By Anton Rippon
When, in 1984, lawyer Ken Walker offered to beef up a press day at Long Eaton speedway stadium, he couldnâ€™t have imagined that it was the first step towards him working at some of the worldâ€™s most famous motor racing circuits.
Nor that it would be the start of a road that would eventually lead him to exotic destinations all over the globe to fulfil his role as â€œthe voiceâ€ of one of the most spectacular of motor sports.
Silverstone, Brands Hatch, Le Mans, Hockenheim, Nurburgring, Spa Francorchamps, Sharm el Sheikh â€” SJA member Walker has commentated at them all. Monaco, Dubai, Malaysia, South Africa, Southern California â€” they are just some of the places that the boy who grew up in the tight terraced streets of Derbyâ€™s Firs Estate in the 1950s, has recently found himself.
There have also been some notable interviewees on the other end of Kenâ€™s microphone, not least seven times F1 world champion, Michael Schumacher (pictured above), and his then Ferrari teammate, Rubens Barrichello.
Three years ago, the man who shares his surname with a rather more well-known motor racing commentator left the world of legal arguments for good and, at the age of 62, began a new full-time career in the unlikely world of superkarting. Most weeks see him leaving his south Derbyshire home, bound for another airport and another country.
Later this week, Walker is working at the CIK-FIA karting world championships in Macau, where he is sharing commentary with a Chinese language commentator in an event to be televised on Eurosport on October 11. Straight after that, heâ€™s off to the Monaco Kart Cup. Heâ€™s also just been signed up for a new Pan American karting series next year.
Yet it all began in the definitively unglamorous setting of the now defunct Long Eaton speedway stadium.
â€œOne day, I was chatting to a client who was an official of the Long Eaton Invaders speedway team. He told me about a press day he was organising. I thought it sounded a bit flat, so I offered to help out,” Walker says.
â€œBefore I knew it, I was working part-time as the track commentator and was the announcer when, in 1984, the Invaders won their only national championship in almost 50 years of speedway racing.â€
Before long, he was also reporting for the BBC on world championship snooker at Derby Assembly Rooms. Then, the list just grew and grew: badminton, cross-country (â€œa nice interview with David Bedfordâ€), the women’s FA Cup Final at the Baseball Ground, athletics with Daley Thompson and Fatima Whitbread, the first-ever international American Football match (England v Australia), the Midlands Grand National at Uttoxeter, the British Open Squash championships, which included an interview with the great Jansher Khan, stock car racing from Long Eaton, motorcycle grands prix at Donington Park.
Inevitably, there were some amusing incidents along the way.
â€œOne Saturday, covering snooker at the Assembly Rooms, I wondered why play had stopped abruptly just as I went on air. Referee Len Ganley looked up and gave me one of his famous stern glares. The door to the soundproof booth had come open and Iâ€™d started rabbiting just as Terry Griffiths was about to play a difficult shot.
â€œAnd there was more than one winter covering an event with a radio car and not being able to get the mast down afterwards because it had frozen solid.â€
It was a chance meeting with John Osborne, chairman of the British Superkart Association, back in 1996, that led to Walkerâ€™s present role as that sportâ€™s leading commentator.
â€œKarting has long been recognised as the nursery for all of todayâ€™s F1 drivers. Thatâ€™s because, in some cases, you can start kart racing as young as six, although the 60cc or 80cc machines used by the youngsters rarely require a circuit commentator.
â€œItâ€™s when you progress to the larger 125cc machines that international competition beckons, and thatâ€™s where my services are in demand. Additionally, those staying in kart racing instead of trying for a career in car racing will eventually find themselves in whatâ€™s known as long circuit gearbox superkart racing. In the East Midlands, that takes place on tracks like Donington, Mallory Park and Cadwell Park, for example.
â€œThatâ€™s how I started kart commentaries, which eventually led to international promoters hearing me and asking if Iâ€™d consider taking on engagements abroad. English is the international language of motor sport, and even if circuit commentators are engaged to provide a â€˜homeâ€™ language commentary, an English commentary is encouraged by the sportâ€™s governing body, at least for the major world and European tournaments.
â€œThere is no money to be made by drivers at the lower end of the sport â€” in fact, they have to be financially supported, usually by proud fathers â€” but thereâ€™s some big money to be earned at the top end.â€
And if anyone thinks that karting is just a few kids careering around in soapboxes, consider that in the last three years, Ken has witnessed several fatalities.
â€œAll motor sport is dangerous. For a couple of years I was press officer for the British ice speedway team in the world championships. Thatâ€™s a sport with the razor sharp spikes inserted into the tyres for grip on the ice, and in several countries itâ€™s banned. I saw a Russian rider bleed to death on the ice at Moscowâ€™s Olympic Stadium.
â€œBut karting can also have fatal consequences. In my first 10 years as a superkart commentator, I saw no serious injuries or fatalities but, sadly, in the last 18 months Iâ€™ve witnessed three fatal racing accidents, two of which happened while I was on the microphone.
“They were all dreadful occasions and your heart goes out to the families of those left bereaved. Indeed, some of those in officialdom have questioned whether superkarts are too fast and therefore too dangerous.
â€œBut those who died did so doing what they love best, and none of them would have wanted his tragedy to further hurt the sport. Indeed in the midst of the gloom, the best feature of the sport emerged. That was the way the whole karting family rallied round to help.â€
That same feature is what appeals most to Walker in the good times.
â€œWhen I travel to some of the world series, I think of it as an opportunity to meet members of my extended family who I only see three or four times a year. Thatâ€™s definitely the biggest kick. The fact that I can go to some remote part of the globe and, in no time at all, hear someone calling, â€˜Hey Ken, itâ€™s good to see you again,â€™ is probably the biggest reward of all.â€