The Frontstretch: IndyCar And Derrick Walker: A Match Made In Heaven? by Huston Ladner -- Wednesday May 15, 2013

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IndyCar And Derrick Walker: A Match Made In Heaven?

Huston Ladner · Wednesday May 15, 2013

 

The oft-maligned IZOD IndyCar Series finally made a move that smacks…well, of competence. With leadership a major concern over the past few seasons, hiring Derrick Walker to the position of President of Operations and Competition looks like a shrewd move and should help to stabilize the management of the series.

Or will it?

Let’s look at Walker’s credentials. He’s currently the General Manager for Ed Carpenter Racing. So he’s got ties to the sport but he’s not coming from a prestigious pedigree. That’s how it looks, but when really looking at Walker’s resume, it goes well beyond his present position.

He’s worked with Graham Hill, Rick Mears, Roger Penske, and Al and Bobby Unser. He started his own team, and enjoyed some success. But Walker is also a visionary. He assisted Willy T. Ribbs in becoming the first Black driver to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. He was also integral in getting Sarah Fisher established in the series. So maybe this guy is a good fit after all.

Can new President of Operations and Competition Derrick Walker improve on the great racing the IZOD IndyCar Series has to offer while improving the sport behind the scenes?

As someone who has been involved in the sport for four decades, the Scotsman, in essence, has seen it all. By moving from a competitor’s side to that of management, Walker has claimed that he’s “turning to the dark side,” but is doing it happily, even if he noted that it can be a “career-ending position.” What fans can take from this move is that a person with a love of the series is seeking to make things work—and can bring the insight to do so.

There are five areas that Walker will be focusing on as he takes over: cost management; enhancing innovation within the current technical platform and race formats; continuing to emphasize and develop safety initiatives; sustaining programs and avenues to develop drivers and suppliers for the IZOD IndyCar Series; and developing plans for future technical platforms.

Whoa! That seems like a whole mess of stuff.

A quick breakdown: Cost management Walker feels that fans are being penalized by escalating costs and knows they must be kept in line. Innovation. The racing product isn’t broken, which can be clearly seen from the quality of racing this season, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement, and he sees that.

Safety Safety has been one of IndyCar’s biggest concerns over the past few years. The latest Dallara chassis came about as a response to this concern. But there’s still more to be done, especially if the series is planning to keep its devotion to high-speed ovals. What can be done to entertain fans and keep the racing at these tracks safe? It’s one of the dividing lines in the paddock.

Development As Frontstretch writer Matt Stallknecht noted, the Indy Lights series is dying a slow death, which would cripple the advancement of new drivers. A realistic look at IndyCar shows that a number of drivers are aging, making young blood is a must. Sorry, Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan, but it’s true. In conjunction, there’s a limited amount of manufacturers involved in the series, and cultivating new relationships would strengthen the series – competition is a good thing.

As for the future, well that’s a more nebulous thing. Many of the aforementioned topics hit upon the future, but that doesn’t mean that INDYCAR doesn’t need a sense of long-form view. What will be interesting to see is how Walker works with the other side of the IndyCar Series – the business and promotion people.

It’s one thing to create a product that’s worth watching, but it’s another to have that product actually get watched. While INDYCAR has certainly had on-track issues, like its confusion toward push-to-pass, or the track coming apart at Belle Isle in Detroit, it has also shown that it has problems with selling the product.

Randy Bernard’s attempt to keep the racing relevant is manifested in the double races being held this year. Do fans really want to see two races at Detroit, Toronto, and Houston? Right now, no one knows, but it sure seems like an awkward idea. These kinds of decisions are the ones that Walker will be faced with analyzing, and figuring out what’s best for the series.

Maybe Walker will be able to be bold and make moves so that the IZOD IndyCar Series visits a bigger variety of tracks. At one point there was talk of visiting Italy. Maybe a European swing would be an interesting idea, hitting a track in Italy, France, and England – doesn’t have to be those spots, but just ideas. Can Walker find the balance between management, racing competition, and costs to make that effective? And what about ovals?

Oval racing is an American concept through and through that has its ties to horse racing in the early 1800s. There must be a split between road courses and ovals and right now that split is lackluster at best, with Indy, Texas, Milwaukee, Iowa, Pocono, and Fontana filling the schedule. It’d certainly behoove Walker to ensure an oval or two is added. Phoenix? Richmond? Kentucky? Kansas? Whatever, but get them on the schedule – and that’s where the safety issue comes in to play. NASCAR benefits from having lumbering cars that allow drivers to bounce into each other, smack the wall and then walk away. Can Walker find a way of making racing at 200 mph safe? (Of course, the philosophical question is: Can racing at 200 mph ever be safe?)

So yeah, Walker’s got a tough job ahead of him. But from driver and owner reactions, it seems like he’s the guy to do it. His expertise inside the paddock and his experience with the series for as long as it’s been should serve him well. Of course, the key component in this hiring is, will the powers that be in INDYCAR allow him to do the job that he was hired to do? For the series’ sake, let’s hope so.

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nwoods
05/15/2013 12:42 PM
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I agree it’s hard to believe but the folks at Hulman & Co. seem to be making good decisions about the leadership of IndyCar. The idea of split technical and commercial leaders has served F1 well for many years (most probably because of Bernie). The concept prevents the set up to fail scenario of having to do everything that Bernard faced and will hopefully provide some stability to the series. Based on Walker’s resume and what he’s said since the announcement of his appointment I don’t think IndyCar could have found a better person for the job.
Walker sounds like he has some ideas of where to take the series especially in terms of cost versus innovation. Also, he’s in the position in time to have significant effect on 2014 without a maddened scramble. The thing is American open wheel has a long history of being hard on its leadership. I can only hope Walker has a chance to accomplish something before he gets his fill or gets canned.

With Walker in place I hope they can quickly find someone to lead the commercial side. I believe this is the bigger issue given the series terrible exposure.