Legendary for his work commentating on Formula 1, Walker has left a massive impression on millions – not least of whom myself
One sunny Sunday afternoon in the mid-1990s, I walked into the living room to find my dad watching what I soon learned was a sport called Formula 1. As a budding young car enthusiast, I obviously found this rather appealing. Though the specifics are a little hazy (as most childhood memories are), I remember being transfixed by three things: the speed of the cars, the kaleidoscope of colourful liveries (the Benettons particularly stick in the mind), and the sounds. Not just of wailing V8s, V10s, and V12s, but of the man who was speaking excitedly over the top of it all in a way I don’t think I’d ever heard before (or since). This was my first experience of the pre-eminent motorsport commentator Murray Walker, who sadly passed away on Saturday, 13 March at the age of 97.
As my interest in motorsport grew, Murray’s voice was never too far away. One of my first video games was F1 ‘97 on the original PlayStation and I played it non-stop – not just because it allowed me to take Olivier Panis to a much-deserved virtual championship, but because it meant I could listen to Murray commentate all day. I remember once, my mum snapped at me to get off the game and go and do something else – not because games were bad and rotting my brain, but because she was sick to the back teeth of hearing Murray talk about oval air intakes for the umpteenth time.
Through those formative years watching the sport, Murray was always there to explain what was happening and, through his VHS releases, teach me about the history of F1. He also introduced me to other forms of motorsport, such as rallycross and touring car racing. I’ll often stumble across old clips on YouTube and my immediate thought will relate back to Murray – ‘ahh yes, this is the race where Murray implores Rob Gibson to shut the door of his flatnose 911‘. Murray’s affinity for his job could elevate a significant event into something truly iconic – look at a picture of any major moment in F1 from the 1980s or 90s and chances are your mind will fill in the blanks with his commentary. I still can’t read the words ‘Nigel Mansell’ without hearing them in Murray’s voice.
Walker stepped down from F1 commentary duties in 2001 and since then, through all the other sport I’ve watched, no-one has come close to matching his levels of passion and ability to explain what’s going on in a way that’s engaging, informative, exciting, and – most importantly – on completely equal terms with you, the viewer. However old you were and however much or little you knew about F1, it always felt like Murray was talking directly to you.
I feel incredibly fortunate that on a glorious evening at the 2011 Goodwood Festival of Speed, Murray did talk directly to me. It was late on Sunday, the last day of the event – all the hill climb action had finished and the shops were packing up when a bloke asked me if I’d like a signed Murray Walker book. I’d already spent all my money on a couple of diecast models (a Renault 5 Maxi Turbo and a Porsche 917K) but managed to convince the stallholder to take down my card details and phone number and charge me later. I simply had to meet Murray Walker.
He asked my name, shook my hand, signed my book, and chatted to me about the weekend’s events with a glint in his eye like it was the first time he’d spoken about it, when he’d probably said the same thing to dozens of people a hundred times over.
Then, he asked me where I’d travelled from.
“I’ve come up from Cornwall”.
“Cornwall!?” he exclaimed, the volume of his voice increased slightly in surprise, the pitch raised. “That’s quite a way to have come from!”, he finished with a chuckle in that distinctive, melodic way he spoke.
A small tingle went up my spine. I’d not only had the pleasure of meeting my motorsport hero, but he’d given me what felt like my own personal piece of Murray Walker commentary, just for me. And while I treasure the signed book (‘To Daniel, best regards, Murray Walker’) and the photo he seemed genuinely excited to have with me, it’s that short conversation that will remain probably my fondest motorsport memento of all.
We all have our motorsport heroes and, after my dad, Murray Walker will always be mine. Without his voice introducing me to this whole new world every Sunday afternoon, wondering why I was driving the wrong way on a video game, or translating John Cleland’s intention to go for first, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I wouldn’t be the die-hard motorsport fan that I am today – and my life would have turned out very differently. The effect he had on me is made even more special because I suspect I’m far from the only person to feel that way.
Thank you, Murray, for everything. Rest well; we’ll never forget you.