walker Racing owner Derrick Walker is an interesting guy. He owns the only open-wheel team the CART and IRL series 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. This is the first in a series of interviews designed to find out more about the man behind the team and how much the business of racing really means to him.
Q: You're always on the move at the racetrack. How many meetings do you think you average per weekend?
A: In an average weekend I could have maybe six meetings of one description or another. They can range from sponsorship meetings, to people who want to meet with you to see what your program is, but the bulk of the meetings fall into two categories.
One is to meet and try to enhance your business bottom line by running other programs or enticing sponsors to come on board. Second, there are meetings on the politics of the business, whether it is CART board meetings or executive meetings. I'm on a few committees - the CART Board of Directors, and the Executive Committee - which is a small group derived from the board of directors that tries to give the commander in chief some fast track direction or oversight if you like. I'm also on the Rules Committee, and on the Compensation Committee - that's a surprise to me - I haven't been paid yet!
I try to get involved in as many of these committees as I can because it sharpens up my understanding of the business. I like to be involved, and I'm probably one of the smaller team owners who are a representative on the boards. Therefore, I probably have less influence than some, but nevertheless, I don't feel satisfied until I've put my 10 cents in on a subject, even if nobody agrees with it. But I think it's important to be active in the sport and I do care about it greatly.
Q: How much of your time does the business of racing take up? A: I don't spend much time NOT thinking about racing. It helps to have no other business interests outside of racing. On the surface that can sound boring, but racing is what I've always been interested in, whether it's the mechanical aspects of racing, or the human endeavors, or my business focus, which is now my main agenda. To me, it's trying to do something that is not very easy, and having the luxury of having your own race team and getting money from sponsors to go racing. That's a very fortunate position to be in. I enjoy it and it takes all my capacities to keep up with it. When I was very young, my parents didn't give me a CART owners manual to read - I had to learn it the hard way, and I'm still learning.
Q: What all is involved in making (and keeping) sponsors happy A: Sponsors are, as the cliché goes - our partners at the track. You're delivering something to their bottom line, so it's important to understand your sponsors and what their objectives and needs are, and to deliver what they're expecting. The whole involvement of sponsors is a business transaction. At the racetrack you're focusing on a few of the main aspects of the sponsorship program, the main one being hospitality. We have a hospitality unit and an area where sponsors can sit, meet, have lunch and drinks, and watch television, so it's their area to rest and get away from the crowd.
The other thing we provide sponsors at the racetrack is access. Racing is quite unique in that respect, CART and IRL racing especially, because not all forms of racing are this accessible. At CART racing, you can get up close and personal with the stars and the cars, so that's a great ability we have to provide them the access. We can also provide them showcars, and group functions and business meetings.
So we are always finding ways to keep sponsors informed, to give them insider access and make it a worthwhile day. It's an experience that is quite unique; they are able to get in places they'd only dreamed of. So when a sponsor comes and brings his guests, they can meet the driver and see what goes on behind the scenes. What kind of information goes out from the engineers on the computers, how does the weekend unfold, and what is our strategy. We have a breakfast meeting on race morning and explain to our guests exactly what our strategy is for the race. We talk about our problems, answer questions, and give them an inside view of what's going on. On top of it all, there is a strong push for results and winning races, which is what it's all about.
Q: What's gone on lately in your CART meetings? A: Since CART has gone public, the franchise meetings have evolved to be a weaker group in terms of overall direction in terms of the sport, but nevertheless it carries a vote and has an influence on the sporting rules and regulations. The franchise board also has a say in numbers of races. It was locked in at 20 races and now we have 22. The group could have voted against going beyond 20 if they had wanted to. For some reason, beyond me, they didn't.
The franchise meeting we had in Chicago was the best one we've had in some time. It was brought together to address the issue of whether we should mandate a reduction in boost pressure for next year. It's necessary under the current constitution of CART that the CART franchise group vote for that kind of change in regulation. These kinds of rules about the sport can't be changed without a two-thirds majority. So it was necessary to get the group together because there was a fair amount of chitchat back and forward among the engine manufacturers about whether boost down was the proper way to go.
There were some differences of opinion at the meeting as to whether the boost reduction should happen in 2001. The whole subject of the boost actually goes back to an earlier rules committee meeting where the engine manufacturers were enticed to give their opinion as to whether an air restrictor would be a good way to take some power away, or would it be better to have a boost pressure or RPM limiter to take power out of the engine. They reluctantly came back with the recommendation that boost down would be the favored approach.
I say reluctantly, because the engine manufacturers voiced the opinion at the time of the rules committee meeting at the Michigan race that they didn't want the boost down suggestion to be taken out of context, and it WAS taken out of context. They were asked a simple question: If you were to reduce engine power, how would you want to do it? They were not endorsing a reduction in engine power per se, and if they were to endorse that - what would the plan be, where was it going? Anytime you take away that much boost pressure from the engine, it really means a huge redesign in many different components in the engine, so it was going to escalate a whole development program.
In reality, the engine manufacturers actually do redevelopment every year - they spend the money on it anyway. It was felt that they should really know the direction of the rules in the future, because we've been talking for the longest time about changing the engine formula for 2003. The big question was is this going to be an IRL look-alike? Is there any chance to do anything with the IRL in common engine formula, or do we just go off and pick a formula that suits our racing? That's pretty much the saga, if you like, of the boost down now or later.
The main part of the rules committee meeting agenda at Michigan was to look at how we reduce power. It was felt that the cars had been regulated so much so that we'd ruined passing opportunities at races. The racing wasn't as exciting because it was difficult to get up behind a car with the turbulence that was created from the Hanford II device that was used at Milwaukee.
It was also felt that aerodynamically we couldn't slow the cars down anymore, and it was boring racing, so we needed to go to somebody else for suggestions. That somebody else happened to be the engine manufacturers. The engine manufacturers were split in their support for this, Honda and Mercedes seemed to be opposed to the change without some long-term plan being fully understood and agreed to by everybody. Ford and Toyota seemed to be somewhat in favor of going and doing it for the next two years if we do change the engine for 2003.
In the meeting it was decided that we needed to hear from the senior engine manufacturers representatives, and what they thought about the boost change, because they are our partners, and it is important to keep them motivated with the series. It's something we should consider very carefully before we start launching off and making shoot from the hip rule changes.
Q: What kind of changes to the Champ cars do you see happening in the future? A: Right now in CART, the rules are being reviewed for the future. There is a need to cut some of the costs out of racing. There is a need to make the car a little simpler. We need cars that have some longevity. Right now the CART cars have a shelf life of one year. This will be the first year in CART history where the chassis and gearbox are mandated that the basic design must last more than one year. So there is a two-year freeze on them and this car will be used next year. It doesn't stop you from changing the whole body panels and wings and things, but the basic chassis and gearbox case are going to stay the same. With more races, we need to simplify the cars and give them some longevity.
Then there is the whole issue of slowing the cars down at the really fast tracks where it is unnecessary to go so quick and doing so in such a way that it doesn't ruin the racing. Some people point to IRL and say, "look at that, these guys have done it - they've got the cars in the right balance so there is passing and close racing, and they've got a lot less engine power." In certain configurations, the CART car and the IRL car are very similar in terms of downforce and drag. But the IRL car has a couple of hundred horsepower less. So, it would seem like horsepower reduction would be a worthwhile step towards reducing the speed and perhaps making the racing a little closer, but it's not as simple as that.
The IRL has one big distinct difference, and that it has control over the amount of aerodynamics that a car can have. What I mean by that is that at the beginning of the 2000 season there was a car change - they were allowed to make big changes in the car, and that car design is basically frozen for three years. Every year you have update kits, but there is a cap on how much the kit can cost. For example, if $30,000 is the price of the kit that is allowed and the manufacturer wants to make significant changes to the car and get them locked in for the whole year, he will produce a kit that includes an underbody and sidepods and whatever else they need that actually costs him more than $30,000, because he needs to get the performance out of the car. That kit is then locked in for the whole year and you can't change it. So therefore the development costs of the IRL car are vastly reduced by the amount of variables that you have and when you can change them.
In CART, you can do anything you like with the underbody, any day of the week, providing you meet some basic dimensions, but the shape is free, the length is free. There are a number of things that are very wide open in the CART cars. So therefore, controlling the package in terms of the amount of downforce and drag that you have for a given horsepower varies in the CART situation. In the IRL situation, it's locked in. Although the downforce levels might be similar in the IRL, they cannot be changed. If you had to take a CART car and take 200 horsepower out of it, I guarantee the aerodynamics would change vastly, and the car would behave quite a bit differently.
So it's not easy to decide to just take the horsepower out and assume that will slow the cars down and not escalate a lot of development in the car. You will have a huge amount of development in other areas to try and get the grip level right relative to the power ratio that you have. Of course in CART we have many different types of tracks that we race on - medium slow ovals, super-speedways, road courses, fast road courses, so we have an array of racetracks and that package has a lot more variables than the IRL. The IRL runs only ovals, high-speed or slow ovals, so the aerodynamic package is easier to define. You lock that package in at the beginning of the year, and that's what you're stuck with as a manufacturer. So there are quite different approaches in both formulas but both series are striving to develop a racy car that is affordable and yet provides good and safe racing!