Being Chris Walker

Published: 11 February 2016

In this interview from August 2014, BSB’s most popular rider looks back at his topsy-turvy career and explains why he’s not done yet

ver the last three decades, few British riders have captured race fans’ imagination like Chris Walker. A novice-vested Walker went from the rusty Transits and wobbly awnings of club racing to the British 500GP grid in less than eighteen months. There has never been a faster rise.
He then carved out a career as a hard-trying superbike rider, winning legions of admirers for his fast, loose style and his relentless tenacity in every battle: The Stalker was born. And now, after 20 seasons of professional racing and at the age of 42 (+VAT), Chris can look back at a career of stratospheric highs and subterranean lows. One thing’s for sure, being Chris Walker hasn’t been boring…  

I got my knee down three days before my first race
The bike shop where I worked (and that sponsored me) closed down and I just couldn’t afford all you needed to carry on racing at British championship level. But spending a couple of grand on a Suzuki RGV250 and borrowing my dad’s van looked possible. So I sold my Suzuki GSX-R400 and with the help of my girlfriend at the time went racing.
I’d been using road bikes for five years for my job. To finally end up on a racetrack, having used the road as my racetrack, was mega. It was like being set free. I couldn’t believe how exciting it was – the speed, the lean, the acceleration. I got my knee down around Gerard’s in my new Kushitani leathers that I’d bought especially from Hein Gericke. It still makes me smile now, thinking about sitting in the paddock with my rubbed-up sliders. I got my knee down for the first time on the Wednesday, did a race school on the Saturday and was winning a race for the first time on the Sunday. Six months later I was doing it for a job.

I beat a factory superbike on my Honda RS250
By the end of 1994 I’d been picked up by Padgett’s after winning the EMRA championship, and had a few rides on a Honda RS250 bought from Padgett’s. They liked what I could do and ran me the following year, and I never looked back. Clive Padgett doesn’t offer the world, but he delivers on what he says. He said, “As you progress we’ll give you the bike you need”.
My first big win was the Mallory Park Race of The Year against John Reynolds on a factory Kawasaki WSB bike. The prize money was £5000 and I’d already got it spent in my mind before the race. I qualified on the front row and, as it started to rain, the Honda came into its own. Mega grip, sticky tyres and lots of confidence. The only rider to put up a fight was Reynolds. But he’d done what every racer has done in his career at some point – taken a load of dough to wear a shit helmet, which steamed up. I won, went to collect my prize money and found out it was £500 not £5000, because they’d paid JR £5000 to start!

I was the last person to race in a 250GP and 500GP on the same day
Padgett’s got me a wild card for both races. I was on my Honda RS for the 250 race, but they gave me their spare Harris Yamaha for the 500GP. I still remember that first ride on a 500. It was nowhere near as friendly as my 250 Honda, but it wasn’t supposed to be. It weighed about the same as my 250, but with 100bhp more.
I wasn’t experienced enough to realise how big a break it was, or be nervous. I thought I could do it – it didn’t occur to me I couldn’t. Then I remember Mick Doohan coming under me into the Melbourne loop, lighting it up and fucking off, and realising I was so far out of my depth. I realised he was working about five levels above me, but I got a 15th place. The year before I’d gone with my girlfriend to see the GP and watched the bike through the fence. I couldn’t believe that a year later I’d actually scored a point. Crazy.
I only decided to race superbikes because Steve Hislop fell down the stairs
It was the end of the 1995 season and Steve had just won the British championship on a Devimead Ducati. But he missed the end-of-season non-championship race at Donington after damaging his neck partying, and couldn’t ride. I’d nicked a bit of space in the back of the Devimead garage for the 250 and Ray Stringer persuaded them to put me on the Ducati. I looked young for my age and as I went out for practice, the mechanic said, “Don’t fucking crash”. I was shitting myself, but three laps later the bike was cartwheeling down Old Hairpin, the dash flying through the air. I’d only crashed once all season. I was crying in the van back to the paddock, but the team were ecstatic – I’d put it on the front row. I ended up finishing third behind Aaron Slight and Simon Crafar and signing with Old Spice Ducati to race in BSB for 1996. I turned down riding a full season in 250GP with Padgett’s for it – Superbikes were where it was at in the UK.

I knew nothing about set-up
The Old Spice thing fell apart, but I did some 500GP races with the Elf Swissauto team. I knew very little about set-up – I remember team boss Serge Rosset sitting down and drawing out how different fork offsets affected trail and geometry. I was like a sponge at the time, but I needed to be – when I’d raced my 250 I couldn’t work out why it steered well at some tracks and then just leant over at others. It just didn’t occur to me that my eccentric chain adjuster would affect my ride heigh, and how the bike steered. A mechanic by trade, passionate about bikes and racing, I learnt so much in such a short time.

Niall Mackenzie and Rob Mac taught me everything
Niall taught me more about racing, on the track and off it, than anyone I’ve been with before or since. I watched what he did, how he conducted himself, how he trained and worked with the other team members, and we became firm friends. I finished second in the championship to Niall after just three seasons’ racing, but I had to move onto other teams or I would have spent my career in his shadow. When we raced together his kids were babies in in the pits. Now I bump into them in the paddock.

2000 was BSB’s golden year
The depth of the field was getting better and the bikes were being handed down from the factory WSB teams. It was the ultimate era of the 750s. Everything was magnesium, dry clutches, proper factory engines and magnesium carbs, and at front of the field me and Neil [Hodgson] riding so hard to win every race. It was unbelievable how hard we were going at each other. It all came down to the last race and we all know what happened. But I’m not bitter.
I’ve raced for 20 years and apart from a national 250 title I’ve never won a British Championship. But I’ve come second to Niall Mackenzie who got podiums in GPs, Troy Bayliss – a GP winner and multiple WSB champion – and Neil Hodgson, who was also a WSB title winner. It makes it easier to swallow.
When I left school I went to work at a bike shop and raced bikes for fun. I didn’t even realise you could make a living out of it, and I ended up racing against some of the best riders in the world.

I met Neil Hodgson for the first time in the gravel trap
Our paths had never really crossed. He’d been racing on the world scene and had to take a step down. WSB is unforgiving and if you don’t perform you’re back home before you know it. So he probably wasn’t that happy about racing in BSB and I was on my way up. We had to beat each other. There was pressure from the teams, pressure from the press, pressure from the fans. You were either a Stalker fan or a Hodgson fan.
The only time we managed to put this aside was the Donington round of WSB where he won as a wildcard and I came second. We’d both been dicing and stuffing it up the inside of the likes of Haga and Chili and they hated it to the point where Haga got his team boss to complain to Paul Denning to calm me down. Me and Neil just enjoyed being on the podium without worrying about our rivalry. 
There were feelings that he knocked me off at Oulton and I knocked him off at Silverstone. I’m not saying I did it deliberately, but I know that by hitting him I stayed on the bike. I remember hearing the crowd cheering like England had scored a goal as he went down.
I always had so much support from the fans and marshals, I reckon because I was always the underdog. It was the most amazing time and I didn’t deserve that amount of support.

The Honda NSR500 terrified me
Especially when they rolled the bike into the pit  lane and started it up. Getting out of your chair and walking to it was like walking the plank with a pool of sharks ready to tear you to bits. I never felt like it was my bike, or got the feel I needed to make it work.
Different levels of rider got different levels of support. All the NSR500s on the grid were different – my bike was Criville’s from the year before. Even he couldn’t get it to work and he was a former World Champion.
It was a mistake. Aside from the bike, the team wasn’t right and the rider only makes so much difference. It made me realise that Paul Denning was 1000 times better than the prat who was in charge. My old crew chief Les Pearson, who was barely allowed to clean the wheels, was a million times better than the chap Honda were paying thousands to adjust my preload.
When I wanted to change my handlebar position, Mick Doohan, who was working for Honda, said, “If you went from Touring Cars to F1, you wouldn’t take your steering wheel and seat.” It was at that point I realised that I wouldn’t see out the season with them.

500GPs made me ill
I wasn’t as capable of riding the bike as people thought. Foggy or Bayliss have an ability to rag the hell out of something and I didn’t have the experience to do the same. I was a superbike rider; I didn’t have enough finesse to be competitive on a GP bike. It affected my confidence and I didn’t want to be that rider that lost the front three or four times and became fragile. I contracted Bell’s Palsy that year too. They said that bangs on the head and stress – all the things a 500 can do – can help bring it on.
Every team I rode for in WSB seemed to close down
I signed for Harald Eckl’s Kawasaki team and it was a great way to rebuild my confidence. By then V-twins were the top bikes, but I finished top four-cylinder and consistently scored good results. Then I took over Neil Hodgson’s ride on the GSE Ducati 998 with James Toseland as my team mate. I was sixth in the championship, numerous podiums, but they decided not to continue. I was part of the first all-British WSB podium at Laustizring and but my funniest memory is a podium with Ruben Xaus winning at Laguna Seca. Afterwards the commentator asked how he did it. He said, “With a big Spanish hard-on.” The Americans didn’t know where to look. It was brilliant.

The Petronas burnt my pubes
The Petronas FP1 that I rode in 2004 wasn’t reliable or very fast. But the team were brilliant and Foggy was amazing. Seriously. He’d do the odd thing that you wouldn’t expect from a team manager, like squeeze you on the leg when you’re on the grid and say, “Give me a call and tell me how you do – I’ll be at the airport by the time you finish.” But he understood, and I’ll never forget him jumping onto the track when I got the team’s first podium. We nearly got our points taken away for that, but the passion, the joy in his eyes were just like when he was on the podium.
It caught fire on me at Silverstone and I had to bail out after it burnt off my pubic hair and bust a rib or two. The bike was a victim of the rules – a 900 triple against 1000cc fours. I loved working with them and they offered me £250,000 to stay, but I wanted to win races.

I walked on water for my first WSB win
I was pushed into in the gravel on my PSG-1 Kawasaki at the first corner at Assen in 2006, but from then on I was able to get my head down and work my way though the traffic. Everything felt amazing. I was passing people left, right and centre, the leaders were dropping like flies and before I knew it I’d gone last to fifth, chipped away and passed the leaders with two laps to go.
It’s the best a race has ever felt. I stood on the podium with this huge trophy and my future wife looking on. I loved the team too – even though I sometimes had to fly to Italy to demand my cash. We were like a family and they had put trust in me, but at the end of the year the funding dried up and I was back in the UK.
It felt that I had found the holy grail that day. If I could live any racing day again it would be this – or the days I spent as a kid mucking about with a motocross bike with my dad.

It hasn’t been easy being back in the UK
Acclimatising to the circuits in 2007 after seven seasons away took a long time. I came back to a tyre war and more dangerous circuits. When I returned to Oulton Park, it felt like the bike had a turbo fitted – wheelying everywhere, Armco just by your head. It was mind blowing. BSB is by far and away the toughest domestic championship in the world – all the ingredients need to be right to have a chance. I needed some consistency with a second year at the same team.

I’ve bought my own bikes in BSB
The last two years in BSB were on my own bike. Things fell through at the last minute and I was out of a ride. At the same time, Quattro Plant Bournemouth Kawasaki needed a rider. I asked Paul Bird if he had any bikes. Michael Dunlop’s old TT bike was for sale. I bought it, and Quattro Plant ran it. I won on it in the damp at Oulton. 

I don’t know if I can stop racing
I’ve still got the hunger. At every track I’m faster than the year before. People question why I’m still going– I remember James Whitham asking if I’d had my day and it was time to do something else. But it’s all I’ve ever done since 1983 and stopping that is daunting. I don’t know if I can stop, and God help my wife and marriage when I do. I don’t really know what to do next.

 

The Stalker's CV

1994 EMRA Club Championship, 1st.
Shell Clubman’s Championship, 1st.
1995 British 250cc Supercup, 2nd.
National 250cc Cup, Honda, 1st.
Mallory Race of the Year, Honda, 1st. British 500GP, Harris Yamaha, 15th. 1996 BSB championship, Ducati, 11th.
1997 BSB championship, Yamaha, 2nd.
1998 BSB championship, Kawasaki, 2nd.
Mallory Race of the Year, Kawasaki, 1st.
1999 BSB championship, Kawasaki, 2nd.
World Endurance, Le Mans, Kawasaki, 1st.
2000 BSB championship, Suzuki, 2nd.
WSB,  Suzuki, Donington Park 2nd, Brands Hatch 3rd.
2001 MotoGP, Honda, 12th.
2002 WSB championship, Kawasaki, 9th.
2003 WSB championship, Ducati, 6th.
2004 WSB championship, Petronas, 11th.
2005 WSB championship, Kawasaki, 7th.
2006 WSB championship, Kawasaki, 9th, First win.
2007 BSB championship, Suzuki, 7th.
Mallory Race of the Year, Suzuki, 1st.
2008 WSB/World Supersport, Honda/Kawasaki
2009 BSB championship, Yamaha, 9th.
2010 BSB championship, Suzuki/Kawasaki/Honda 10th.
2011 BSB championship, Kawasaki, 12th.
2012 BSB championship, Kawasaki, 9th.
2013 BSB championship, Kawasaki, 10th.
2014 BSB championship, Kawasaki, 6th.

Words Matt Wildee Pictures Bauer Archive, Gold and Goose