Three time European Track Racing Champion Richard Walker has set his sights high looking for success in deep sand rather than the heaving tarmac under his racing truck. After hauling big rigs around the world and installing equipment in remote locations, he has always enjoyed adventure, so the 2022 Peking to Paris Motor Challenge should be a perfect but different path for him to follow in his illustrious competition career.
Racing leviathan machines around Europe is one thing but competing in the world’s longest and most gruelling historic motoring event with no endurance rally experience in hostile terrain, is another. Does Richard think the sand could be too deep?
Ricard Walker; “I don’t think we are in too deep any more than a lot other folks, they are not all professional guys that do it – from what I can make of it there are some who are quite out for it, 30% who are half way there and others who are just happy if they make it. That’s my assessment but I may be totally wrong!
“The travelling aspect is OK, we like to think we are fairly fit, Faith Douglas, my partner and navigator is certainly physically fit. If we are in at the deep end we are in there with another 109 crews. Some of them are more experienced but hopefully before the event we will learn one or two more tricks to help us survive it.”
As a former East Midlands Rally Champion this event brings Richard back full circle to rallying, will that help? “Maybe a bit but it’s the driving, everyone is good at something and driving is up there for me. I always thought I’d make a bloody good Rallycross driver, on different surfaces I seem to have a reasonable ability going from tarmac to loose gravel. I only played at it a little bit but that and the special stage rally driving, which was probably quicker than what we’ll be doing, amounts to some experience that I think will come in handy.
“For me it’s the adventure, I’ve always travelled lots for work. In the old days we installed these huge industrial knitting machines internationally, that took me to some god forsaken places in parts of North Africa, Romania and such like. I do like the challenge of going to these far out places.
“These were Industrial knitting machines made in Britain, up to 50ft long weighing 20 tons, you couldn’t twist them at all so we have had to carry them on a big steel base like a bailey bridge as part of the big truck rig. In the old days it involved winching and rollers and then jacking them away which is really hard work when you’re in the heat of North Africa. Towards the end we were using a mobile crane but there was still a lot of jacking, skating and grafting.
“I do enjoy ending up in some weird places away from the tour bus! I can’t think of anything worse than a guided tour, I much prefer an adventure!
“We also worked a lot in Italy mainly around Prato, Florence, where it was very civilised, we got right down to the bottom end in Sicily. Then into Spain and Portugal, work did take me as far away as Hong Kong and Taiwan, then two wonderful trips into Texas.
“The Texas job meant getting on a plane to USA, meet the owners and try to undercut the other bids from much bigger outfits to move the second hand plant a client had bought out of St Antonio.
“So I went back to my mother, I was only 25 at this point, and I said I had to go to Texas to look at this job she said you’re not having any money off me, you’re just going there for a holiday!
“She could be a bit like that, so I went down to Gatwick Airport. I was first in the stand by queue at 4.00am, I waited about three hours but got on a British Caledonian 707 to Huston for about £35 of my own money, and it all just clicked after that. We won the contract and finished the job which in turn gave us more work as well to move a factory out of Porto Rico!
“I really enjoyed Texas it’s quite civilised – if you can shoot a gun!”
Richard’s first motor sports experience was aged 10 blasting a kart around around an old army camp that his father owned.
His first competition was aged 17 with a Riley 1.5 he bought from the local Vicar for £25. He raced at Long Eaton stadium, Banger Racing on cinders, it was stock car racing in normal saloon cars. Richard; “The Riley was a great little car but we were up against the likes of Dr Death in his big Mk2 Jag or his equally big Zephyr. If you got near Dr Death he’d put you straight into the barriers so you had to skate past him. We won a few races, yeah we did quite well.
“Then we went grass track racing around Lincolnshire at courses at different show grounds with a Ford Anglia and won a few races with that car. That took me into my twenties then I got pally with a lad, he was a navigator and we went off special stage rallying with a Mk 1 Escort.”
They were successful, winning the East Midlands Rally Championship but when the 4X4 cars like the Audi were coming in Richard felt they couldn’t compete any more. Richard; “I remember we did the Dukeries through Sherwood Forest, we were quick but there was one stage where when we got virtually every corner right, we were still skating down those tracks at up to 100 mph, nothing like WRC now that’s phenomenal its unbelievable what they are doing, but it was still plenty quick enough. We got to the stage finish thinking we’ve got be fastest, but I was fourth, about four seconds behind the Audis so I thought you can’t win against them.
“I heard at that point that truck racing was coming to Castle Donington. Leyland, who had a works team had been to an early race meeting in France and really got behind it. Donington was just a huge, huge meeting, there so many people trying to get in, it blocked the M1!
“I think it was in Motoring News, they wrote a feature called ‘motor sport biggest shocks,’ that Donington meeting was in there at about number seven. I thought local circuit, truck racing, it ticked so many boxes I thought I’d have a go. Off we went, we were pretty successful at that first race – we had a fairly fast truck and it went from there!”
Richard Walker first raced Leyland then Kenworth then a Volvo White truck sponsored by Lucas, becoming triple European Class Champion. The three classes were based on engine size, Class A up to 12 litres, B to 14 litres then the monstrous Class C for over 14 litre engines!
“Steve Parrish was always in big class, those works Mercs had a V10 with over 14 litres, we were five tons, up to 12 litres. The monsters were OK on a long circuit, but on the shorter tracks we were up there with them, nimble.”
Many onlookers watch the ‘high cab’ trucks believing them unstable, wondering just how it feels to take a racing truck to the edge on a track, Richard responded; “I always had a comfortable and easy feeling up there, you didn’t have any fear of fire, always felt well protected, dare I say with the big roll cage, it was more of a sliding operation. The only time they tipped over was if you went into the gravel too quickly and they dug in and flipped onto their sides. People used to say to me it must be so frightening, but I thought it was the safest motor sport I had ever done.
“Apart from places like Zolder in Belgium where you always used to run out of brakes, it had trees near the circuit too, so it was always a pretty dangerous track, especially when it was a bit damp. Racing the truck was more about control, you had to be smooth, look after the tyres, the fronts would go off very quickly because of the weight on the front axle. It was about keeping your head and nursing the tractor unit. A bit like Peking Paris, maybe? Slowly, slowly, catch a monkey.”
The trucks weren’t slow either, the Volvo White used to go from standing start to 100 mph and stop again in 18 seconds! The 60+ time truck race winner described how that felt; “The acceleration and the brakes on it were amazing once you got it going, it was a fabulous truck. At Brands you could throw it into a controlled broadside all the way round Druids. It was very drivable truck.
“On press days most media passengers used to get out screaming, maybe because of the height up there!”
European Truck Racing was hugely popular both with the fans and the contestants, Richard continued; “In the first years it was basically a load of truckers who helped each other out, but they were the best days of my life. Then Mercedes came in and spoilt it by throwing big money at it. By year three they had the works trucks there. It became very professional, but a lot of the crack went.
“The early years were golden years. Our truck was just a great old truck, I shouldn’t say this but I’m sure I’m not the only driver who could have won with that truck. We could qualify one day, go out to the local town and party a bit that night, then still clean up next day. It was excellent.
“In its heyday, at somewhere like Brands Hatch there were 50, 000 people there. The fair ground was going, the pit walk about was great, it was good for families, you could lift kids into the trucks, a lot of people really enjoyed it and there was always a big attendance. At the Nurburgring over the three days they had a quarter of a million people through the gates! There was the Country and Western affect, bands over from the USA, big American trucks, loads of big time hospitality which suited me as well. A lot of people were in the same industry as me so it felt very comfortable.”
The results of Richard Walker’s successes at international level are reflected in the vast number of media cuttings from all over Europe. One sponsor, Lucas for example was very happy as Richard explained; “We got great media coverage but it was also a great way to entertain customers. The letters I used to get back from people were just so complimentary, and from branches of Lucas, the fuel injection side in France or Lucas in Koblenz they had the perfect way to entertain at a high level, they loved it, it was a bloody good day out.”
The other attraction was the big names and characters in the sport who were taking part. Barry Lee, Barry Sheene, Steve Parrish, Slim Borgudd who was ex Abba and F1. Richard felt there was a great camaraderie in the paddock with all of them; “Sheenie became a particular friend of my father actually, he was always in our trailer with him, we got fairly friendly with Barry, a nice chap.”
Despite the friendships, Walker beat them all at various points; Richard was quite modest in his response; “Well yeah the truck did, we had a reputation that we were pretty handy, I was hungry there’s no question of that.”
There was danger too. If these monsters of the track became unhinged big crashes with giant wreckage was normally the result. Richard had his share of dramas with probably his biggest shunt career wise in 1989 in front of millions of BBC TV viewers. Richard; “It was the year that Murray Walker and Grandstand televised truck racing live at Silverstone for the first time.
“George Allen had taken me out just after Stowe, he hit me so hard that I was going head on into the barriers, and I probably wouldn’t be talking to you now if I’d hit head on, but I managed to put it in sideways, which I put down to rally experience, that the truck then went along the barrier instead.
“I was OK after the accident but they wheeled me off to casualty anyway although there was nothing wrong with me, I was just a bit shaken up.
“The truck disintegrated, the back axle came off, the front axle departed and I was left in the cab, just one of three major parts left on track with other trucks hurtling towards us. The problem was that the back axle still had the prop shaft attached and it went off pong-oing down the track drilling big holes in the tarmac as it went. They had to be filled in and it delayed the event for an hour and a half!
“This was the only time that Grandstand had put Truck Racing live on TV, so they started bollocking me for it, I said wo, wo, you’d better look at some footage and speak to the others who saw it – I’m the innocent man on this one!
“I had to go up to the commentary box and explain it to Murray and the BBC. I was just talking to Murray, when someone called ‘Murray one minute’ he was all calm, they said ‘thirty seconds’, he was fine then the count three, two, one and he just went crazy with the mic in his hand! I kept looking at him in amazement, obviously bemused.
“What a sad loss though, there will never ever be another like Murray Walker, an incredible character, he was just great for motor sport in general.
“The BBC have showed the accident quite a few times, I think Terry Wogan played it on his show and I saw the footage in a pub once. It was a fairly big accident in those days, but I suppose not as dramatic as some of the accidents you get now where cars go end over end like in the WRC. That’s the kind of footage you put in these sports bars, ours is not quite so exciting but I assure you it was exciting at the time!
“I don’t have the footage now, BBC have it in their archive, but I have seen it and have heard Murray going bananas!”
The Silverstone crash was huge, amplified by the TV and the vast number of spectators, but Richard Walker survived unscathed through a combination of skill and luck. If this wasn’t enough he endured another nasty crash at Zolder in Belgium when he crashed into trucks scattering them like skittles.
The survivor takes up the story; “That was the year after Silverstone, I didn’t have much luck with that Kenworth truck! In those days the trucks threw out a lot of black smoke. We were on the third row and on the first lap it was a bit like dodgem cars, really haggling for space. I was behind a German called Heinz Denhardt in a big Mercedes truck, he’d pull out of the corners quicker than I could but behind us there was an accident and they stopped the race. They put the red light on over the start finish straight which you are not meant to pass.
“The first trucks pulled up under the light, I came out of the right hander onto the straight glued to Denhart’s tail, flat out in all his black smoke. Then he suddenly slowed, I thought he’d missed a gear so I swerved past him only to find all these parked trucks less than a hundred metres in front of me!
“I ran into them, scattering trucks like skittles as it swung me onto the pit wall. One went towards the grandstand and hit a main water hydrant, I got out OK but into this scene of mayhem, it was like being in a Mad Max movie! There was wreckage everywhere showered by this huge jet of water from the burst hydrant, it was just as if I’d been going down a motorway at speed and all of a sudden finding it blocked- and very wet!
“It was controversial as they were using the black flag across the pit wall which I just couldn’t see. Afterwards I could just about make it out on the ‘in cab’ camera. Normally it’s the red flag with black flags reserved for individual truck misdemeanours, so I got away with it, but the regulations were changed after that. Somebody could have got hurt on that one, luckily we all got away with it.
“I always remember that race as Nigel Mansell was in trouble with the FIA that same weekend in 1989 at the Portuguese G.P. when he missed three back flags! He’d reversed in the pit lane after overshooting in a pit stop, he eventually crashed into Senna but received a $50,000 fine and a one race ban, so I consider myself very fortunate!”
Despite his competition success, Richard Walker never compromised the business through finance of his racing or his time, he lavished his attention on Walker and Sons (Hauliers) Ltd growing the business through diversification and improving it’s core offering to turn it into the thriving business that operates today. The business comprises haulage, plant hire with mobile cranes and heavy duty industrial forklift trucks plus a house building division. There is also a large commercial property portfolio.
A multi million pound competitive business success based on hard graft and initiative.
Now Richard has made time for a different kind of adventure from delivering and erecting major machinery in far off places. This time he is expected to deliver a competitive result off track across the Gobi desert and half way round the world to Paris. Before that there is the Sahara Desert to cross as a prelude later this year. There is a first time for everything and both he and Faith Douglas are now in deep preparation, not deep sand. That is yet to come.
We will cover more of Richard’s journey and his chosen Peking to Paris Motor Challenge steed in the coming months. It may surprise you to learn that it’s not a truck, although some might unkindly refer it as one!