INDIANAPOLIS — Every piece had been checked, every nut and bolt tightened. The engine was idling, so the whole thing shook and rocked, as sprint cars will.
When its driver, Justin Grant, leaned in to yank the throttle, the chassis tensed like a leopard set to pounce. Grant looked anxious. He’d swept the first two nights of Sprint Car Smackdown XII at Indiana’s Kokomo Speedway. The base winner’s purse for this evening’s finale was $30,000, with a bonus of $500 for every lap led, and he wanted all of it.
Off to one side stood Jeff Walker, his calm a counterweight to Grant’s tightness. Walker wore gray shorts, a sponsor’s T-shirt and beat-up sneakers, making him both a typically dressed USAC mechanic and the worst-dressed psychologist on the property.
At 64, Walker has spent almost half his life getting drivers into the right frame of mind. He knows what positivity means, having learned that in his own driving days.
In 1986, Walker took his first career victory right there at Kokomo, fighting off a barrage of Bob Kinser slide jobs. Later, he saw Kinser strolling in his direction and whispered to a pal, “Uh-oh. Bob doesn’t go to another guy’s pit unless it’s to whip his ass.”
Instead, Kinser announced, “Son, you ran a really good race.”
“Man,” Walker reflected, “that pumped me up.”
Seven years later, weary from maintaining the car and racing it, too, he hung up his fire suit and began hiring drivers. Two, Tony Elliott and Dave Darland, were already Indiana legends. But a number of Walker’s drivers were stray pups: Dave Steele from Florida, Brad Sweet from California, Levi Jones and Chris Windom from Illinois, Hunter Schuerenberg from Missouri, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. from Mississippi. Some bunked at Walker’s home.
“Those guys reminded me of my own early days,” he said. “I had to work on my own stuff, didn’t have any money.”
When drivers left for bigger teams, Walker shrugged it off. “We stayed friends, and a lot of them drove for me again.”
Grant was another California stray eyeing the Midwest. He was 18 and a Bay Cities Racing Ass’n midget champ when he met Walker at the 2009 Chili Bowl. The best Walker could offer was a place to live and a job prepping sprint cars for Schuerenberg. Grant accepted and his ambition quickly impressed his new boss.
“When my other guys went home, Justin kept working,” said Walker. “He was the kid who wants to stay after school.”
One Sunday, with Schuerenberg’s ride ready hours before it had to leave for a weekly show at Kokomo, Walker said, “Justin, let’s put a motor in this other car, and you can run it tonight.”
Grant’s response has stayed with Walker: “He said, ‘Jeff, don’t tease me.’ He thought I was joking.”
In his first outing in a 410 sprint car, Grant qualified in the top six. The invert moved him to the front row of the feature.
“The cushion was three-quarters of the way up the track,” Walker recalled. “He asked if I wanted him to run the cushion. I said, ‘No, I want you above the cushion. Put the pedal on the floor and leave it there until the flagman waves the yellow, the red or the checkers.’ He led every lap but the last one.”
Funny story: Schuerenberg spent the first 29 laps chasing the newbie in his team car. After taking the white flag, they tripped over each other in turn two. Grant spun, and Schuerenberg limped home third with a flat tire. Yet Walker liked what he’d seen, so Grant occasionally got back into the seat. In time, he found rides elsewhere and moved on.
“But anytime something happened and he needed a place to land, he knew he could stay with me,” Walker said.
That’s just what happened in late 2012, after a highway accident broke Grant’s neck. He and Walker joined a gym to make Justin’s rehabilitation easier. In the autumn of 2013, they won a Kokomo feature.
Time marched on, and so again did Grant. He’s now married, a father and a champion in USAC’s sprint car and Silver Crown divisions.
Walker parked his own cars a few seasons ago, settling into a niche as a hired wrench and team manager. But his arrangement with transplanted Arizonan Sterling Cling ended in July, not long before Indiana Sprint Week.
A few days later, Walker’s phone rang. It was Grant, who asked his old landlord if he had any plans. Walker: “I told him, ‘Honestly, I’m enjoying myself. I’ve got a ’56 Chevy and a motorcycle I want to use more.’
“Justin said, ‘OK, but I was calling to see if you wanted to come and work with me.’”
Here, Walker paused. “I’ve got a soft spot for Justin. He has called me on Father’s Day just to say, ‘You may not be my dad, but you’re like a dad to me.’”
Walker took the gig.
They won three Indiana Sprint Week features despite an engine that insisted on stumbling in the middle of its RPM range, making starts, traffic and slick tracks problematic. Then they lined up some dyno time, made a few changes and tested the results in a private session at Kokomo.
Grant told Walker, “This thing rips now. We’re good.”
And they were. Grant led every inch of Thursday’s Smackdown feature and the last half of Friday’s. In Saturday’s 40-lapper, he was acres ahead when a caution flag waved with three laps remaining.
A scruffy Grant restart left Kyle Cummins close enough to throw the hardest clean slider you’ll ever see and for an instant Cummins led by a nose. But Grant, engine screaming and chassis twisting — that leopard pouncing for real — jumped ahead for keeps. That fierce resistance was the exclamation point on Grant’s $44,500 night.
“Before that last yellow, he had a nine-second lead,” said Walker. “Justin had been feeling lousy all weekend, so I told him later, ‘Our stuff isn’t at 100 percent yet, you’re not healthy and we’re killing them.’
“That was a joke, but it was also my way of keeping that fire under him. You’ve got to know how to talk to these guys.”
Psychologist at work.
This story appeared in the Sept 13, 2023 edition of the SPEED SPORT Insider.