Author: Oli Rushby Posted: 04 Feb 2016
Chris Walker is a British Superbike legend. Having first raced in the British series in its inaugural year as the British Superbike Championship, Walker went on to win 21 races and finish runner-up four times.
He famously missed out on the 2000 British Superbike title to arch-nemesis Neil Hodgson after a titanic, season-long battle that made its way into the history books as the best title fight the series has seen to date.
Now, after 304 career British Superbike races, Walker will step away from the class but isn’t quite ready to hang up his leathers just yet.
In a move that’s turned more heads than when the Spice Girls split up at the turn of the millennium, Walker will swap two wheels for three as he makes his debut in the British Sidecar championship this year.
Thinking he’d lost his marbles, we took a trip to the Stalker’s Grantham Kawasaki dealership to find out what he had to say.
As I walked through the doors of the pristine dealership, Walker wanders out of his office with a huge smirk on his face. He knows why I’m there and he knows what I’m going to ask.
Decorating Walker’s shop is a colourful collection of exotic bikes, including his own Kawasaki Ninja H2R, the ZX-10R he won his last British Superbike race on, and the factory WSB ZX7RR he finished fourth with at Silverstone in 2002. Race helmets, suits and action photos adorn the walls – there is no mistaking this man’s racing heritage.
“I was exploring my options in superbikes for 2016 and beyond but having finished the season early last year I didn’t have quite the same amount of options going forward,” he told us, having been unceremoniously left in the lurch after Tommy Hill’s BeWiser Kawasaki squad went bust three quarters of the way through the 2015 season.
“It left me with some unfinished business. I’ve raced for 20 years and I didn’t know when I crossed the line in Assen that it would be my last superbike race. I didn’t ride around waving to the crowd or thanking the marshals like you would. With that in mind, not racing wasn’t really on my radar for 2016.
“There were half a dozen potential BSB rides that came and went. It wasn’t helped by there being fewer Kawasaki teams on the grid next year. I’ve been a Kawasaki man for many years but I’ve also now got a Kawasaki dealership so I can’t be going around on a BMW or a Honda. My heart is in Kawasaki, cut me in half and you’ll see I’ve got green blood. Out of 30 years racing motorbikes I’d say two thirds of was on a Kawasaki, so if I was going to race one last season in superbikes it would have to be on a ZX-10R.
“I spoke to a few teams but it was either that the bike wasn’t going to be right, the team wasn’t going to be strong enough, or that there was a young lad in the wings who deserved a shot. I look at it and think if people like Terry Rymer and Niall Mackenzie hadn’t retired I might have never been able to have my chance, and just because they stopped racing doesn’t mean they aren’t still having fun on bikes! I’ve had a lot of opportunities on superbikes and a fantastic career, maybe it is the right time for someone else to come along and fill those boots.
“I’ve always had an eye on the sidecars. I’ve done a few laps around Mallory Park in the side of Mick Boddice but it wasn’t for me I have to say!
“I’ve always appreciated what they do and to watch it at the TT is immense. Then I got to see a bit more through riding for Be Wiser last year. They had involvement with a sidecar team and won the championship with the two young lads. They were really good fun, always in hospitality and I probably watched more than they realised. I took quite a bit of notice of the bike, always had a sit in it when I could.
“It wasn’t something I’d instantly look at doing but at the same time the superbike thing wasn’t coming together and anything I could find either wasn’t competitive enough or wasn’t a Kawasaki. I got talking to Roger Body who runs the sidecar series and one thing led to the next and before you knew it Stuart Higgs [British Superbike boss] was talking to me about it about the possibilities and where we could go with it.
“I was obviously interested to know what the plans were for the championship and it’s moving up to a premier slot between the two BSB races on the Sunday so that’s great for the sidecars irrespective of me being there or not.”
Walker’s age has been a thing of mystery throughout his career with the fans’ favourite often purported to be two years younger than he actually is. However old he is, which is probably closer to 45 than the reported 43, switching to what is basically an entirely different discipline at his age is to be commended.
“To be involved in a completely new sport, at the top level, in your forties is completely unheard of,” he said. “It’s still motorbike-based but there aren’t that many similarities; no front brake, the back brake is on the opposite side, the gears are on the other side and the tyres are flat as as opposed to round. But it’s a ZX10 engine and when I started it and revved it it felt like a motorbike and that’s what sealed the deal for me.
“I’m going to have a team-mate sat at the side of me to share both the good and the bad times, whereas with superbikes it’s all team until you put your visor down and head down pit lane and then you’re on your own. With this, it’s the team 24/7. I’ve got a big team of people to work with off the track and then on the track I’ve got young Jed Pilmoor-Brady, who must be a danger seeker full time! He works for the MOD doing something that can’t be talked about and then for kicks he’s a top level sidecar passenger. He’s only 21!
“I’m going to need somebody to hold my hand. He’s raced around at top ten British championship level with a rider/driver who knows what they are doing, so hopefully he’s going to be able to point me in the right direction and we’ll be able to work together.
“The sidecar passenger has a lot more to do with the steering and the grip of the bike than I ever realised. They have a lot of input, so that side of it is completely different.
“When you see it without the fairing on, at the back you’ve got two big flat wheels so it’s always going to want to push straight as the little wheel at the front is half the size of those two. In essence, in a car you’d be understeering everywhere so you have to ride it in a way where you’re quite loose at the rear. The passenger has to sit in the right place and move the weight around, they can get it to break away to help your steering etc.
“I’m not going to know how to do that from day one but I’m hoping Jed will be able to help. It’s good that I’ve got someone that’s young, athletic, half my age, and twice as brave! He’s a fit strong lad and used to going fast in a sidecar whereas at this stage I’m used to going fast but not in a sidecar!
“There are places they go much faster around a track than a solo. When I went on the side of Mick Boddice at Mallory on a damp patchy day, at Gerrards he was accelerating from the minute he got into the corner. My arse was twitching! On a solo you wouldn’t accelerate there, it’d spit you off, but he just kept on going. The speed we excited the corner was phenomenal and that was in a little 600 Formula 2 outfit; I’ll be racing a Formula 1, 195bhp ZX-10R powered beast!”
Upon realising his British Superbike options were running thin, Walker did consider setting up his own outfit for the 2016 season and even beyond, but with Kawasaki bringing out a new bike this year he decided to put these plans on hold.
“I did consider running myself,” he explained. “We had discussed running a Chris Walker Kawasaki Race team with me on the bike in 2016 before stepping aside to be team manager with a younger lad on the bike the year after. It would have been fantastic and it’s not completely dead and buried but with a new Kawasaki out this year it wasn’t the right time. To get a new bike competitive with a limited budget and resources is a lot harder in your first year than buying something that’s been going for three years.
“Paul Bird is now coming to the table with factory WSB-spec (minus the traction control) Ducatis and GBmoto has three riders and almost a £1 million budget; it’s not the ideal time to go in as a one-man band and make your mark!”
Determined for that eighth place in Assen not to be his final race, Walker has already begun making arrangements with British Superbike bosses for one final swansong in the premier class.
“I have the opportunity to do a one-off race on a superbike over this year or next,” he told us. “There are three rounds a year that the sidecars aren’t involved with so that gives me a chance to do a farewell race on a superbike if there’s a team and bike available.
“The people deserve a wave and some thanks. In 20 years of racing superbikes there can’t be a marshal out there who hasn’t picked me up at some point; there can’t be someone who hasn’t stuck their hand up at the end of the race whether it’s for a first or a tenth. One thing I will miss is pulling wheelies so I’ll also get an opportunity to do that.
“Although racing superbikes is my dream job, it can’t last forever. I’m still in the paddock racing in a top level class but the pressure is much less intense, although there’s still going to be a certain element of adrenaline!”