By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Robin Miller broke the story last week and it was formally announced at a press conference today (Monday) at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that longtime motorsports executive Derrick Walker will join INDYCAR as its president of competition and operations beginning on May 27th, immediately after the Indianapolis 500 race. In his new role, "Derrick will be responsible for all technical and competition-related elements for the sanctioning body," according to INDYCAR.
Mark Miles, the chief executive officer for Hulman & Company, the parent company of INDYCAR had this to say:
"So we made the decision that we really want to strengthen this organization. It's a good organization, but we've got a lot to do, and we decided to bring on 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.
And we sort of focused on the product first and talked to lots and lots of people. We had a number of great candidates who are interested in the job. And Derrick was one of the first I spoke to. You can't read his résumé and talk to folks about his lifetime of experience without immediately having great respect for his journey in open-wheel racing from being a mechanic to owning a team and having enormous success all along the way.
So his experience is the first thing that strikes, struck me as I got to know Derrick. But then there's a lot about this person that I really like. He's straightforward; he's got great common sense. He's got the conviction of his principles and his -- we know that he'll help make clear, firm decisions and have the strength of character to stick by them. And we've talked to a lot of people in the paddock. I know that Derrick's experience is well regarded as broadly as anybody's could be in the paddock. So we think there's a lot to do, and Derrick is the right man to lead us through it."
It's clear that the leadership had no other choice than to bring an experienced, savvy veteran like Derrick Walker to the table. Randy Bernard did a tremendous amount of positive work for INDYCAR in his short tenure, but the one thing that kept him from really asserting his role was having a man like Derrick Walker as his right hand to smooth communications with the team owners and keep everyone on the same page. The constant sniping of Bernard was wildly unproductive and for the most part unnecessary, but if he had had a guy like Walker in his camp things would have probably been much different. Ironically enough Bernard tried to lure Walker over to his side before he left, but a deal couldn't be reached. Now? It's a different story.
INDYCAR has always been made up of a bunch of individualistic owners with disparate agendas, just like the NASCAR owners, frankly. It's part of racing. And if it weren't for the fact that NASCAR has had strong leadership - at least for the first two generations of family ownership anyway - the stock car racing series might be in the same listing boat that INDYCAR finds itself in. (As an aside, IndyCar desperately wants to be referred to as INDYCAR, which is why you're seeing it spelled out in all caps in this column. I have steadfastly avoided doing it up until now because it seemed like they were emulating NASCAR, but if that's what they want, so be it.)
The perennial problem for INDYCAR is that "for the good of the sport" only comes up when you get in a room full of INDYCAR team owners and lay out a plan for improvment. At that moment in time everyone is on the same page and it's all group hugs and kumbayas and they will all nod in agreement saying that "it's the right thing to do." But the moment those same owners leave that room something happens and all of a sudden "it's the right thing to do" gives way to "how is this going to affect me?" And as you might imagine, being competitive sorts and all the idea of collective sacrifice is anathema. The simple fact is that they all want to see change as long as it affects the other guy more. And this cycle has been repeated over and over again for years.
Now, we're back to square one and the appointment of Derrick Walker has "It's a brand new day for INDYCAR" written all over it. It will be up to Walker to cajole, strong arm and beat sense into the team owners, INDYCAR management and others if this sport is going to move forward from its classic two steps forward, five back dance of mediocrity. It will be up to Walker - who has the authority to say "look, guys, I believe in this" - because he has been there at every level of the sport and there isn't anything that he hasn't seen or experienced. Randy Bernard couldn't say that and although he did a superb job given the circumstances, the team owners held that against them at every turn. They can't do that with Derrick Walker.
"Obviously I've been around enough to see the good, the bad, and the ugly of the competition sports, but that doesn't deter me, " Walker said at the press conference. "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. So long story short, that, that's what brought me here, and I'm anxious to get started."
I think his comment says a lot about the man. He wants the opportunity to give something back to the sport and that in itself is a revelation.
At one point Robin Miller asked the following question at the press conference:
Q: Derrick, do you think it's important that you go out and immediately seek more manufacturers, engines, chassis? Do we need more, do you want more? Will that be one of your first assignments?
And Walker responded: "Well, I don't know if it will be my first job. My first job will be to understand what we've currently got and how it functions from a day-to-day, and get into the long-term stuff if and when it comes up. Certainly as far as I'm concerned, but my personal opinion is INDYCAR is about competition. So 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. 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."
More of everything that helps make competition happen?
Publisher's Note: As part of our continuing series celebrating the "Glory Days" of racing, we're proud to present another noteworthy image from the Ford Racing Archives. - PMD
(Photo by Dave Friedman courtesy of the Ford Racing Archives and Wieck Media)
Indianapolis, Indiana, May 31, 1965. Dan Gurney (No. 17 Yamaha Lotus-Ford) talking to Carroll Shelby before that year's Indianapolis 500. Gurney qualified third at 158.898 mph but finished 26th when a timing gear broke. A.J. Foyt (No. 1 Ansted-Thompson Racing Sheraton/Thompson Lotus-Ford) qualified on the pole but dropped out of the race with a broken rear axle. Jim Clark dominated the race in his No. 82 "Lotus Powered by Ford" winning handily. Parnelli Jones (No. 98 J.C. Agajanian Hurst Lotus-Ford) was second and Mario Andretti (No. 12 Al Dean/Dean Van Lines Hawk-Ford) finished third. Watch a video here.
Publisher's Note: Like these Ford racing photos? Check out www.fordimages.com. Be forewarned, however, because you won't be able to go there and not order something. - PMD