Chris Walker still stalking titles (Part 1)

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On the eve of his sidecar debut, we sat down with one of Britain’s favourite racers to look back over an incredible 20-year career

ew racers of any generation have managed to reinvent themselves as many times as Chris Walker. From schoolboy motocrosser to BSB runner-up, from factory GP racer to WSB race-winner, the 43-year old has been there, done that and got the leathers to prove it.

 

The early years 1975-1985

The son of a dealer, Walker grew up surrounded by bikes – and admits he’s never looked back since his first taste of speed.

“My dad had a used car and motorbike place before I even existed – I was born in the flat above it while my dad was downstairs repairing an E-Type Jag! He and his mate used to buy motorbikes, and anything they bought sold so fast that they went into selling bikes full time.

“He ended up owning a shop called John Walker Superbikes. So I got my first Italjet 50cc automatic for my third birthday, with spacers so I could reach the brake levers. Then I progressed to a geared 80cc, and I’ve pretty much never been without bikes since.

“I did my first 100mph sitting on the tank of a Z900, holding onto the handlebars with my dad riding it, at age three. That was it from then on – I was addicted to speed and motorbikes.”

The motocross years 1985-1995

With a love of speed firmly instilled, racing was the obvious next step for Walker –a path that eventually led to the heights of world-level competition.

“I rode for fun for 10 years because my dad’s priority was getting a fledgling business off the ground. Then, when I turned 13, he bit the bullet and took me motocross racing.

“I was never going to be a professional motocross racer, though, because I fell off more than I stayed on. But I thoroughly enjoyed it. I got to a level where I can still get round now and be quite competitive.

“But I kept breaking my leg! I broke my left leg in a road bike accident, spent 16 weeks in plaster, and two weeks later broke it again. Of the 52 weeks in the year, I spent 32 of them in plaster – I wasn’t half bad on crutches!

“I knew I needed to make a change. I had an opportunity to buy a Suzuki RGV250, but my dad was ready to retire. I thought ‘I’m not old enough to take over the shop, I want to be Barry Sheene!’

“So I bought the RGV for a couple of grand, nicked my dad’s van and went road racing. I won two races in my first meeting, and the next year I was scoring points on a 500GP bike for Padgett’s in the British Grand Prix!

“I could never have got to that level in motocross – I didn’t have the talent. I didn’t know I had it at road racing either, but once I figured it out I never looked back.”

So near yet so far in BSB 1996-2000

Making the step from motocross to ultra-competitive road racer, Walker didn’t waste time in British Superbikes, securing his first full season in 1997, only two years after making the switch, before coming so close to title glory four years in a row.

“My first year of BSB in 1997 went all the way to the last round, against my team-mate Niall Mackenzie. Team boss Rob McElnea spotted me, he gave me my first full year on a superbike, and I finished runner-up for two years in a row. Niall took me under his wing and helped me out. He was in the twilight of his career, like I have been the past few years, but he helped me out so much – even if every so often I’d beat him and he wouldn’t speak to me for a while!

“2000 was an epic year in BSB. After finishing runner-up to Mackenzie a couple of times, and to Troy Bayliss, 2000 was absolutely the year that put both Neil Hodgson and me on the map.

“We were like Doctor Evil and Austin Powers – we absolutely hated each other. We were arch-enemies, but now we’re quite good friends!

“To finish second in those years to the people I did, looking back at how green I was, not knowing how to set a bike up – I look at that time and know it made me what I am.”

A brief foray to Grand Prix 2001

After making his mark in BSB by finishing in the points less than a year after making his debut racing road bikes, Walker translated an impressive few years into a factory ride for 2001. But it didn’t quite go to plan…

“I had the opportunity to ride a Crescent World Superbike, and had kind of said yes – then the chance to ride a Honda V4 factory GP bike came along. In hindsight, it’s the one point in my career I can categorically look back at and say I made a mistake. I wasn’t ready to ride it, and the bike wasn’t what it was supposed to be.

“It wasn’t disastrous, because I was still scoring points in races with 30 riders, but I wasn’t challenging. I went there as a four-time BSB runner-up and people expected more.

“But I’d only been racing for five years, and now I had a factory contract worth a couple of hundred grand. But I never really saw much of the money, and I never finished the season. But it led me into World Superbikes.”

Photos: Double Red/Bauer archive

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Simon Patterson

By Simon Patterson

MotoGP and road racing reporter, photographer, videographer