Walker: Getting fans “re-ignited” is IndyCar’s biggest challenge

46 Comments

Five years after open-wheel racing unified in North America, the IZOD IndyCar Series continues to face a uphill climb in regards to growing its mainstream presence. The split between the series (then known as the Indy Racing League) and Champ Car that lasted from 1996 to 2008 had a disastrous impact on the sport, causing many longtime fans to abandon it and helping to accelerate NASCAR’s rise to prominence as the country’s most popular form of racing.

Not that everything is grim for IndyCar, which boasts a diverse driver grid and schedule of tracks as well as perhaps the best racing product in the whole of motorsports today. But Derrick Walker, the sport’s new head of racing competition, realizes that many challenges are still to be contended with — and getting the fans back is the biggest one of all.

“There are a number of challenges and I’m not sure if there’s any one ahead of the others, but if I had to pick one, I’d say the biggest challenge we’ve got is to get the fans re-ignited with what we’re doing,” Walker said in an interview with NBC Sports Network’s Marty Snider during this afternoon’s Bump Day proceedings.

“We need to appeal to a bigger fan base and we’ve got to get some of those fans who have gone off to some other sport or have choices that they didn’t have before and now have them — they don’t all tune in when we want them, so we’ve got to find a way to connect with the fans…We’re charged with that responsibility: Get the fans back.”

As for his potential impact on the series’ current relationship with its teams, Walker hopes to have more positive dialogue with them as well as the entirety of the sport’s partners. The sport’s off-track headlines have sometimes had a tendency to overshadow positives achieved on the track, and Walker recognizes that such a situation can’t exist going forward.

“The team owners have not felt the love, shall we say, for a number of years,” said Walker, who is still the team manager for “500” pole sitter Ed Carpenter’s squad through the month of May. “So hopefully I can bridge that gap…We can’t do it in a vacuum. We’ve got to be all together and we’ve got to get behind a common purpose, a common goal.

“That’s what the fans want. They don’t want us to be out there duking it out while they’re losing interest. They want us all together — unite the series across the board.”

Al Unser Jr. back in IndyCar after a decade away: ‘Life is very good’

Getty Images
Leave a comment

There’s been somewhat of a hole in Al Unser Jr.’s heart ever since he retired from racing in 2007.

It was a void, something was missing.

But now, after a decade away from racing, Unser has found the right medicine to fill that hole in his heart: he’s back in the racing game again.

No, he’s not driving again (although he does participate occasionally in vintage races), but the two-time Indianapolis 500 (1992 and 1994) winner is definitely back in the IndyCar world.

And he couldn’t be happier.

“For me, it’s a dream come true,” Unser told IndyCar.com. “Since I stepped out of the race car and retired from racing, there’s been something missing from my life, and it’s racing.”

Unser has hooked up with Harding Racing. The team competed in three races last season as a ramp-up for a full 17-race effort this season. While Unser’s official title with the team is “consultant,” he’s involved in so much more.

His main role is as a driving coach to 2015 IndyCar Rookie of the Year Gabby Chaves. But he’s also involved in so many other areas, including helping the team obtain sponsorships and much more.

He then added, “I’m involved in every sense of the word except actually driving the car. And I’m happy about that because I’m too old to drive the car.”

Unser, who won CART championships in 1990 and 1994, is now 55. He’s so involved with his new job that he even moved from his native New Mexico and has relocated to suburban Indianapolis.

Not only is it a new start for Unser, it also is for Chaves. After running all 16 races in 2015 for Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian, he competed in just seven races for Dale Coyne Racing in 2016 and only three races for Harding Racing last season.

But he definitely impressed the team, with a fifth- (Texas) and ninth-place (Indianapolis 500) finish in the first two races and 15th (Pocono) in the team’s final run of the season.

That’s why when Harding Racing decided to go fulltime in 2018, Chaves was their pick for behind the wheel. And Unser was their pick to help guide him to potential stardom in the series.

“(Team owner) Mike Harding is definitely a person that when he decides to do something, he does it right,” Unser told IndyCar.com. “The potential for this organization is through the sky. We’re all working really hard here and we see the potential.”

And as for Unser?

“Life is good, life is very good,” he told IndyCar.com. “We’re back full force, eager and better than ever.”

Click here for the full story about Unser from IndyCar.com.