IndyCar President of Competition and Operations Derrick Walker announced his resignation yesterday, effective August 31. Per Walker’s own remarks to Racer, he has stayed longer than the duration of his original contract and wants more time to concentrate on his Tudor United SportsCar team, Team Falken Tire.
“I signed up with IndyCar on a two-year contract originally and have done more than that – almost two-and-a-half seasons,” Walker told Racer. “And in the few moments when I’ve had a chance to evaluate what’s best for me, I decided that focusing on my TUDOR Championship team was what I should do.”
This IndyCar season has been one of trials and tribulations for a series looking for any way possible to grow its audience and get back on top. Between frightening airborne accidents, concerns about pack racing at Fontana, a spectator getting struck in the head by a piece of an aero kit at St. Petersburg, a cancelled season opener, a new but extremely soggy Grand Prix of Louisiana that is currently the subject of a court battle, and controversial NASCAR-style rules against competitors making negative public statements about the series, IndyCar has been in the news a lot recently for all the wrong reasons.
The new aero kits for this series have been controversial in their own right. According to ESPN, former IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard was the original champion of the idea of the aero kit, but the implementation of the idea fell under Derrick Walker’s tenure as president. The kits have added an exciting new level of tweakability to the cars, and have made it easy to identify Hondas and Chevrolets from afar, but some critics can’t get past the looks or the unintended other effects they’ve had on the series.
“The reason for aero kits was a valid one and it has proven to be a good direction for IndyCar,” Walker told Racer. “I’m not a big believer in the spec racing formula; we need variation.”
The first incarnation of the aero kits didn’t have a proper system that tethered many of the pieces that would break off together, making street course races a debris-strewn mess and contributing to a spectator injury when one of those pieces flew over the catch fence. According to Walker, teams didn’t get the kits as soon as they would have wanted to because manufacturers were given extra time to develop them, which caused a shortage when they first came out.
Some attribute the aero kits for the increased number of flips this year, however, Racer explains that it is likely that the large rear underwing that isn’t part of the aero kit is what’s generating the extra lift when a car goes in reverse. Regardless, many feel as if more testing should have been done before the kits were approved for competition use.
On top of all that, the kits have been costlier to implement than many expected, however, Walker pointed out to Racer that his idea of moving to a spec damper to save costs was quickly shot down by teams who wanted to keep their damper programs.
Race Control has also made some bewildering calls over the past few years. One of Walker’s biggest moves was the replacement of Beaux Barfield as chief steward. “Derrick didn’t like the way Beaux officiated and Barfield didn’t appreciate being second-guessed, and so he quit at the end of 2014,” wrote IndyCar columnist Robin Miller on Racer. Walker initially placed Barfield on a three-member panel that decided penalties in 2014, only to have Barfield leave at the end of the year.
If Barfield sounds familiar, it’s because he currently serves as IMSA’s Race Director for series including United SportsCar, where he remains a very love-him-or-hate-him official.
Racer’s Robin Miller points out that some of Walker’s best intentioned plans had their legs cut out from under them before they could ever be implemented. Walker himself even admitted in a later interview with Racer that he was “definitely” spread too thin.
For example, Walker initially wanted two or three ex-IndyCar racers to step into Barfield’s old position as full-time stewards for the series, but he was told to use existing personnel instead, as there was no budget for his plan. So, a team of four where ex-chief steward Brian Barnhart was promoted from sitting on the 2014 panel to Race Director together with three others. Of the four, Johnny Unser was the only one who had ever raced.
Walker had envisioned a stewards’ panel much like Formula One’s, where former drivers are key to making sure fair calls are made during races. The panel he got for IndyCar found itself constantly under fire for inconsistent officiating. In the case of Graham Rahal leaving the pits with a fuel hose still attached, Miller points out, the stewards somehow missed the incident entirely.
Not all of Walker’s tenure at IndyCar was full of controversy and woe. Walker succeeded in bringing IndyCar a new race for 2016: Boston! Racer also reports that Road America is also coming back to IndyCar’s schedule in 2016 and that the schedule will likely expand even further from there—huzzah (and finally)! As for races that have already been a success, Walker saw the introduction of the Grand Prix of Indianapolis in 2014, which brought IndyCar to Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course. Furthermore, the series has had some fantastic, entertaining racing this year—even if too few see past the other headlines about flips and aero woes.
IndyCar’s statement on Walker’s resignation also thanked him for using his over forty years of racing experience to bring needed improvements to Race Control and safety. “His focus on continuous safety advancement resulted in changes to the Indy car underwing, making the cars more stable and strengthening sidepods, further protecting drivers,” read the series’ statement.
“We have benefited from Derrick’s extensive racing experience, his tireless effort and his passion for IndyCar, and he will be missed,” said Hulman & Company CEO Mark Miles in IndyCar’s statement on Walker’s resignation. (Hulman & Company is the parent company of IndyCar.) “We appreciate the thoughtful way Derrick has planned his transition and wish him well in his future endeavors.”
Who’s next for IndyCar, then? Many sources feel as if Chip Ganassi Racing Managing Director Mike Hull may be Miles’ next pick for the role. Hull had this to say to ESPN following news of Walker’s resignation:
IndyCar racing is trying to find its way presently. Everybody has an opinion and nobody wants to support the system. Until we can get buy-in from everybody in the paddock, no matter who does that job, it’s going to be difficult for them to do it.
I hadn’t heard he was leaving but I was saddened by that. Derrick Walker is “us” - he has enormous passion for IndyCar racing. He’s the kind of guy who puts his heart and soul into this thing and he has for years.
I’m disappointed that a person who represents all of us with a lot of integrity in a positive way has decided to step down.
Without universal buy-in to his leadership, many feel as if Walker struggled to be effective in his role. Controversial decisions such as the last-minute changes to IndyCar qualifying, which left Honda feeling excluded from the discussion when all the flips had happened with Chevrolet cars, made Walker’s job considerably more difficult.
“When a guy like Derrick, who sees and understands the long-term needs of the sport and has the passion for it is stepping down, it’s really difficult to find quality to replace him,” Hull continued to ESPN. “Under the present circumstance, we’ve got to work hard to make this thing more positive so that somebody will take the reins and make it happen.”
Hull’s emphasis on positivity seems to fit right in line with IndyCar’s new mandate against denigrating the series in public. IndyCar isn’t the only one tired of seeing the series pop up in the news under controversial circumstances. When I asked Pippa Mann about the new rule during the Mini drive, she mentioned that it isn’t likely to be used to keep drivers mum on safety concerns as many fear it will be, but rather, it will discourage the kind of everything-is-terrible commentary that hinders her ability as a team owner to find sponsorship.
“[T]he number of challenges is as great now as they were when I joined – some of them are the same ones, some are different – so I’m disappointed to walk away from what I consider unfinished business,” Walker told Racer of the work he’s leaving behind at the end of August. There are things he would do differently in hindsight as the learning curve with governing the series was steep, he explained, but overall, many of the changes he wanted to implement would have taken much longer than his time there.
At a time when IndyCar is looking for something—anything—positive to grab on to and celebrate, someone from the team side who would not only understand team concerns but who’s also very gung-ho and “just keep swimming” about the state of IndyCar seems like a plausible pick for the Hulman & Company powers-that-be to lead the series.
With Walker’s Team Falken Tire losing Falken Tire from TUSC next year, perhaps Walker made the right call. The beloved GTLM Porsche team is dead-set on continuing for 2016 without Falken’s support, but they’re going to have to find the resources to do so.
“I have appreciated the opportunity to work closely with the team owners, drivers and the team at IndyCar,” said Walker in IndyCar’s statement on his resignation. “After two and a half racing seasons, I believe the timing is right to move on to other opportunities.”
I can’t think of a single person who doesn’t want the beloved Team Soon To Be Formerly Known As Falken Tire to stick around, either. According to Autoweek, even rival tire company Michelin congratulates the Falken Tire guys after a win, and they’ll miss the competition that forces them to improve their own tires next year.
I guess we don’t know Team Falken Tire’s name yet for next season, so I’m just going to pick a random symbol that people also seem to love: 🍦. Godspeed, Team 🍦. May 🍦 continue to be a
delicious sugary treat thorn in more established teams’ side for many years to come.
Photo credit: AP Images
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