Interview: Stefan Walker aka FullySideWaysRally

With majority of WRC and IRC events being held in Europe it’s no wonder we tend to think of rallies as European only sport, with some exceptions around the world. Needless to say, such thinking is wrong – rally is truly international sport and it is extremely popular in all corners of the world. Even though World Rally Championship can only consist of so much rallies, there are  national and regional events and championships all over the globe, and the fans whose passion is as big as anywhere else in the world.

When I started this little blog of mine one of the guys immediately caught my attention. I admit I would not name little island country of Barbados if quizzed about the popular rally destinations in the world, but Stefan Walker taught me different. His Facebook posts and Tweets are full of enthusiasm and genuine love for rally, regardless of the series. It was only natural to ask Stefan a few questions about his love for this sport and about the rallying in Barbados.

If you’re like me and know only where Barbados is, but not much else, read this interview then head over to Wikipedia to learn a bit more about this fascinating place – after learning a thing or two about Barbados, I’m not at all surprised it’s people are crazy about going “Fully Sideways”.

Before we go, make sure to give Stefan a follow on Twitter.

Take it away Mr. Walker.

First of all, tell me a bit about yourself and how did you get involved in rallying?

Well, the name is Stefan Walker, I was Born on this little rock of Barbados in 1989 which makes me 22 years old at present. Unlike most racing or rallying fans I am a Christian and I grew up in a home where sometimes it was church first and then racing second especially on Sundays. Like most people involved in racing of some kind it’s a family thing. My father Rodney Walker was once a co-driver or navigator as they were called back then and in later year he became president of the Motoring Club Barbados Inc when I was a boy. My uncle Hazel Blenman tackled to roads of Barbados as a driver and my God-father both drove and navigated. So I guess rallying was in the blood and as a kid I watched a lot of racing no matter the type. When I was younger I had on old tape of the 1986 Monte Carlo Rally which was won by the Late Henri Toivonen I can’t tell you how many times I watched it. As a result of dad being involved I often found myself at circuit racing or rallying with him, and that’s how it all got started. I can still recall setting a rally or two with him and also being one of the zero cars in a one day rally back in 2001.

Many rally fans got their chance to get behind the wheel of a rally car and test their skills. How about you?

Unfortunately, my only rally driving skill are from holding a play station control or computer keyboard, so I never got to test my skills in a rally car. When I was younger I sat in a couple but nothing to major, the only memory I have that can compare is when I got a ride in the Ford Escort Mark 2 of Andrew Jones on July 14 this year. You should know how that went nothing but sideways i felt so many feeling in the moment but I can say I would definitely do it again.

From your posts and tweets I can see rally is big in Barbados, why is that?

You’re right its big here in Barbados, when I look back at some photos of the old days the numbers of people standing on the road side for an event was staggering and the same holds true today. I think Barbadian have a bit of Irish in them to be honest and we do love a bit of sideways. However not just the fans love it, the business love it as well because rallying brings in a few million dollars are so the sponsors get there returns especially now the recent creation of a racing committed show called race 1.

In my opinion, Barbados is perfect example how local community can get involved and at the same time reap benefits of major sporting events such as rallies. How is local community included in running of rallies in Barbados?

The Local community is a focal point of the running of rallies, or speed events. The local clubs the Barbados Rally Club (BRC) and the Motoring Club Barbados Inc (MCBI) have recognized that not everyone like motor sport so they do their best to ensure that they at least tolerate it. SO when events are coming the make sure that parties are informed of the incoming event. If the event is on a bus route they ensure that once that patrons get to their homes on time. The clubs also every so often allow the fans access to the cars. Scrutineering is always a place where drivers come get their cars checked and chat with eager fans, who many not be able to get to the cars otherwise. They also hold events where there is music, chatting and of course some dexterity as the drivers can also have a bit of fun.

Besides the obvious money issues, what other challenges rally crews in Barbados are facing and how difficult it is to climb up the ranks in rallying?

Well like you said the crews are facing the obvious money issues, however I have realized that despite this some 60 odd Barbadian drivers showed up for Sol Rally Barbados and they couldn’t do without money or sponsorship. For some sponsorship is seriously lacking while for other, they have been very fortunate no matter their social status, they are one or two drivers who have had it difficult these past three years or so and may have to consider stepping down a few groups to build again. To climb the ranks in Barbados you must have a “name” or just be filthy rich. Drivers now starting out have to find way to become popular with the fans and also the sponsors. They can do this in three ways: (1) become popular with the fans, (2) win rallies or your group and (3) be consistent and finish as much events as possible. Of course it never kills to combine all three.

I admit I am not an expert in rallying in your part of the world. Can you please describe if there are regional championships being run in which Barbados crews can compete?

In the past they had a regional championship called the Caribbean Rally Championship(CRC). This went on for a couple of years from 1997-1999. After that died the NACAM Rally Championship(NRC) came along in about 2008 so it is officially the championship we can compete in however, we don’t. This year i contacted the NRC about Rally Barbados and they said they were looking into it. Lo and behold the guys from FIA and NRC where in Barbados for the 2012 Sol Rally Barbados, so the future looks bright.

Biggest rallying event is Sol Rally Barbados. What is so special about this particular rally that makes it so popular with international crews?

Wow that’s a great question, the crews absolutely love it when they come here, some drivers have been here for more than 10 years and such. This year winner Paul Bird said that once you come here once you have to come back. We also had Kris Meeke along once again this year and he has won the rally twice in 2008 and 2009 and he’s always linked to coming back. In fact the only reason he didn’t drive was because of his commitments in Europe earlier that week. I think the drivers just love the friendly atmosphere and social aspect of the rallying is just as exciting as the competing itself. We always welcome them with love and that brings them back, and of course once they realized that the rally is all business that come back again to really give it a go. Just ask Roger Duckworth. Paul Bird has the best start finish ratio for international drivers. Here he has 2 Seconds, 2 thirds and 1 win which took five tries to get.

Is World Rally Championship also popular in Barbados and how are fans dealing with lack of TV coverage and promotion? Is rally represented in local media?

They follow it to some extent just like they do the IRC but most will say I stopped watching after manufacturers left and drivers like Tommi Mäkinen retired. To most, it got boring when it was Citroen and Ford battling it out and to be honest I lost track of it for some time as well. But it was picked back up over the years and I think with the new manufacturers it will get better. In terms of TV I don’t it bothers them because most of us probably watch it on YouTube after it get uploaded. Rallying in Barbados has always gotten the coverage however there was one major problem, not many sports journalist cared much about it because they favoured things like cricket and football. Recently though things have surged with the growth and popularity of the sport. In fact the Barbados Today, a local online news paper has sponsored a few events this year and they have been on the ball and on top of rally motor sport. I recently entered the media at the Nation Publishing and have done my up most best to get it out there but there s so much room for growth.

What do you think FIA should do to ensure long term future of this sport?

I will never claim to be an expert, but I do think that they are doing something right. It was no fault of their own so this apparently slow and calculative approach to the media situation is okay. But for the long term history of the sport, I think that they should put more emphasis on it being a “World” Rally Championship. By that I mean they should change up the décor a bit, explore the world and find some new rallies. It would make for a more exciting championship as all drivers would face unknown territory. Lastly, I think they should revive the two wheel drive class, fans worldwide share this sentiment as RWD cars are deeply missed. However, something must be going good though if manufactures are looking to return, bring on Toyota, Volkswagen and Hyundai.

Finally, who is your favourite driver of all times and who will win World Rally Championship titles this year?

Man oh man, this is a tough one. For me this is threefold Ari Vatanen, Colin McRae and Henri Toivonen. Vatanen was absolutely fantastic and his skill was so spectacular there was never a dull moment. McRae like Vatanen was epitome of flamboyance and the reason why I fell in love with Subaru. Toivonen was the greatest Finn to ever drive a rally car hands down so on that note I guess he is my favourite. Who I think will win the title this year? My heart says Petter Solberg, but my brain says Sebastien Loeb. There is no stopping Loeb no matter what type of racing it is, he is simply a class act. However, he can be beaten and he does crack under pressure, but until someone proves that can beat him consistently he will win the title in 2012.