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AUTO RACING

Walkers Want Winston West Back on Map

April 26, 2001|DARIN ESPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Since its inception in 1954 as the NASCAR Pacific Coast Late Model series, the Winston West series has served as a springboard for drivers seeking fame and fortune in Winston Cup racing.

In recent years, however, owners have been looking for the next Dale Earnhardt or Jeff Gordon among the mostly younger drivers of NASCAR's Featherlite Southwest Tour, even though the Winston West ranks a step up in stature and Winston West cars use the same chassis as Winston Cup cars--but with less powerful engines.

If the founders of the newest Winston West team have their way, though, their series will be the launching pad. Team Walker Motorsports of North Hollywood plans to be competing in NASCAR's highest division in 2004 with driver Sean Woodside of Saugus.

The team is owned by the mother-son duo of Donna and Mike Walker.

Woodside, a Tom Cruise look-alike, won the Winston West championship in 1999 driving for Bill McAnally. The potential is not lost on Donna Walker, who lives in San Marino.

"I'd say Sean is better looking than Tom Cruise," she said. "We do have marketing plans based on that."

Woodside's contract was not renewed for 2000 when McAnally joined forces with casino owner Michael Gaughan, whose son, Brendan, won the series championship in 2000.

Mike Walker, also a driver, decided to form a Winston West team after a late model stock car race at Orange Show Speedway in San Bernardino in 1999. Walker was involved in an on-track altercation with Winston West driver Mike Chase, and Chase's trash-talking afterward in the pits left Walker wanting to prove he belonged.

"I have a personal vendetta against a lot of racing teams," he said. "They think Sean's too old [to move up] at 30 and they think I'm too young to own a racing team at 22."

Walker's parents and Woodside's parents were friends, so Walker approached Woodside for tips on becoming a better driver.

When it later became clear that Woodside would not defend his championship with McAnally, their discussions soon turned to forming a team.

"I've told Sean I'll take him all the way [to the Winston Cup] if he wants to go there," Mike Walker said. "I figured one day he would make it there, I just didn't know I would be the guy to take him there.

Said Donna Walker, "Sean has the ability to go all the way, and I mean to Winston Cup."

Mike Walker's father, Bert, who raced off-road in the late 1960s and early 1970s and worked as an engineer designing dynamometers, was dying of cancer when his son sought approval for starting a racing team.

Bert gave his blessings before dying Feb. 7, 2000, and the team became a reality.

Donna handles the business operation and Mike oversees the mechanical side. Even so, Donna is hands-on. She has driven one of the team's Winston West cars in practice, and has served as Woodside's spotter in several races.

Mike also drives one of the team's super late models at Irwindale Speedway and is preparing to compete in the Winston West series.

At the racetrack, the Walkers set aside the mother-son relationship.

"When we're [at the track] or at the shop, I'm not 'Mom,' " Donna said. "I'm 'Mom' when we are not racing, then I'm 'Mom,' or 'Mother' if I'm in trouble."

Said Mike, who lives in Santa Clarita, "It's hard sometimes, when I have to think, 'Wait a second, I can't talk to my mom this way.' It does make it difficult sometimes, but it actually has strengthened things between us."

Woodside, who finished sixth in the Southwest Tour driving for Palmdale's Bob Farmer in 2000, made his first appearances in a Team Walker vehicle early last season, driving in NASCAR Craftsman truck series races at Phoenix and Bakersfield in a deal put together by Donna Walker. He competed in three Winston West races last year for the Walkers and will drive the entire season this year.

Donna is working on a deal for Woodside to drive a truck in six races this season. If all goes according to plan, he will run the full season in Winston West in 2002 as well as competing in half of the Craftsman truck races. She wants him to run the entire truck series in 2003, then move up to Winston Cup in 2004.

The team also has a Southwest Tour car for Woodside to drive in selected events.

Donna Walker is so certain of Woodside's abilities that she has already bought a home in Mooresville, N.C., the hub of Winston Cup racing.

For Woodside, who is 17th in points after four races with a best finish of third at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway last month, the mechanical problems that are common to new teams are frustrating but he remains upbeat.

"We've got all of the pieces together, now it's just a matter of fine-tuning," Woodside said. "We've got all of the right people in the right places."

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