INDIANAPOLIS — When Will Power arrived in the United States in 2006, people snickered at his name, believing it was a Champ Car Series publicity stunt.
After all, in a sport where horsepower is key, imagine a driver named Will Power. Team owner Derrick Walker saw the heart of a racer.
Walker Racing and had just landed Aussie Vineyards as the team’s sponsor. The next step was finding a talented driver from Australia who could step up their game and drive the high-horsepower machines that were racing on the street and road courses of the Champ Car Series schedule.
“I was racing in Europe at the time and they were looking for a good, Australian driver because they had an Australian sponsor,” Power said. “I was the only Aussie winning in an open-wheel car at the time. It was an obvious choice.”
Walker gave Power a test in his Champ Car Series ride at Portland (Ore.) Int’l Raceway and could see the promise and potential the driver had.
“I knew he was going to be good,” Walker recalled. “You never know how things are going to turn out in this business. You could be one of the best guys around, but if you don’t get the breaks and things don’t fall your way, you could miss it completely. Did he have talent? Yes. I saw that the first day I tested him. He showed what he could do. Once we started racing together, it was a learning curve for him learning the cars and the racing procedures. Each year, he got stronger and stronger.
“The talent he had, that was very evident to me in the first test.”
Walker saw a driver who was not afraid of the Champ Car Series machine and immediately got it up to speed.
“I watched the way he handled the car,” Walker said. “He wasn’t intimidated by the car. It was a bigger car than he had driven. He got stronger and stronger and never looked like it was above his capability.
“He lacked a lot of self-confidence at that time, I recall,” Walker added. “He was very quiet. If you were talking about anything other than racing, you weren’t going to get him to talk. He had a singular focus in the vocabulary that it just had to be all about racing.
“I remember Rob Edwards and I, when we went out to dinner with him that first night, the conversation in the truck and things like that, it was hard to have a conversation with him to get to know the guy if it wasn’t talking about racing.
“That was a real plus for me because his focus on racing and the passion to do well was there, right from the beginning. To me, I love when you work with a driver who is passionate about that. In Will’s case, as success came, it has not changed him. He is still the same Will Power, but he has a lot more confidence in himself and what he can do. He has proven himself and his personality, how he treats the fans and speaks to people, that hasn’t changed. He has just gotten outwardly more confident. It’s really a nice story to see, a nice development to see somebody coming from Australia and later Europe and adapting to a different type of racing than he was used to and making it work.
“He was impressive. He still is.”
The combination didn’t win any races in 2006, but Power did win one pole. He returned to win two races and five poles for Walker Racing in 2007.
When the Champ Car Series ceased operation in 2008, all but two teams joined the Indy Racing League.
“Craig Gore, the owner of Aussie Vineyards, was doing a business deal with Kevin Kalkhoven and that left Derrick in a tough spot,” Power recalled. “I had no choice but to go where Aussie Vineyards was going and that was KV Racing.
“Derrick was a very good team owner,” he added. “He was tough. He expected the best. He hired good people and was able to do a great job on a small budget and extract the most out of everyone. If Derrick had the right budget, he would have been a championship contender because he was a very good team owner.”
Power joined Team Penske as a part-time driver in 2009 while Helio Castroneves was on trial for tax evasion in Miami. Once Castroneves was cleared of those charges, he got his ride back, but team owner Roger Penske created a way for Power to stay.
He entered a third car in selected races in 2009 and hired Power full time the following year.
Power now has 35 wins, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500, and the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. On Dec. 5, Power’s face was officially unveiled on the Borg-Warner Trophy for his Indy 500 victory.
Walker was a special guest.
“His history is still being written,” Walker said of Power. “We’ll see how far up the pole he goes. As far as driver of his era, he’s at the top of the list. In terms of drivers, ever, we’ll have to see when he retires.”