From digging holes at the drag strip early in his career to decades of announcing short track races, Robert Walker ‘is’ Oxford Plains Speedway.
NORWAY – “Patton” plays on a small television in Robert “Bobby” Walker’s room as the 61-year-old greets yet another visitor to his room at the Norway Rehabilitation and Living Center.
Walker sits upright in his bed, a bottle of diet, caffeine-free soda on a tray within arm’s length. His left arm, paralyzed by two strokes in three years, is wrapped in a red cast.
His rapid-fire verbal delivery has been slowed, replaced by short, choppy sentences. There is more than a hint of the metallic voice that crackled through the speakers at Oxford Plains Speedway for more than 30 years, now weakened by the strokes.
“I know what I want to say, but sometimes I just can’t get the words to come out,” he said. “I can still think clearly, but I just can’t talk as clearly as I used to. It’s extremely frustrating.” This, from the man who was “the voice” at the Route 26 short track for decades of drivers and fans.
Perhaps made more frustrating this day because he’s away from the track little more than two miles up the road the week of the TD Banknorth 250.
“It hurts. I love the place so much,” he said.
He’ll be at OPS today for the 34th running of the 250. He was behind the mic for 28 of them, including the first in 1974. He missed three of these events when he went to work for NASCAR in the early ’90s. He called Ralph Nason’s unprecedented three-peat at the turn of the millennium, then retired due to declining health in 2005.
When there wasn’t racing, he was the track’s public relations director. Bob Bahre, former OPS owner and current owner of the New Hampshire International Speedway, hired Walker right out of college in 1971. “The guy could sell you a rice paddy in Vietnam,” Bahre said of Walker.
Walker sold racing to the fans. As they watched the action from the wooden stands, his voice blended in with the comings and goings of souped-up engines and grabbed them by the scruff of the neck with an infectious enthusiasm, an encyclopedic mind and a rat-a-tat-tat delivery that allowed him to shift back and forth from carnival barker, to pro wrestling announcer, to pitchman, from play-by-play to color guy.
“Even if they didn’t know him, they knew him, because they’d heard him,” said Bahre, who remains a close friend. “People might get ticked at him every once in a while, but when you got right down to it, he didn’t have an enemy in the world.”
They loved him, and probably sometimes got a little ticked at him, for his trademarks, such as calling the extreme outside third groove of the track “the angels’ expressway,” doling out nicknames to Joey “Kid” Kourafas, the first 250 winner, three-time winner “Dynamite” Dave Dion, and last year’s winner, Jeremie Whorff, who Walker dubbed “The Concrete Cowboy” for his penchant for wrecks early in his career.
He learned the ropes of the racetrack and the announcer’s booth from racing legends such as Bob Latford, who developed the first NASCAR championship points system, and racing announcer Ken Squier. He learned about the business side from Bahre. His first job at the track was to dig the holes for the light poles at the drag strip before he moved on up to the announcer’s booth.
He’s no phony
Every season, Walked absorbed the names of 200 Wednesday night drivers, 150 Saturday night drivers, and 50 go-kart racers. He never used notes in the booth. Someone once taught him that if he used notes, he’d sound like a phony.
“I’ve done interviews and radio shows with him before and he’s reading a blank piece of paper,” Poland driver Tommy Ricker said. “No matter what kind of conversation you get into – something about a NASCAR race, a North tour race – he’s got the information you’re looking for in his head.”
He got a lot of his information walking around the pits for hours before each green flag, talking with drivers, their crews and their families. He kept in touch with them during the off-season and after they’d moved up to bigger series.
“I got a registered letter one time,” remembered current OPS owner Bill Ryan. “They put their return address on it but not their name. I asked Bobby who lived at the address and he said ‘Oh, that’s so-and-so.'”
“It’s unbelievable what he’s got in that head,” OPS veteran driver Tim Brackett of Buckfield said. “He is Oxford, as far as I’m concerned. He’s always been the guy there. The fans all related to him. It’s a shame he can’t be there every week.”
Walker goes there once or twice a month now. He is currently finishing up a book, “I Couldn’t Drive, But I Could Talk,” a history of OPS he’s hoping to have published in November. He continues his speech therapy and keeps working to get stronger so he can go more often. He keeps his pulse on the racing world by visiting Bahre’s Speedway Inc. offices in Oxford regularly.
“He’s coming back, but he’s coming back slow,” Bahre said.
“It’s a big struggle. I’m pretty weak,” said the father of two daughters and grandfather to a 9-year-old boy. “I can walk a little bit but not very far, not very long. I’ve got to have help to do everything. I don’t do much for myself.”
Streak of misfortune
The latest stroke came in January. Then his second wife of five years left him. Days after he filed for divorce, their Country Club Road ranch burned to the ground as Walker, a volunteer firefighter for 40 years, listened on his scanner from his room at Norway Rehab. The structure was insured, but not the contents, which included NASCAR memorabilia estimated to be worth $50,000 but priceless to Walker.
State fire investigators believe the fire was intentionally set, but haven’t made any arrests. The community, where he served for years on the board of selectmen, rallied around Walker with a new motorized wheelchair and a benefit dance. The Bahre family has provided overwhelming support, too, he said.
“I’d be in big trouble if it wasn’t for Bob and Sandra. They’ve done so much for me. They’ve been like family to me,” he said.
So now what he has left from his career besides his memory and countless friendships are a few photos and newspaper clippings in his room and a lifetime achievement plaque he received when he retired.
Next to the plaque on the wall hangs a computer printout of the creed he lives by – “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, babe in one hand, stiff drink in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming ‘Damn, what a ride!'”
Asked if he’s stayed true to his creed, Walker recalls getting on the flight to college for the first time, thinking he was headed for a career in law. He sat next to a lawyer and was so turned off by the man’s arrogance, by the time the plane landed, he’d decided to make a career in auto racing.
“I want to get back to the race track somehow. That’s what rehab is for,” he said. “That’s my goal. I’ve got to get my strength back so I can get around a little better, and my speech back. I’m a young guy. Only the good die young, so I’m not going anywhere.”