Seldom can any front-ranked outside commentator enjoy a longer span at the world’s motorsport microphones or have a voice more distinctly identifiable than Murray Walker who recently passed away aged 97. Walker was a man who had held an impassioned and enthusiastic verbal dialogue of Grand Prix reporting along with valuable snippets of info about bikes and cars for more than half a century.
The passion that emanated from his commentary box always proved to be a great accompaniment to the snarling beasts that hurtled by at terrific speeds while he backed up those high-octane engines with wonderful descriptions honed always in a skilful and professional manner.
Accomplished in both television and radio broadcasts over seven decades – carrying out his very first BBC radio commentary on the 1949 at the Silverstone Grand Prix where Baron Toulo de Graffenreid drove a Maserati to victory. This set the scene for a life spent at the very heart of motor sport where he covered TT racing in the Isle of Man, British Championship car races, scrambling off roaders in grandstands, TV series, right up to his final TV race which he covered in the US Grand Prix in 2001 at Indianapolis – a race won by Mika Häkkinen in a McLaren.
But Murray came back in 2007 as the key man on duty to cover the European Grand Prix for BBC Radio 5 programme at the grand age of 83. All the racing noise came at a cost for Murray because he became quite deaf in both ears due to the exposure to all that din.
Murray endeared himself to decades of bikers in his start-up days. He was a tank commander in World War II but as his father Graham was a championship winner at the IOM TT races as a works rider for Norton and Rudge motorcycles, Murray got hooked onto riding and increased the family laurels tally by a win at the National Six-day Motorcycle Trials in Wales.
Making friends with the many and varied racers was a trademark for Murray – from Fangio to Hailwood and Graham Hill – he knew them better than most others of his era who enjoyed his stimulating petrolhead-enthused Murray-isms – as they became known – usually delivered in the heat-of-the-moment racing bloopers.
Murray’s comments far too often echoed my own lifetime as I have been accused of “opening my mouth before engaging my brain!” Far from avoiding those embarrassing moments, Walker became a regular MC and much sought after-dinner speaker.
He was quite the raconteur at those functions where he often related some of his finest gaffes. With things like: “the car in front leading is absolutely unique except of course the one following it immediately behind”; and “Mansell’s now totally in front, except the two in front of him, being just two of them!”
Born in Hall Green, Birmingham, his mother Elsie and father, Graham Walker lived just a stone’s throw away from the fabled Norton Motorcycle Company. Graham worked for the BBC as far back as 1935 doing TT race reporting and Murray saw his father at just four years old win the gruelling Ulster Grand Prix motorcycle race.
Murray moved to London for an education at Highgate School but a summary course on tanks put him into the Royal Scots greys and he became a tank commander fighting in Normandy and the Baltic Battle in the Second World War.
He then worked for Rootes Motors and Dunlop tyres, Esso and others but went on to a stint in advertising – “A Mars a day helps you work rest and play,” was Murray’s swan song in that period of working with over 50 leading food brands.
I recall meeting Murray at the Goodwood Revival where our South African team were racing with Peter Labuschagne in the Barry Sheene Memorial event and our key rider Jimmie Guthrie had spent much of his youth growing up with Murray in Birmingham while apprenticed at Rootes Motor Cars. When I saw Murray sitting on a Rolls-Royce mudguard nursing his walking stick, I told him that Jimmy was out there at the riders’ briefing. “He’s not racing is he,” he asked. “Yes Murray” I replied. “Is he bonkers?” quipped Murray. In a few minutes they met up once again like long lost friends with a huge hug. Murray announced that at 90 he had contracted blood cancer and that he has been a bit sick of late.
They talked for ages at the race meeting. It was the best possible outcome for both of them at that particular race weekend, held in amazing sunshine.
Murray lived nearby in the New Forest with his wife Elizabeth. In his last days Murray campaigned for the David Ormerod hearing centre to help people to understand the need for frequent hearing tests.
The voice may have gone, but his lifetime legacy to motorsport will live on forever.
Story by Ian Groat