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.“Before the second race of the season, I called Derrick because I'd heard he had a budget for racing. Someone having a budget for racing just didn't sound right to me, but I thought I'd check it out anyway and I was in his office the next morning at 8:30. And that was one of the best meetings I think I've had, because having raced again Derrick's team in Champ Car, there was a lot of crap to get out of the way. I was explaining to him that during those days, I always stuck to my team, focused on my job, didn't worry about what others were doing and never really made an effort to speak to any other team. I said to Derrick, ‘You probably thought I was a wanker back then,' and his response was, ‘Yeah.' So we got that all out of the way…”
Walker's faith in Clarke wasn't misplaced. Despite Dan only competing in one oval race in his career prior to this season [the Champ Car race at Milwaukee in 2006], his team owner would be the first to admit that in his first full season in Indy Lights, his program wasn't up to the task of taking on the giants of the series.
“Dan has done an excellent job,” asserts Walker, “and we have done everything we could do with the budget we had. What I didn't anticipate is that the competition is pretty tough here. The Sam Schmidt Motorsports and the Andretti/AFS Racings of this world are doing an excellent job and they have a lot of history in the series which pays off for them.
“As for the oval deal, to be fair to Dan, we haven't done ovals with an Indy Lights car before, either. We didn't get that logbook that's going around the paddock that has the magic setups. So we built up our setup from ground zero, and we picked up a really good engineer out of Vision Racing, Nathan, who has made a huge impact on our team. So we have had a lot of building to do on our side as well as Dan's side. Walker Racing is re-establishing itself as a team, and it's currently a much smaller unit than it was a couple of years ago.”
Clarke himself has savored his role as the little terrier snapping at the heels of the big dogs. “Yeah, it makes you feel good when you beat guys with bigger budgets. I think back when I was starting Champ Car that attitude definitely got more out of me. Going from Formula 3 to Champ Car was a huge step, but the challenge brought more out of me and made me perform better. I think Derrick's a little bit like that, too. He's running his team and right now it's a small team but he's got a lot of experience of running bigger teams.
“I think, ultimately, the secret to success is doing something exactly the way Penske and Ganassi do it. So we enjoy being David beating Goliath every now and then, but we don't want to stay being David. I want to have a teammate, I want to be in the big cars and have a full operation to be able to go testing. It's been a fun year in some respects, but I think if we want to continue, we have to think the same way the big teams are thinking in order to be successful.
“We were certainly aware that when it came to ovals, going up against teams like AFS and Sam Schmidt, we're behind. As a driver there's only so much you can do especially if you're not an experienced oval racer. But I don't turn my nose up at ovals: it's something I want to learn. And it's something I have to learn if I'm going to drive in the big cars, you know. I like that challenge. Oval racing is fascinating and it's just so different for a driver with a European racing background.”
It's no surprise then, that Dan's best performances came on street and road courses. At both Toronto and Mid-Ohio, he started third and finished second, and one of his finest drives came at Sonoma, where, storming through the field from 13th to fifth, his battery died with just a handful of laps to go. But he showed wisdom and learned a lot about oval driving when he clocked fourth at Indianapolis and fifth at Chicago. Maturity hasn't cost him any pace; it's just made him stronger, and Walker is impressed.
He says: “After Champ Car, Dan had a couple years in the wilderness, and I think that wears you down no matter if you're a driver or a team owner. It's daunting. ‘Irrelevant' is the word I use. We are irrelevant to the series; we are not perceived players. So you have a sort of defensive mechanism that kicks in so you can try to rebuild yourself one piece at a time; not sticking your neck out too far and not risking losing everything you're building.
“So I think Dan's done well staying within his capabilities and not being the crazy guy he was. He's matured, but he still has the talent. We haven't had the biggest program we could have. We could have done a lot of testing; we haven't done any testing to talk of. I think he could have been better prepared and been more competitive if we had a bigger program. But he has applied himself with the resources we've had and he's driven accordingly.”
Sadly for both team and driver, until there is a decent TV package and an attention-grabbing prize for the champion, Firestone Indy Lights will be a tough sell to potential sponsors. That leaves each in a quandary for 2011 – try and graduate to the IZOD IndyCar Series now, or, should the expected FIL champion's purse be confirmed, stick around to try and win it and graduate with the new IndyCar in 2012?
Says Clarke: “Ability-wise, I feel confident I'm ready for IndyCars. There's a lot to learn always – particularly the ovals – but like I've said this year, I'm used to racing longer races and having more challenges like fuel saving and handling a heavier car. But it all comes down to the finances, really. If you've got a sponsor that wants to be in IndyCar and will pay the extra money, then that's great. But if IndyCar is pledging to give an opportunity for the winner of the Indy Lights series next year to be in IndyCar in 2012, that's something definitely worth going for.”
Big car or little car, Clarke would be happy to stay at Walker Racing. “A lot of what we achieved this year far exceeded what we should have done without preseason preparation. I put that down to Walker Racing, having a good engineer and driving well. The one thing I wanted to achieve this year – as well as change the reputation I had with some people in the paddock – is build a relationship with Derrick. Because he is a Roger Penske or a Chip Ganassi: everybody knows he should be back running an IndyCar team. It's beneficial to build a relationship with somebody like that who can not only tell the rest of the world that I'm actually a good guy and a good driver, but also, I hope when he gets an opportunity, he'll call on me to do the job. Now we've spent a year working together, we know how each other is, what our strengths are and he knows how to get the best out of me. I think that will be a big help if we get the opportunity to race together again.”
Derrick himself observes: “We are both on the same course, both wanting to get back to where we were in 2007 – racing in the biggest open-wheel racing series in America. That was our common goal at the start of this year and we are still searching for a way to do that, ASAP.”
Be it together or as rivals (as per four years ago), both Walker and Clarke deserve to be successful in their quest, not just for their abilities but also their resilience in the face of adversity.