The crowd screams with delight. Tyler Walker looks to his left then to his right. He takes a running start. One step, two steps, and he's airborne, landing on his hands and propelling himself into a series of back flips to the approval of the fans.
It's not the Olympics, and this is no gymnastics class; the 19-year-old Sprint Car driving star is simply putting his signature touch on another winning effort. It's a unique victory dance Sprint Car fans can expect to see a little more often this season as the California native settles into his second season on the World of Outlaws Sprint Car circuit, the premier winged Sprint Car series in the world.
Walker persevered ,through an up-and-down rookie season in 1998, when he lost a close Rookie of the Year battle to Dale Blaney who, for all intents and purposes, was not actually a rookie, having won a pair of All Star championships in his career. The high point of Walker's career came late in the season when he swept a double-header program at Arizona's Manzanita Speedway.
Walker started his sophomore World of Outlaws campaign by dominating the opening night of a two-night run again at Manzanita in the second week of the season. He finished Fourth on the second night. Ironically, his success at Manzanita came after flipping violently (his car, not his body) on the historic half-mile track at his first appearance there, which was at a nationally televised event.
"The first three times we came here we could do nothing right," Walker recalls with a grin. "The last three times we've been here, we couldn't do anything wrong."
Up, up, and over for Tyler...
Up, up, and over for Tyler Walker as he celebrates winning the All Star Sprint feature race at Lernerville Speedway.
Another Racing Family Makes GoodWalker is the product of a racing family and another of the many kids who have grown up racing go karts to reach success at a higher level. Walker began racing karts when he was 11 years old and had won six state championships and two grand national titles by the time he moved up to Sprint Cars when he was 16. Walker experimented with 360 and 410 Sprint Cars as well as winged and nonwinged cars, and he also made a couple Silver Crown and stock car starts on asphalt. But in 1997, he began to concentrate full time on winged Sprint Cars and raced the full season with the All Star Circuit of Champions, winning seven races and the series Rookie of the Year honor.
"Sprint Cars are more exciting to me," says Walker, who wears his short hair dyed bleached blonde. "I like stock cars, but they don't put the kind of g-forces on your body that Sprint Cars do."
Walker's father, Bob, still races nonwinged Sprint Cars on occasion in the family's native California. The elder Walker owns the #35 Sprint Car his son drives, and the family business, AirSep, serves as the sponsor. Walker explains how he got his first taste of Sprint Car racing.
Walker, #35, battles Dale...
Walker, #35, battles Dale Blaney in Las Vegas last year.
"I got one of my dad's old cars," Walker says. "It was a car he had sitting out back, and we put an engine in it. We went out and ran a few races, and I started beating him, and then we started getting the new cars, and he ran the old ones."
The Walker family tradition in racing can be traced much farther back in time than to just Tyler and Bob Walker. Walker's grandfather was a car owner, and his great-grandfather helped develop the 110 Offenhauser and once even owned a car driven by Troy Ruttman. In fact, Walker's great-grandmother was a driver. She lost her life in 1925 driving a car called the Masked Marvel.
Traveling ManWhile many drivers hone their skills locally before setting out on a traveling circuit, Walker has been a traveling driver almost since the beginning of his career. Walker has had to learn about life while racing the likes of Steve Kinser and Sammy Swindell nightly.
"When you race against the type of competition that we have in the World of Outlaws, you learn how to race," Walker says. "You learn how to lose, you learn how to win, you learn to run in the middle.
Tyler with his father, Bob,...
Tyler with his father, Bob, who still races nonwinged Sprint Cars in California.
"A lot of guys can go run a local place and win every week. That can be fun," Walker continues, "but I want to make a pretty good career out of this. Everybody has slumps. The thing is to learn how to deal with them. That is the most difficult part for me."
The trials and tribulations of being on the road can play with your mind, and Walker knows that firsthand.
"This sport will play with your head," Walker warns with a smile. "But I've learned to grow up. I don't have any of my family with me, and you have to learn to work with people, because you are with your crew 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Sometimes you want to kill each other, and sometimes you are best friends. That can be difficult at times; you have to take a few deep breaths and get a hold of yourself."
After a full season of learning on the road with the Outlaws, it was almost fitting that Walker's first victory on the ultracompetitive series came at Manzanita during the 31st annual Western World Championship. Walker knew the significance of the triumph.
The fans and competition may...
The fans and competition may get used to Walker in Victory Lane before too long.
"You look at all the names of the drivers who have won this race," Walker says. "Guys like Steve Kinser and Ron Shuman. I'm glad to be able to join them on that list."
Walker was the first rookie to sweep a double-header feature in World of Outlaws competition and led all 30 laps of the Western World finale.
"This is unbelievable," Walker said following his traditional back flip in Victory Lane at the Western World. "I have a great car and a great team and a great family. We get to go home this week, and I'll sleep good. I won't be dreaming of winning my first World of Outlaws race. I did it."
While he did not win the World of Outlaws Rookie of the Year title, Walker was awarded the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame Wild Card award for exciting Sprint Car performances. Thus he became the first driver to win the Hall of Fame's Rookie of the Year award and Wild Card award in back-to-back seasons.
Walker takes a break in Las...
Walker takes a break in Las Vegas.
Walker's drive to victory at Manzanita in late February was another example of his aggressive style of driving as he wedged his #35 between the lapped cars of Joe Gaerte and Terry McCarl in a dazzling three-wide move to hold off Mark Kinser for the victory. Walker explained his move.
"Sometimes the lapped cars just fall your way, and we made them fall our way tonight," Walker said.
After a tough first week to the season, the victory helped Walker and his team gain momentum for the more than 60 events that remained on the World of Outlaws schedule. Walker made it clear his sophomore season was off to a better start than his freshman campaign.
"This is the momentum-builder we need," Walker explains. "We started off the year pretty rough, but compared to last year when we trashed a car on the first night and missed the feature the second night, we're way ahead. I can't wait to get out on the road."
Walker has already served notice that he belongs with the World of Outlaws. And while a championship may still be something Walker can dream about in his sleep, World of Outlaws victories are quickly becoming a way of life.
One step, two steps, and up and over.