It wasn't so long ago that Dan Clarke was fighting Will Power for the Champ Car Rookie of the Year title. At the end of that 2006 season, the title went the Aussie phenom's way, but at least he knew he'd been in a fight. It had not been plain sailing for Power's Walker Racing/Team Australia entry (ABOVE, Walker with Power in '07), as Clarke had increasingly come on strong through the season, driving for HVM Racing.
This year, Clarke and Derrick Walker, owner of Walker Racing, worked together in the Firestone Indy Lights series, and took on the giants of the series, Sam Schmidt Motorsports and AFS Racing with some surprising success. In a real David vs. Goliath match-up, twice Clarke appeared on the podium, and ultimately finished seventh in the championship, despite missing the season opener.
Why these two are in Lights rather than the IZOD IndyCar Series sort of centers around the Champ Car/Indy Racing League merger. Clarke, after two years in Champ Car, found himself out of a ride as HVM cut back to one car and was in desperate need of EJ Viso's PDVSA money. (Like almost all Champ Car team owners, Keith Wiggins only learned of the merger at the 55th minute of the 11th hour, and suddenly had to find the wherewithal to purchase a Dallara-Honda IndyCar.) Walker, meanwhile, had his financial investor Craig Gore split early and take the Team Australia money and Will Power to KV Racing.
Derrick, a successful fixture of U.S. open-wheel for three decades from Penske to Porsche to Walker Racing, was suddenly financially high and dry, and in desperate need of the $2m he alleges Gore owed him, never mind what was promised him for the season ahead. Now he had nothing with which to purchase even a single Dallara-Honda. Having been one of the vehement believers in – and outspoken proponents of – one unified series, Walker was forced to watch from the platform as that train left the station.
Through 2008, Walker ran Nigel Mansell's sons and Canada's Kevin Lacroix in the Atlantics but, unfortunately, that series was becoming an irrelevance, and in '09 he switched to running occasional Indy Lights races with Stefan Wilson. Meanwhile, Clarke through the same '08-'09 period had also spent time in a series that was on the road to nowhere. Driving for Team Great Britain in A1GP, he showed his pace, but it wasn't where he wanted to be. For someone who once split the dominant Newman/Haas Racing cars to finish second at Road America in the Champ Car World Series, fighting against lesser drivers in better cars seemed a little underwhelming. It did at least keep him race sharp, however, so when the opportunity arose to join Walker Racing just one race into the Indy Lights season, Clarke was all over it.
Some thought that Dan, given his wild man reputation on this side of the Atlantic, was a curious choice. But I've always been a firm believer in Mario Andretti's maxim that you can tidy up speed but you can't speed up tidiness, and no one had doubted Clarke was fast. Plus, any racecar driver – in fact, a human male in any walk of life – does a lot of maturing through his 20s. Turns out my way of thinking was similar to Derrick's.
“In 2006 and 2007 when Will was with us, we raced a lot against Dan,” says Walker. “I was always impressed with his ability to drive fast but he was never consistent. But, of course, as a team owner, you always think you have that magic touch that maybe you can influence a driver to be more cautious or conservative and get results by being consistent. So when Dan popped up on my radar, I had a fully funded program, and I was looking for a driver and I felt he could be the guy. He has the experience, he could be quick enough to just jump in the car and we can be out front.”
“I think after Champ Car a lot of people had this perception that I was ‘Crasher Dan', and I certainly wasn't without controversy,” admits Clarke. “But there's always two sides to every story. Unfortunately, when you're not in a car, it's hard to change people's perception. People always remember your last race. The A1GP experience was good. The team wasn't as prepared as I wanted it to be, but I still was able to have solid results, didn't make any mistakes and it was a good opportunity to show people I had changed. Not being in a racecar through a lot of 2008-'09 gave me an opportunity to think and reflect on things. I did a lot of growing up in '08, just reflecting on things, and also a lot of rebuilding because not having anything really going for you is quite crushing when it's your career and you're a professional athlete and you're really dedicated to it. Then to have the recession and basically financial issues stop you from doing what you're trained to do…that is also quite crushing.”
His new team owner could relate to that, as he recalled March 2008, when the Walker Racing team ran aground.
"In a space of about a week it completely disappeared,” recalls Derrick. “The people disappeared, the cars disappeared, I was in debt up to my neck through a failed agreement that somebody defaulted on me. The lowest of the low was the realization that everything I'd worked for in 40 years of racing was on the rocks.”
Two years later, a driver and team owner who had been hurt by different aspects of the sport they love got their act together. There was some air to clear first, though.